17 April 1997

Developments in oil and fibre plants will help secure future

Agenda 2000 is set to close

the gap between industrial

and conventional food crops,

adding security to often

volatile markets. Here we

report some of the latest

developments in the sector

INDUSTRIAL crop developments could come just in time to generate brighter prospects under Agenda 2000 proposals (Arable, Apr 10).

The UKs largest industrial crop grown on set-aside is high erucic acid oil (HEAR), with an estimated 20,000ha (50,000 acres) in the ground this season.

The high erucic acid oil is mainly used as a slip agent in plastics, but is also findings homes in high temperature lubricants, as a plastics hardener and lightweight, tough mouldings for vehicle manufacturer, says industrial crops expert Melvyn Askew of the CSL at York.

An alternative source of erucic acid-rich oil is crambe. Its oil contains far more erucic acid and its agronomy is improving. Signifi-cantly, there is no risk of cross-pollination wrecking the quality of double low, human consumption rape, Mr Askew notes.

Matching the area of HEAR on UK farms is the combined area of flax, which is grown on set-aside, and hemp which is not.

"The market for natural bio-degradable fibres is just beginning to open up in a big way," Mr Askew maintains. "Already some of the major car manufacturers, led by BMW and Ford, are using mouldings made from natural fibres. The potential is vast."

Mr Askew believes there is much scope for developing new uses for existing crops. Designer starches could be extracted from potatoes, quinoa and peas to make packing materials, paper coatings, and pharmaceuticals.

"Worthwhile, industrial markets could also be developed from crop waste. In Sweden ethyl-alcohol, which is a fuel and an important constituent of many industrial chemicals, is being fermented from lignin-free cellulose in sugar beet tops. In future they could be too valuable to plough."

"For years we have been tinkering around with novel crops and products. Now at last some real products for real markets coming on stream," Mr Askew says.

Prospects for supplying industry with raw materials for a whole range of chemical processes look increasingly promising, says Melvyn Askew of CSL.