Crop choice to embrace the demands of industry
The new millennium is set to
bring many exciting
changes. To provide a taste
of the future, farmers weekly
has joined forces with
Michelin to relay the
thoughts of key industry
experts. This week,
Charles Abel reports the
views of industrial cropping
specialist Melvyn Askew
INDUSTRIAL crop products have a bright future and could account for as much as 15% of the typical output from an arable farm by 2020, forecasts a leading adviser.
Political and public demand for renewable industrial raw materials and fuels will drive the sectors expansion, predicts CSL York-based expert Melvyn Askew. Envir-onmental charges like disposal taxes for non-biodegradable waste are another factor driving trends towards more industrial cropping.
"Look at the Kyoto agreement and other international commitments. There is no doubt that more arable land will go into industrial crop production and that greater use will be made of by-products from existing crops."
The ability to produce materials for industry has largely pre-empted industry demand, Mr Askew admits. "But industry is looking forward. It realises it needs to change and will do so as investment patterns allow.
"Fibreglass, for example, requires an enormous energy input, it has health implications during production and use and disposal issues, too. Industry is increasingly interested in alternative fibres from agriculture, such as hemp. Not only is it lighter, so fuel consumption falls, with environmental benefits, but it is renewable and biodegradable."
The industrial cropping pathfinder is likely to be coppice willow for fuel. But hot on its heels will be a host of crops for industrial fibres, oils and lubricants, plus bulk raw materials and more sophisticated speciality and pharmaceutical uses.
An EU energy White Paper from DG17 has already identified that the biomass equivalent of 130mt of oil is needed to meet international commitments on greenhouse gas reduction. "With an annual yield of 7-8t/ha that is up to 20m hectares to go at. The potential is great, especially as agronomic understanding improves and with it yield," says Mr Askew.
High value pharmaceutical uses will be small scale, but ultra-high value. "For the grower producing interferon from 2ha of oilseed rape the value will be astronomical."
But few growers will be involved with that sort of market. Bulk commodity markets will be the mainstay for most industrial crops.
Increased use of by-products will also emerge. "Hemp is a prime example. Its oil is used in perfumes and polishes, the fibre in car parts and the pith in horse bedding. Farmers need to realise that plants can be multi-functional, producing more than the primary product alone."
Starches from wheat, maize and potatoes are set for a plethora of potential uses, including adhesives, cardboard, and bio-degradable plastics. Oat starch looks particularly promising as a talc alternative, with its oil going for use in paints. "That will be worth more than todays £60/t feed grain value," says Mr Askew.
The proving technology has been done. Now it is the market pull that is awaited. Indeed, identifying opportunities and creating specifications is the current goal.
"The future is bright. But the question needs to be what is the market and what is the market specification? If we can find the answers to those questions then we can be utterly confident that we can produce what is needed and not only that we can but that we should. Society demands it."
IENICA, the industrial crops and products project run by CSL, is already identifying volume requirements and specifications for a host of industrial products derived from plants. "We know the tonnages required and once we know the specifications we know we can produce it."
Inter-professional 10-year plus agreements to ensure security of supply will also be needed. Large industrial users making major investments to re-equip for alternative raw materials will want to guarantee their supplies and growers will want to guarantee their markets.
The UK is well ahead in the sector, but must now co-operate more to create viable supply chains, he says. "Co-operation is more common in France and the rest of Europe than the UK and this could be the key to getting a market moving. It is always better to have two hands on the pump – the producer and the user." *
• Pollution and renewable use commitments are driving forces.
• Products now identified.
• Industry set to adopt.
• Huge demand for fuel, fibre, oils and starches.
• Speciality products rarer, but higher value.
• Long-term contracts to provide security of supply.
• All crop parts considered.