THERE IS little doubt that UK government ministers want to see more use made of crops for non-food purposes, and plenty of taxpayers’ money has been poured into finding ways of making it happen.
But the economic reality of getting entrenched users of non-crop materials to modify their ways remains a key challenge – be it for broad-acre production or niche markets.
That is the view of Lincs farmer David Carmichael, a member of the recently closed Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops.
“In my view, in many instances the main driver will have to be through legislative persuasion,” he says.
Only by playing their environmental cards harder will politicians bring about the radical change in attitude needed to progress non-food crop production, Mr Carmichael believes.
Set up by the government in March 2001, the Forum”s responsibilities have devolved to the National Non-Food Crops Centre.
In drawing up its final report, the GIFNFC noted that while there is real scope for developing non-food products from crops there is a range hurdles to be overcome, says Mr Carmichael.
He is particularly interested in using crop-derived materials to produce a range of bioplastics, from carpet tiles to clothing and food packaging.
Those on the market are derived mostly from maize starch and in Europe include Italian firm Novamont’s Mater-Bi range and National Starch and Chemical’s licensed products.
In the USA, Dow-Cargill uses polylactic acid obtained from starch under the Nature Works banner.
However, starch-based plastic packaging is rare in the UK and there has been little development of manufacturing capacity to food grade standards, says Mr Carmichael.
“This is in part due to the reluc- tance of UK supermarkets to accept anything which might have its origin in GM crops, in this instance maize.”
It should be possible to substitute maize starch with wheat, but bigger volume production is needed to cut costs significantly, he says.
“UK company Potatopak produces biodegradable plastic food trays from potato starch, but most of its raw material has to be imported.”
In most areas an important challenge is to crack the “comfort factor” provided by fossil-based feedstocks, suggests Mr Carmichael.
“Most industries are comfortable with what they are already using and long experience and economies of scale with using existing raw materials has allowed their use to be refined and expanded.
“The petroleum-based industries are 20 years ahead in this area, so there is a big hurdle for crop-based materials to climb.
“We are certainly behind much of the Continent in terms of environmentally-friendly resource management.”
Germany in particular is making increasing use of renewable crop-based raw materials for building and insulation.
Biodegradable lubricants derived from oilseeds are environmentally attractive but more expensive than conventional ones, he adds.
Three-quarters of the UK’s annual 500-600 tonnes consumption of chainsaw oils is biodegradable. But less than 1% of the 120,000t of hydraulic fluids used each year are biolubricants.
The use of natural fibres to produce superior composite materials has developed only recently, led mainly by the German car industry.
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An important market, exploited by some farmers, is producing crops for extracting essential oils for used in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. But it remains a niche opportunity for a limited number of growers.
Legislation aside, the government could itself do much more to encourage non-food crops, says Mr Carmichael.
“Government procurement policies could help a lot if they stressed more the need for using renewable resources rather than always the cheapest.”