26 May 1995

Non-food crop

potential not yet exploited

Getting industrialists on board the alternative crops bandwagon is vital but poses a big challenge, as

Andrew Blake heard at conferences last week

THE UK and its European partners must move fast to exploit the huge potential of "wealth-creating" non-food crops. Unless they do so, the EC runs the risk of losing out to countries such as Japan and the US, says Ben Gill, NFU deputy president.

Lack of dialogue between interested parties is the big barrier to progress, he believes. "I am alarmed that time after time I find chemists, biologists and engineers working in isolation," Mr Gill told members of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers at Silsoe College. "We cant afford that."

Farmers amply demonstrated their ability to grow more food after the war, he told an EC supported meeting in Brussels organised by the Bureau Européean de Recherches. The current battle is to convince industrialists that growers can deliver raw materials of the required quality, consistently and at the right price for a whole range of options from fuel to textiles. "I pledge that there is a willingness to move forward."

Stressing the need for more collaboration, he warns that Japan spends 3% of its gross domestic product on research and development. The US currently spends 2.5% and aims to raise that to 3%. By contrast the EC average is 2.4%, and the UK figure is only 2.1%. "Thats a great pity."

Some "pump-priming", such as the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation, will inevitably be needed for many projects, he concedes. But failure to create a "corporate feel of capability" could leave the EC at the mercy of foreign technology.

THERE is clearly massive interest in alternative crops among growers and scientists, not least because of set-aside and concern for the environment and future shortages of raw materials and energy. Indeed EC programmes costing about 500m ECU (£420m) from 1988-98 have been set up to investigate their potential.

But Ciaran Mangan of the ECs DGX11 agro-industrial division points to a telling conclusion from an independent assessment of the recently completed ECLAIR programme – namely that there is "too much scientific push but not enough market pull".

Fundamental economics are often forgotten, warns Prof John Marsh of the Centre for Agricultural Strategy. "There is a great deal of mistaken enthusiasm for things people are not prepared to pay for," he told the Silsoe meeting.

Costing environmental benefits or disadvantages correctly is tricky. Much is made of the magical word "sustainability", says Prof Marsh. But production, harvesting and transport of industrial raw materials from crops often impose "significant costs".

A strong barrier for many industrialists is the relatively complex agricultural supply chain, Bruce Knight of Cambs-based Innovation Management told the BER conference. Few organisations are involved at more than one stage. "This leads to a perceived unreliability of supply. But the food industry manages, and we eat all the year round," he comments.

Many observers view energy production, especially electricity, as offering the best prospects for alternative crops. Providing raw materials, such as fibres for textiles, will require relatively small areas, they say.

"But the market will really only take off in 2010-2020," according to Roger Booth of Shell International Petroleum. The company has explored electricity generation from biomass, notably eucalyptus, for 15-20 years. By then the overall energy mix will be much more complex with no single source prevailing, he says.

Much depends on taxation and economies of scale, Mr Booth told the Brussels meeting. There is also good potential for cost cutting through "learning by doing". But long term investments have to be made against the possibility of some "surprise" energy source being discovered. Hydro and nuclear power, for example, were unknown at the turn of the century, he notes.

Luc Chatin, manager of Elf Antars alternative fuels department, says there is no technical reason why bio-fuels may not have a place in the market – provided they can be economically produced. Indeed Elf already uses 75,000t a year of wheat-based ETBE (from ethanol) in France as an additive with "no problems or complaints", and plans an 85,000cu m biodiesel plant at Donges on the west coast this year. But without tax concessions such materials "do not get over the threshold of economic viability". &#42

John Marsh warns of "mistaken enthusiasm" over non-food crops.

Oilseed rape is just one of many crops which have non-food potential. Exploiting those prospects to the full requires more industry enthusiasm.