16 November 2001

Non-food use crops ripe for exploitation

Demand for industrial crops

is booming and with arable

incomes at an all time low

the need for alternative

profit providers has never

been greater. This special

feature looks into new

markets for miscanthus,

home-processing prospects

for hemp, and a new oilseed

for set-aside. But first

Edward Long asks CSLs

Melvyn Askew what is the

potential of this non-food

sector and we examine what

a bio-ethanol industry could

do to the wheat market?

Edited by Andrew Swallow

WITHIN five years, 5% of UK cropping could be dedicated to industrial non-food use crops, predicts Melvyn Askew, CSLs head of alternative crops and bio-technology unit.

"There are definite opportunities available that are already proven, economically viable, and technically feasible. All that is needed is for the agricultural industry to exploit and develop them properly," he says.

Petrol substitutes, biodegradable lubricants, wallpaper, natural pesticides, and indigo for inkjet printers are just a few of the many products that could be manufactured from homegrown raw materials.

Current, new and some long forgotten crops could be used and even farm waste offers cash generating opportunities to boost ailing arable returns, he says.

But currently less than 1% of British farmland is cropped for non-food markets, mostly with high erucic acid oilseed rape for plastic slip agents, hair conditioners, and printing inks.

To expand that will take careful organisation and planning. "Some opportunities opening up are not small markets. There is massive scope for sizeable demand.

"But there are also many small value-added markets that together could provide a major economic boost for the industry."

Bio-lubricants, fuels, fibre, and biodegradable packaging are the most likely markets to kick-start the agricultural economy. The European market for lubricants alone is worth just under £1bn/year and bio-lubricants could take a big slice of it as vegetable oils out-perform mineral oils in this area, he says.

The European automotive industry already uses 333,000t of plant fibre each year and that could double within five years, creating huge demand for flax and hemp.

High quality hemp fibre can also be used in bank notes and writing paper while low-grade fibres can be used in plant pots, hanging baskets, and erosion protection materials.

Every car leaving a European assembly plant can run on petrol with 10% ethanol added and soon engine technology improvements will raise that to 80%.

Crops such as wheat or fodder beet could be used to brew that ethanol. Crop wastes such as wheat straw, potato out-grades, sugar beet tops and vegetable pack house waste could also be converted into ethanol, he points out.

Bio-diesel, already available at many fuel stations on the continent, could be made from oilseed rape or other vegetable oils, he adds.

Even woad, the source of body dye used by ancients Britons to frighten invaders, is being developed as the source of indigo for inkjet printers and sophisticated plastics, or high performance polymers, could be produced from sugar, protein, or rape meal. &#42

INDUSTRIAL OUTLOOK

&#8226 5% of crops in five years.

&#8226 Many niche markets.

&#8226 Some mainline opportunities.

&#8226 Potentially big boost to returns.