BIOMASS, GM crops by 2009 and Aussie-style research funding were key issues at the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust conference in Brighton.

Despite planting the world’s largest single block of willow short rotation coppice and then finding himself without a market, farmer John Strawson felt energy crops were still viable.

His view follows research in Europe and North America, and comes despite him planting 172ha of willow only to see his initial market vanish as the Arable Biomass Renewable Energy project foundered. Despite that he intends to plant more next year.

“The market is still in its infancy, but contracts are on offer to supply power stations at Drax and Cottam. Budgets suggest a net farm income, including rent and the single farm payment, of nearly £150/ha for SRC, compared with £40 for fallow and little above break-even for wheat,” he said.

The crop really comes into its own when it is used as a tool to reduce overheads, he added.

For Fife grower Keith Adamson there was little doubt that UK farmers would be growing GM crops by 2009. His view follows studies in the USA, Canada and China.

Without the technology the industry is competitively disadvantaged, warned Mr Adamson, who hosted GM Field Scale Evaluation trials in 2002/03 on his 250ha (600 acre) West Friarton enterprise.

But to win public support, GM foods must deliver more health benefits, he said. Meanwhile, the rest of the world sprints ahead, planting 68m ha of GM crops in 18 countries last year, 15% up on 2002.

NIAB plant scientist Dr Juno McKee urged farmer controlled businesses to get more involved in developing added-value wheats.

Having studied the sector in Australia, she felt its approach to research could aid the delivery and uptake of research in complex UK wheat food chains.