CAT LITTER, food wrapping, slow release fertiliser….just a few of the potential uses for oilseed rapemeal. But why look for more when the crop has a ready market as a source of protein for inclusion in animal feeds?
Two years ago there was a very good political reason. As part of the then GATT (now WTO) rounds, the Blair House agreement set a limit on the area of industrial rape that could be grown in the EU. It equated to 1m tonnes of soya bean meal, so as not to impact too strongly on the trade of that commodity. Industrial oilseeds harvested in 1995 almost reached that limit to incur a penalty.
Since then set aside has declined from 12% to 5%, reducing the need to grow rape solely for industrial use. But even if the estimated 40,000ha of industrial rape falls further, there is still justification for finding new markets, according to Ian Bartle, director of Alternative Crops Technology Interactive Network (ACTIN). It was instigated by the NFU to look for new markets for industrial crops.
"If we can find markets for rapemeal which give growers as good a return as for animal feed, everyone stands to benefit. Growers could reduce their reliance on other less profitable break crops and crushers could increase throughput and thus profit margins.
"But perhaps most valuable would be to have renewable, non-toxic, biodegradable materials for industry," he suggests. Currently about 80% of our raw material and energy requirements come from oil. Plant-derived raw materials could reduce that reliance considerably.
As co-ordinator of a LINK programme on competitive industrial materials from non-food crops, Mr Bartle is aware of the need to develop value-added opportunities for growers everywhere. Crop production can only become more efficient as Eastern Europe develops its agricultural industry.
The US and Canada have recently found several new markets for soya bean meal and canola meal. Here, the HGCA funded an eight month study looking at potential markets for oilseed rapemeal, which published its conclusions this time last year (see table).
The findings are exciting, according to project leader Dr Kerr Walker of SAC Aberdeen and collaborator Bruce Knight of Innovation Management, which carries out industrial marketing studies. However there is greater progress in developing them in other parts of Western Europe.
"The French oilseeds association, CETIOM, has a trials programme looking at meal after extraction, and the Germans have just set similar wheels in motion. The Danes are co-ordinating an EU project to extract oilseed rape at low temperatures and separate it into proteins, oil, and glucosinolates," says Mr Knight.
He is concerned that the UK may not keep up with its European counterparts unless new uses are looked at now. Some of the potential markets outlined in the report could come to fruition quickly, provided they are economically viable.
ACTIN has been following up some of the most promising ones. Mr Bartle hopes to attract further interest in rapemeal as an industrial absorbent and as a building material.
"Initial tests showed rapemeal can absorb water, oil and sulphuric acid, which could put it ahead in the absorbent field since existing products have either oil or water absorbing qualities. Oil soaked rapemeal also offered the possibility of a secondary use as a fuel."
Further studies need to assess the market size for absorbents but potentially it is huge, taking into account oil and acid spillage applications. There is also a great requirement for biological effluent absorption in hospitals and domestic situations.
The other main use is as composite board for the building industry. Composite board is made up of a resin matrix reinforced with fibres (usually wood), and is used mainly for interior panelling.
A brand of composite board comprising 40% soya bean flour is being marketed in the USA by Phenix Composites as Environ. There is no record of rapemeal being used in such a way but Mr Bartle believes it has potential.
"The market for composite board is large, and it would increase if a treatment could be found to make it waterproof. Rapemeal may offer European board producers a new and competitive source of fibre, just as soya bean meal has across the Atlantic. Its a promising prospect which warrants further investigation," he suggests.
Other near term markets deemed opportune are fertilisers and compost supplements, explains Dr Walker. The composition of rapemeal could prove suitable for use as a slow release fertiliser, much like the canola meal based product Soil Doctor sold in Canada for use on fine turf, he suggests.
Follow-up studies using rapemeal in mushroom compost did not directly enhance crop growth, but worked well as a microbial enhancer, according to Dr Robin Szmidt, horticultural specialist at the SAC, Auchincruive. By increasing the biological activity of a compost, rapemeal could have a market in green waste recycling.
There is no shortage of opportunities, just as there should be no shortage of rapemeal. The rape area will undoubtedly increase as new varieties and types, including genetically modified rape, become available, says Dr Walker.
Oilseed rape is still the most popular break crop in the UK, and last seasons record yield of 1.4m tonnes and high prices should boost its popularity.