The strategy for non-food uses of crops stems from a commitment in the Government's strategy for sustainable farming and food, issued in 2002. This agreed with the recommendation of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food - the so-called "Curry report" - that a long-term strategy was needed for creating and exploiting opportunities for non-food crops.
Published jointly by the Departments of Trade and Industry and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the strategy applies to England only.
A central theme is the contribution research into non-food uses for crops can make to the competitiveness of the UK economy. Many of the uses, it says, "are highly innovative and will contribute to the Government's objectives to promote enterprise, innovation and competitiveness and achieving the vision of the UK as a key knowledge hub in the global economy."
Materials derived from crops, including packaging made from starch-based polymers, can also contribute to the Government's targets to divert biodegradable municipal waste from landfill "provided that arrangements are in place for an increase in the amount of biodegradable material actually composted" or diverted from landfill.
The Government plans to encourage the development of schemes to compost such materials. "In the first instance, this would best be achieved by companies promoting the use of biodegradable packaging where it is retained within their control and can be directed to an appropriate disposal route."
DEFRA has commissioned research to test the use of plant-based hydraulic oils under UK conditions, and to demonstrate the use of vegetable oil-based solvents for use as cleaning agents in the printing industry.
DEFRA is funding development of new polymer resins to create fully plant-based composites, such as boards in which the fibre component is made from hemp, flax or timber and the resin binder from rapeseed oil rather than synthetic chemical resins.
Biotechnology has the potential to extend the range of crop-based products, with bright prospects for "high-value speciality crops in controlled glasshouse conditions".
Last year's study by the Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit of the costs and benefits of genetically modified crops noted that many of the potential opportunities for GM crops are in the non-food and pharmaceutical sectors.
In the "immediate future", the Government plans to take the strategy forward by:
The centre will identify consortia for research proposals and develop a "wide-ranging programme to promote non-food crops and to stimulate market development." It will also manage a new demonstration projects programme.
Work will be carried out to extend the range of performance indicators - beyond the existing measures of area of non-food crops grown and volumes used by industry. It will include an assessment of the need for further research in areas such as life-cycle assessment of particular crops for biodiversity and other environmental criteria.
The strategy does not "at this stage" set overall quantified targets for non-food crops, but assimilates those already agreed in areas such as renewable energy and waste, and will include targets to implement the EU biofuels Directive when they are set. But it is clear that "significant expansion of non-food crop production...is both possible and desirable."
One challenge in designing an overall target is that it would have to address both relatively low-value products, which may be grown on a large-scale, and high-value speciality products which may use little land.
A report assessing the strategy's progress will be prepared by the DTI and DEFRA in two years' time.