23 November 2001

Farmers to act now as non-food crop market set to grow

By James Garner

ARABLE farmers could lose out on huge non-food crop markets unless they band together and seek out buyers soon.

The warning came from Melvyn Askew, head of the Central Science Laboratorys alternative crops and biotechnology unit in York. He told this weeks Gearing Up for Change conference, sponsored by NatWest, farmers weekly and CSL, that there were big, untapped markets in Europe. For example bio-lubricants were worth £1bn alone.

Mr Askew believed sales in non-food crops would grow by 40% a year.

"We need to get together corporately. I would like these markets for us, but we need to think laterally about what we produce," he said.

"I am not advocating getting out of wheat – just that we should also grow other things so theres not such a big wheat heap to keep a lid on prices."

But the marketplace was competitive and global, said Mr Askew, and if UK farmers didnt sharpen up then they might not benefit.

"We need scale," he said. "There is no point going to an end-user without having sufficient supply of a product to meet their needs."

Groups, such as grain co-ops and sugar beet lifting rings already had size and should start being more proactive in finding markets.

To succeed, farmers had to ask companies the right questions. "Find out what they are after, when and in what form they want the product."

Non-food crops were now the chosen raw material for a wide array of products, including fibre for car and aircraft upholstery, oil for bio-solvents, bio-lubricants and bio-fuels, and specialist crops for the herbal supplement and pharmaceutical market.

He said hemp was a fine example of the wide range of uses for some products.

He also believed that 4m tonnes of agricultural co-products, such as straw, potatoes and sugar beet tops, could be used in bio-ethanol production each year. &#42