Bamboo grows well on marginal land, requiring little water or fertiliser ©Nanwai/Getty Images
Bamboo grows well on marginal land, requiring little water or fertiliser ©Nanwai/Getty Images

Global focus on… bamboo

It’s not just popular with pandas… bamboo is increasingly touted as the new wood. And its fast and hardy growth habits make it an ideal solution for reforesting the planet

Botany
Bamboo, which is actually a grass, is the fastest growing plant in the world. There are around 1,200 different species, and some can grow up to 91cm a day (a rate of almost 4cm an hour). Bamboo is native to tropical and warm temperate climes.

In the wild
Well known as the staple food of pandas, it is also eaten by lemurs and is irresistible to rats – who love the fruit – as well as to mountain gorillas, who’ve been known to get drunk on the sap.

Uses
Traditionally, bamboo has been used in construction, furniture design, cuisine and even as a weapon – but the growing list of modern uses extends to fabric, flooring, bicycles, the manufacture of biofuel and 3D printing.

21st-century timber
Bamboo’s use as a replacement for wood is increasing. Treated with insecticide – and conforming to international ISO standards – it has been used to construct earthquake and cyclone-resistant housing. Its fibres can also be used to make paper and cardboard.

Economy
According to the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan, the global bamboo industry is worth $60 billion annually, and Chinese production alone was valued at $19.5m in 2012. The sector employs 8m people  in China (likely to be 10m by 2020).

Growth industry
After China, other top producers of bamboo include India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Many countries in Africa and South America are also seeing the economic benefits of growing the crop.

Viable
On top of its fast growth rate, many of bamboo’s properties make it an ideal sustainable crop. It is able to flourish on marginal land, requires little water or fertiliser, and can be harvested without killing the plant.

Environment
Among bamboo’s many eco-credentials, one of the most promising is its ability to absorb carbon dioxide, making it perfect for reforestation – and the harvested product is left with a negative carbon footprint.

What They Say

“Rather eat without meat than live without bamboo. Man without meat will be thin, but without bamboo will be vulgar.”
Su shi, 11th-century Chinese poet and calligrapher

“The (African) continent has vast reserves of largely untapped bamboo that, if properly managed, could benefit rural communities and promote green economic development.”
Hans Friederich, Director-general of INBAR

“Now that we can provide that end-to-end solution, we truly believe that deforestation-free bamboo can take an increasing share of established wood and timber markets.”
Troy Wiseman, CEO, EcoPlanet Bamboo

Analysis

Bamboo has long been associated with China, where it is celebrated in art and culture, and is a metaphor for vitality and nobility. However, this relationship is not just historical. The country still produces around 80% of the world’s bamboo and an estimated 100,000 hectares of land are given over to its growth each year. The rest of the world is gradually catching up, with governments in Nicaragua and Ethiopia seizing on its potential for reinvigorating the economy, as well as reversing the effects of land degradation. If it lives up to its promise of eco-friendly solutions for building, biofuel, packaging and textiles, bamboo might still save the world…

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