30 October 1998

Agenda 2000 an opportunity not obstacle

AGENDA 2000 proposals, if implemented, would provide a stiff challenge to arable farmers diversifying into energy crops. But the new arrangements are unlikely to be a knock-out blow, says Melvyn Askew, head of MAFFs alternative crops and biotechnology group at the Central Science Laboratory at York.

"Where there is challenge there are always opportunities. The lower level of support expected will reduce the yawning economic gap between cereals and energy crops. And if new value-added markets are developed this may be bridged."

Short term willow coppice, down for 15-20 years, is the most likely biomass crop, but miscanthus is a potential fuel and fibre crop for southern counties, Mr Askew believes.

A recent EU white paper fuelled speculation that within 10 years coppice could cover 170,000ha (420,000 acres), equal to the current UK sugar beet area. More efficient technologies, such as gasification, put a new perspective on the crop, he suggests.

"Instead of just thinking of wood for fuel, there is also potential to use it for more valuable markets such as chipboard production or amenity use to landscape picnic areas, provide sound baffles alongside motorways, or as long-term game covers with an end use," he adds.

The value of spin-off benefits should not be ignored. CSL is keen to investigate the wildlife and bio-control benefits of having energy production strips around crops.

"Short-term coppice willow or poplar is ready for first harvest in three or four years. But a marketing plan is needed before planting to ensure it fetches best price to compete with wheat."

The jury is still out on miscanthus, he believes. Provided establishment costs can be cut it may have a place in the south but not the cooler north.

Prospects for biodiesel were dashed when mineral oil prices crashed. From over $20/barrel a few years ago it has fallen to $14. But esters of vegetable oils could target specialist high value niche markets, says Mr Askew.

AGENDA 2000 OPENINGS

&#8226 Coppice wood first option.

&#8226 Added value markets.

&#8226 Specialist oils scope.