Your recent article "Kenaf: Paper without the wood" (June 16), reprinted from EarthTalk, was misleading. There is no doubt that kenaf is an interesting plant with some useful characteristics. In the 1950s, the USDA identified kenaf as the most promising of all the non-wood plant alternatives for papermaking. Yet not a single paper mill in the U.S. uses kenaf to make paper, and only one mill in the world uses it sporadically. Why? The answer is not due to "entrenched timber companies... (...who employ many Washington lobbyists)."
Numerous universities, including N.C. State, and several commercial paper companies have studied kenaf extensively, and it simply does not compare well with pine trees economically or environmentally. Kenaf is a dicot, and only 30 percent of the plant can be used for paper. The woody xylem must be separated out, requiring additional processing, energy and cost. As an annual, kenaf production requires yearly tilling of the soil, planting the seeds, watering and fertilizer, and often herbicides and pesticides. Grown as a monoculture, kenaf is susceptible to root knot nematode infestation. Since paper mills have to produce year-round and kenaf is harvested only once a year, huge quantities must be grown, baled and stored to provide fiber for the mill, requiring storage facilities and more energy and costs.
Trees for pulp and paper are grown on plantations, freeing native forests from harvesting for these products. Trees can be harvested year-round. Much of the carbon captured by trees stays in their roots, which return carbon and other nutrients to the soil. A pine plantation sequesters carbon, produces oxygen, holds water, and can provide wildlife habitat and even recreation for people.
Thus it is the economic and environmental challenges of kenaf that make it unsuitable for papermaking, challenges that were downplayed in your article.
Dr. Robert D. Brown, Dean
NCSU College of Natural Resources, Raleigh