The Perks of Being a Weed

Cody Good

Until recently, weeds – the bad garden plant, not the fun party plant – have been overlooked. But now they’re sprouting out of their Tumblr era and having a coming-of-age moment.

*cue David Bowie’s Heros*

What happened: The Wall Street Journal has recently published an article highlighting the growing role of non-food plants (read: weeds) for biofuels. Several companies have been developing the plants and are now starting to see the fruits of their labour.

World biofuel production
Courtesy of ENERGYminute

Background: Corn and soybeans dominate today’s biofuels market but leave us with a difficult decision to make when it comes time to harvest: is the plant for food or fuel?

  • Biofuels are often less emission-intensive than fossil fuels, but food scarcity is a growing concern exacerbated by climate change.

Pass the weed: Field Pennycress – a weed – has an oil content 50% greater than soybeans and as such has been the focus of development for the company Covercress.

  • Covercress, the company’s plant namesake, was designed as a cover crop. It grows in the winter protecting the soil against erosion. It’s then harvested for biofuel in the spring ahead of the main summer growing season.

Getting farmers to grow weeds on their fields in the winter might be a tough sell but the oil supermajors have already bought in. The WSJ reports that BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil all have interests in various companies developing weed crops meant for biofuel production.

Their biggest customer: the aviation industry which is fighting to balance soaring demand for both travel and decarbonization.

  • Despite the push for decarbonization, the International Air Transport Association estimates that just 1.5% of flights used sustainable aviation fuels in 2022.

Zoom out: The push for decarbonization is driving demand for biofuels, but they won’t be a magic bullet. It will take contributions from several sources, including crops like Covercress, before we can have our soy and eat it too.