What exactly are pharmaceutical crops?

Pharmaceuticals are one of three niche markets, alongside neutraceuticals (body/skin care products) and cosmaceuticals (cosmetics).

All three use plant oils or extracts to enhance or form the basis of new products.

In many cases, plants may have potential uses in more than one market, so for the purposes of this article we will look at all three end uses together.

What crops are we talking about?

Some you may be familiar with, others not.

The more common ones include borage (oil used to improve circulation and target blood disorders), sweet quinoa (used in gluten-free diets) and hemp (oil high in Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids).

Oil and extracts from poppy, camelina (Gold of Pleasure), echium (Purple Vipers Bugloss), calendula (Pot Marigold) and lunaria (Honesty) also have various nutritional and health benefits.

“Most plants have some bio-ingredient you could use, but its value needs to be proved first,” says Jacqueline Garrood, research and development manager at Yorkshire non-food specialist Springdale Crop Synergies

The findings from research projects will decide which new crops will be important in the future.

The benefits of lunaria to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferers could make this a potential crop within five years, for instance.

Likewise, the pain relief benefits of cannabinoids extracted from hemp for multiple sclerosis sufferers are being investigated.

How big are the markets and how are they changing?

Argentina, eastern Asia, eastern Europe and Canada are big players in the specialist crop markets.

In the UK, borage and hemp are the most widely grown, with crop areas measured in thousands of acres.

But most others probably account for a few hundred acres, each spread among a handful of growers, says the National Non Food Crops Centre’s Ian Law.

Most markets are relatively static, he believes, though there may be potential for growth in some areas soon.

The anti-Alzheimer’s drug galanthamine, for example, can be made synthetically, but can also be sourced naturally from daffodil bulbs.

“Galanthamine is a relatively new drug, but the patent is already close to expiring, so we could see the market open up.”

Existing daffodil growers must research this market carefully, as many may be lifting bulbs at the wrong time for galanthamine production, he notes.

Remember, too, that the total volume of plant products required in specialist markets is small compared with traditional crops, such as cereals and oilseed rape.

Staffordshire firm Statfold Seed Oils’ Graham Lee estimates the total world market for hemp oil, for example, is only about 200t, of which Statfold supplies about 150t.

“Many farmers have latched on to the high prices, but you must remember that we are dealing with pretty small volumes.”

The desire among drug companies to ensure secure, traceable and ethically-produced supplies of raw material could also offer potential for UK growers.

Most poppies grown for morphine come from Afghanistan, but buyers are increasingly looking at sourcing supplies from growers in Hampshire (see case study).

“It’s a very competitive market and there are few contracts this year, but maybe next,” notes Dr Garrood.

What contracts are available?

There is a great deal of secrecy around contracts for pharmaceutical and neutraceutical crops.

Many growers are reluctant to talk up the prices they are getting and companies offering contracts may not want competitors to know what they are working on.

A number of companies source alternative crops or their derivatives, with most offering buy-back contracts to growers.

But contract details vary considerably depending on who you talk to.

All processors demand a reliable, consistently high quality product, free from contaminants like weed seeds and volunteers.

Many will stay with growers who can provide this every year, so establishing a good relationship is key, says Phillip Abbott, farm manager at Statfold Seed Oils.

“Security and quality of supply in the pharmaceutical industry is absolutely paramount,” agrees Dr Law.

This is one area where UK growers could score highly, given the importance already placed on crop assurance and traceability, he says.

Some pharmaceutical crops, such as cannabis sativa, are only grown in specialised glasshouses under licence from the Home Office, says GW Pharmaceuticals’ Mark Rogerson.

“There are a number of farmers growing hemp for fibre or oil, which doesn’t have the same psychological effects.

But cannabis sativa is illegal to grow without a licence and requires incredibly detailed control throughout the growing process.”

How easy are the crops to grow?

Whether you are growing for the pharmaceutical, neutraceutical or cosmetics market, any alternative crop needs a great deal of attention, says Mr Abbott.

“Too many people think you can just put a crop like borage in a field out of the way and let it get on with it.

You’ve got to pay 100% attention to detail.

The potential for many oil crops is very high, but those like borage can be quite volatile and you can end up with a complete disaster.”

Borage yields on his farm are typically about 0.4t/ha (3-4cwt/acre).

Soil needs to be of good quality, with all indices up to scratch.

Inputs are relatively low, but good weed control is important, he continues.

Most crops can be grown using standard farm machinery, although a draper header may be needed for borage and a stripper header on flax.

Borage also requires swathing, although this can be done by a contractor.

