With the blossoming awareness of sustainability, local economies and fair trade practices, we are committed to sourcing the highest quality as well as the most ethically and ecologically produced products we can find. That includes a number of fair trade companies working in India, Thailand and Vietnam; several manufacturers who cut and sew their bamboo and organic cotton clothing here in the US; and a variety of chocolatiers, candle makers, seamstresses and herbalists all based right here in SLO County.

But we still get a lot of concerned customers asking, “When are we going to start growing the bamboo here in the states?” Well, that’s a good question, because that’s an awfully appealing idea, at least in theory. It could, after all, be an important step in getting off our oil dependency and the reliance on Chinese imports.

As much as we strive to eliminate our carbon footprints and environmental impacts, there are limits. We can reduce and minimize, but there are no consumer products with zero impact. Even if you grow all your own organic produce and make your own clothing with a solar-powered sewing machine, you’ll still need to haul methane-rich manure in from somewhere, and get your new sewing needles, threads and fabrics from somewhere.

In this six billion man village, our survival depends on specialization, and specialization means commerce. We can encourage as much local trade as possible, but we cannot eliminate international commerce. The fair trade movement, for example, fosters socially responsible trade with the third world, recognizing that we need to eliminate inhumane business practices without completely severing ties with our trading partners around the globe.

As much as we love to support our local farmers, most varieties of bamboo are native to Asia. Of the 1500+ species, only two or three are native to North America. Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens), the variety most commonly harvested for commercial use — for clothing, flooring and kitchen wares — is native to China and Japan. And while it may grow well in gardens of California and the Pacific Northwest, introducing it to the U.S. on a massive agricultural scale could bring all kinds of unforeseeable ecological problems.

The beauty of bamboo, as a natural resource, resides in its tenacious growth habit without need of irrigation or fertilizers, and its resilience against pests — in sharp contrast to cotton, it requires no pesticides or herbicides. These wonderful benefits are seen in bamboo’s natural habitat. But transplanted to someplace like the San Joaquin Valley, intensive irrigation would become necessary, and who know what sort of pest and disease issues might crop up.

Does this mean we should abandon the idea altogether? Not necessarily, but extensive consideration and research will be needed. Just remember the rabbits in Australia. And yes, in the right (or wrong?) conditions, bamboo spreads just as fast as bunnies.

Stay tuned for further stories on the unexpected outcomes of bamboo ecology . . .