30 October 1998

Support industrial crops

Agenda 2000 is an

opportunity not to be missed

for industrial and energy

crops, says Ralph Metson,

vice chairman of the NFUs

alternative crop uses

working group

A DECADE ago European farmers had no notion of industrial crops. Now they grow them on 5% of the land area, despite lack of clear EU production policy.

The story at home is less encouraging. Apart from giving limited support for short rotation coppice and begrudging permission for a few other industrial crops on set-aside, the UK government has merely tinkered at the edges, with small-scale research usually highlighting a need for more work.

Why cant our political leaders see votes in a simple, cheap way to support the environment? Talk of carbon balance, sustainability and reducing greenhouse gasses is Euro jargon. But by growing crops to replace fossil fuels, farmers know they can meet those criteria.

Industrial crops deserve better than set-aside uncertainties. Every hectare could replace one of surplus food crop with its less obvious extra subsidies of export refund and intervention cost.

But we cannot expect renewable energies to compete economically with fossil oil. That merely has to be pumped from the ground with no financial account of its million years production time, let alone hidden environmental costs once released.

In a perfect world we need a full life cycle analysis of each farmed fossil fuel equivalent. Benefits to mankind should be quantified in money terms and used for support.

The outlay should be recognised as a "green box" environmental payment rather than agricultural subsidy. Clearly if there is no benefit, support would be madness and we should close this particular agricultural chapter.

The NFU is working hard with plant breeders, merchants and processors to maximise Agenda 2000 opportunities. In striving for a structured lasting platform to encourage industrial cropping it is producing a discussion document with a key recommendation for decision makers (see panel).

This surely would reflect public opinion as signalled by the Rio agreement and abundant media items. Isnt it common sense? &#42

NFUSVISION

A long term policy which will:

&#8226 Allow non-food crops to compete with mainstream ones

&#8226 Provide support reflecting environmental and social benefits

&#8226 Encourage focused co-ordination between different EC departments.