Because yields are relatively small compared with cereals, the amount of storage required can be significantly lower, he says.

One potential problem with growing spring-sown crops such as hemp and flax in the UK is that later harvesting may clash with bad weather in early autumn.

Many crops will require desiccation to ensure more timely harvest.

Mr Abbott prefers Reglone (diquat) in flax and hemp, depending on the season, as glyphosate is more likely to be translocated through the plant into the seed.

He does not believe proximity to processors has a big influence on where crops can be grown, as the higher prices (like borage at £2000/t plus) can easily cover higher haulage costs.

What return can I expect?

Compared with crops like wheat, the relatively low inputs required and high prices for a lot of alternative crops can seem very attractive.

But yields can be variable and end-users need to be found before the crop goes in the ground.

The table on page 33 shows a rough idea of gross margins for some of the key crops.

Mr Abbott has found similar performance, estimating gross margins for his borage, hemp and flax at about £617/ha (£250/acre), £494/ha (£200/acre) and £494/ha, respectively.

“A lot of the crops are only in the ground for 90-100 days, which also helps cash flow,” he adds.

Case study
Phillip Abbott

Statfold seed oil

With a total arable area of 260ha (650 acres) Staffordshire firm Statfold Seed Oil cold presses all of the seed grown on the farm for UK and international neutraceutical and personal care markets.

Sunflower, hemp, flax and borage are the main spring-sown “alternative” crops grown on the farm, alongside a small area (30ha) of winter wheat.

The company also crushes about 3000t of seed annually, which includes supplies from the UK and overseas (eg, Kalahari melon seed, hemp from China).

“People are constantly looking for new oils with new benefits.

For example, we have just blended a new cooking oil where the Omega 3 element from Camelina (high in Omega 3, a delicate essential fatty acid) is protected under shallow fry conditions,” says director Henry Noon.

Since setting up the business 10 years ago, £2m has been invested in converting old farm buildings, a bottling plant, cold store and buying/upgrading 10 cold presses.

It is now the largest producer of specialist oils in the UK, says owner, Graham Lee.

Any farmer considering growing for the specialist oil market must ensure they have a buyer lined up first, he urges.

“We’ve developed markets for our oil before the crop has even gone in the ground.

There is no sense growing anything unless you have a buyer for it.”

While they are keen to source crops from the UK, Mr Noon says they tend to avoid using contracts, as they want the flexibility to buy the best quality product every time, wherever it is from.

“Like our buyers, we will stick with growers providing they can supply the required quality and amount.”

Pharmaceutical crops need a lot of attention, says Statfold’s farm manager Phillip Abbott (above).

“The potential for many oil crops is very high, but those like borage can be quite volatile and you can end up with a complete disaster. You’ve got to pay 100% attention to detail.”

Case study
Angus Janaway

North Hampshire

Poppies are a welcome addition to the rotation for Angus Janaway in Hampshire. Some 77ha (190 acres) are contract grown for morphine processing under Home Office licence alongside oilseed rape, wheat and grass seed.

“They are not an easy crop to get right and can be very slow to get started.

Poppy seed is very small and seedlings can be quite vulnerable.

But if you’ve got good soil I am sure the crop will do well.”

A good seed-bed is crucial, he says.

Land (in his case chalk downland) is subsoiled in the summer, then ploughed and left over winter before cultivating twice and drilling in early or mid-March.

Importantly, the seed-bed is not rolled, as this can cause capping and may hamper emergence, he says.

All chemical and fertiliser inputs are stipulated by processor Johnson Matthey, which provides the contract, but Mr Janaway estimates variable costs are about £270/ha.

Once the crop has established successfully, the first of three payments (£100/ha) is made by the end of April.

Another £100/ha is paid post- harvest (31 October), with the final £100/ha plus any quality bonus paid by the end of February.

“From a cashflow point of view, they are a very good crop to grow.”

Poppies are sprayed off with Reglone (diquat) before being harvested with a specialised combine brought in by Johnson Matthey.

A sample is sent away for analysis and this will determine what bonus is paid.

“You are paid on morphine content, so yield is irrelevant.

You have to think about the alkaloid content, which is typically 15-20kg/ha.”

An extra £20/kg of alkaloid produced is paid under the contract.

The crop, which is normally cut at 15-16% moisture, is relatively easy to harvest, but on-floor storage and drying is needed.

Who can I contact?

There is no central body responsible for pharmaceutical or neutraceutical crops, so Dr Law of NNFCC suggests contacting individual companies directly. The NNFCC has a database and links to many companies involved in specialist crops.