Government strategy paints rosy future for non-food crops

The development of markets for plant-based products and fuels could boost UK competitiveness, contribute to the diversification of agriculture and help cut carbon emissions and the amount of waste sent to landfill, according to the Government's strategy for non-food crops.1 But despite these bright prospects, the strategy offers few new policy initiatives.

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."

  • Environmental benefits: The strategy claims that targets to cut carbon emissions cannot be achieved without a major shift to renewable sources of fuel, energy and "materials for product manufacture". The potential use of renewable materials will be "an important factor" in the review of the UK climate change programme later this year.

    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.

  • Industrial innovation: There is "considerable scope" for replacing the 10% of the UK's oil consumption as a chemical feedstock with plant-derived feedstocks.

    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:

  • Increasing funding for research on non-food crops. DEFRA doubled annual expenditure on non-food crops research in the period 2003/04 to 2004/05 to £2 million, and has increased it by a further £1.5 million to promote innovation through supply chain assessment. The strategy promises that "rigorous tests...such as life-cycle assessment" will be applied to such expenditure.

  • Applying a "concerted push" to develop biomass as a "key contributor" to its renewable energy targets.

  • Setting indicative targets for biofuels sales (see pp 46-47 ).

  • Using the agreement on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy to stimulate diversity in production. The decoupled single farm payment will be introduced in 2005, giving a "strong stimulus" to diversification. Cultivation of non-food crops will be eligible for support under the new agri-environment schemes to be introduced in 2005.

  • Expanding the operations of the new National Non-Food Crops Centre, which later this year will absorb the Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops (ENDS Report 332, p 33 ).

    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.

  • Establishing workstreams to develop key areas from previous research and recommendations of the non-food crops forum.

  • Encouraging use of crop materials through public procurement policies

    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.

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