Bamboo is a giant grass of the Poaceae family, a graminaceous plant that exists in about 1,500 different species, partly in tropical and temperate climates. With more than 30 million hectares cultivated worldwide (FAO 2010) and an annual turnover of more than USD 60 million, bamboo represents a natural resource that can be used for thousands of possible usages.
The plant is intertwined with the tradition and culture of many populations, rural and tribal, and has played a fundamental role in their social and economic conditions since time immemorial. For example, the history of bamboo in China is some 7000 years old. Since then, people have been building their homes with the same plant from which they make bridges and boats and obtain food, everyday objects and clothing.
We can, therefore, easily imagine how the population’s relationship with this plant may also have taken on an aura of sacredness over the millennia.
It has been nicknamed ‘friend of the people’, ‘plant with a thousand faces’, ‘green steel’ and ‘green gold’. This abundant and cheap gold is perfect for meeting the many needs of human populations. ‘From the cradle’s child to the coffin’s dead’, it is said in the East.
The new shoot, to secure sunlight, knows that it will have to reach a greater height than its older siblings born in previous seasons, and so, each year, shoots sprout from the ground that will soon become culms of ever-increasing diameter and height. The plantation is invigorated by a balanced harvest and the cutting of mature canes. This process allows the plantation to achieve ever-increasing production, which, once it has reached full development, will continue until the peak of flowering, which, for Italy’s most widely cultivated species, occurs after about one hundred years.
These unique herbaceous plants also contain antifungal and antibacterial substances that allow them to be grown without pesticides, preserving the soil’s organic life and the groundwater’s purity. (4)
Another remarkable characteristic of bamboo is its speed of growth. When the forest has reached full development, a new culm can reach a height of twenty metres in just two months, reaching growth peaks of up to one metre per day in some stages.
Bamboo produces oxygen, food and raw material. The formidable metabolism of this plant allows for the absorption of large amounts of carbon dioxide, in many cases with values higher than those of various types of tree forests, thus making it possible to use carbon credits effectively. From a dietary point of view, bamboo shoot is considered one of the most nutritious foods in the world and has several beneficial properties for our body. The culms (or canes), which possess formidable characteristics of mechanical strength and versatility, are suitable for producing high-quality products in a wide variety of production chains ranging from construction to textiles, from cellulose to bioenergy.
Phillostachys Edulis (or Phillostachys Pubescens), with a percentage close to 90%, is the temperate climate bamboo cultivated in Italy since 2014. Its culms can reach a height of 25 metres with a diameter of 15 centimetres when fully grown.
The decision to focus, at least in this first phase, on this particular species is due to the abundance of its production and its versatility of use, which ranges from food use to industrial raw material supply chains.
It is a plant with monopodial development: it propagates through creeping root behaviour. Its rhizomes incessantly continue to colonise the surrounding soil at a depth of around 30/40 cm, causing a new shoot to sprout every season at a given distance from the existing ones.
Moreover, this species can survive in the cold below -20 degrees Celsius. I verified this parameter on an experimental planting in 2017 at the University of Agronomic Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in Bucharest (USAMV), where during the winter, I saw the thermometer mark -23°, and in spring, I witnessed the growth of new shoots. (PHOTO BUCAREST)
We could live without animals, but without bamboo, it would be death.Confucius
Bamboo in Italy and Europe
Why is it that millions of tonnes of bamboo are traded worldwide for a turnover of billions of dollars, and there is no trace of this in Europe, and nobody talks about it?
Over the years, projects have been drawn up, and dissertations have been written on this subject. The oldest treatise in Italian that I have come across, published in Catania in 1924, bears the title ‘The Bamboo – History, propagation and cultivation of it for Industrial purposes’. (PHOTO B) The same conclusions are drawn from all these documents: temperate climate bamboo can be cultivated in our territories and can have thousands of possible uses. In China alone, with temperatures and climate similar to those in southern Europe, production facilities cover some 10 million hectares.
So if there is no reason, technical or agronomic, to prevent its cultivation, why has no one so far decided to produce it industrially?
Some herbaceous species have made their way into Europe for a few centuries now, but only for purely ornamental purposes. Certainly, bamboo is not part of our culture, it is not an indigenous plant, but this certainly cannot be a problem since neither has potatoes, tomatoes, corn or kiwi fruit. Yet this has yet to prevent a country like Italy from becoming an excellent producer of these crops.
The spread of the European bamboo industry has Italy, with over two thousand hectares of planted crops, as its strategic centre. This is not only because our country was the first to start believing in it but also to the favourable climatic conditions, our propensity for agriculture, and the fertility of our soil.
Plant fibres and plastics
Drawing a comparison with hemp, a plant from which a variety of products were once produced in Italy, a few decades ago, the Western world chose to marry oil, plastic and synthetic fibres to the detriment of vegetable fibres.
I live in Ferrara, a province that, in 1914 alone, produced 363,000 quintals of hemp, when Italy, at the time, was the second largest producer in the world after the Soviet Union. (Sitography I). After the end of the Second World War, a political course was set in motion that led to this plant being outlawed, and, at the same time, a petrochemical hub was established in the city to offer refuge to the unemployed hemp workers.
The choice was clear; after all, the issue of pollution did not exist at the time. Today, however, we are witnessing the reverse process: oil derivatives’ decline and sustainable raw materials’ progressive development.
The first steps of the Bamboo Challenge
From a business point of view, the path I took in the first years of my new business was to involve farmers and smallholders, who are often dissatisfied with the poor yields of traditional crops.
Everything new is often frightening. I found myself interfacing with hesitant farmers who, instead of seeing the enormous potential of this new market, focused on how bad it could get.
Some of these farmers I came into contact with, however, fell in love with my idea, and with them, I started the first small cultivations, no more than 10 hectares. Through these experiences, I was then able, over time, to define a disciplinary method based on analysing the mistakes I had made and what worked great instead.
I soon realised that this new Industrial Revolution, which would lead us from fossil fuels to sustainable materials, could certainly not be accomplished by farmers, and it had to be taken to other levels, both in terms of investment capacity and long-term vision.
I thus began to approach the industrial world and immediately realised how difficult it was to convince those who had invested in fossils, metals and plastics for centuries. Industry, for one thing, emphasised the fact that there were still not enough hectares in production to ponder about the processing stage, and these statements matched those of the agricultural entrepreneurs, who complained about the lack of industries ready to process the products.
Therefore, I realised that the solution had to lie in the synergy and fusion between the agricultural and industrial worlds. A programme had to be put in place to synchronise the production of the raw material with the subsequent processing stages, and it was clear that if we could make this possible, enormous opportunities would open up for both sectors.