THERE WILL be real scope for growers to profit from non-food crops, particularly for producing low-carbon electricity. But don’t expect markets to materialise overnight.

While fuel security and environmental issues are driving the non-food industry forward, the government’s inability to offer long-term assurance remains a barrier, delegates at last week’s first Green Supply Chain conference heard.

According to agriculture minister Lord Whitty, such crops could produce a “substantial” income for agriculture and the rural economy.

But long-term vision was needed to build confidence, he admitted. But the Treasury was unlikely to offer more than a three to five-year commitment to new projects, because it could not bind a future governing power, he said.

“Progress has been disappointing and there have been some false starts, but we do think biomass has potential for producing low-carbon electricity.”

Welcoming DEFRA/DTI’s new strategy document, National Non-Food Crops Centre chief Jeremy Tomkinson said: “Watch this space – we will come back to producers once markets are fully established.

“The main thing is that we now have a strategy. But will farmers still be around if we take five years to come back to them with viable contracts? Don’t forget, it has taken Germany 11 years and more than €50m for new projects to get under way. In the UK we only really started last year.”

Rising oil prices were increasing biofuels’ competitiveness, but growers must get more involved to benefit from energy crops, said CSL’s Melvyn Askew. He urged farmers to get together to install and run small, local heating systems.

Yorks arable producer and NIAB chairman Tony Pexton warned of the danger of too much talk and not enough action. “If you raise expectations and nothing happens, there is a risk that farmers will switch off.

“The climate is favourable, because the CAP mid-term review means producers will not have to jeopardise cash-flow to try new crops. Everyone is looking for alternatives while wheat prices are low.

“Non-food crops could be a major influence in the countryside. Technology doesn”t seem to be the problem. The real difficulty is getting the commerce right.”

Gary Newman, whose Bangor, North Wales-based Natilin UK makes insulation materials from flax and hemp, wants local governments to become more involved.

Using such products in public buildings would provide a much-needed kick-start, he said. “At the moment, our natural insulation costs four times as much as the alternatives.

“But if more local authorities placed orders, we would gain economies of scale and the price would come down.”