Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops


  The Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops welcomes the opportunity to contribute evidence to the above Enquiry. One of the issues the Enquiry has set out to investigate is whether it is possible to ensure materials and resources used during building do not have a harmful impact on the environment. This paper will specifically address this question, and will briefly introduce the role of the Forum below and give examples of crop-derived construction materials currently available or under development. It will discuss the environmental benefits such materials offer, and will briefly highlight some of the barriers to the development and take up of these crops, along with some potential solutions and some existing initiatives which the Committee might wish to be aware of.


  The Forum is a Non-Departmental Public Body, established in March 2001 to provide strategic advice to the Government and to industry on how to promote non-food uses of crops within the UK.

  The Forum believes that non-food uses of crops are capable of addressing a number of urgent social objectives related to the overall goal of economic and environmental sustainability. These objectives include:

    —  Providing renewable sources of energy and industrial materials.

    —  Preserving precious non-renewable resources.

    —  Promoting scientific innovation and industrial competitiveness.

    —  Waste management and reduction.

    —  Adding value to agriculture, and promoting rural enterprise.

  The environmental profile of crop-derived materials is generally, though not always, superior to conventional alternatives, and the Forum has been greatly impressed by the variety of problems that non-food uses of crops can address.

  It is against this background that the Forum is interested in sustainable construction materials.


  Although the range of crop-derived materials (excluding timber) currently available is relatively small, there are a number of products on the market which would assist builders and architects in raising the environmental and technical performance of their buildings. Crop-derived materials are typically renewable, are less toxic and may be compostable at end of life. Importantly they typically have substantially lower embodied energy, and if properly managed are usually more sustainable than conventional materials.

  The table below lists current examples and the benefits they offer:

ProductEnvironmental benefits

Insulation materials
(eg from hemp, flax, wool)
—Low embodied energy in manufacture
—Naturally good performance when damp
—Renewable Feedstock
(Crop-derived pigments, binders and thinners, solvents and emulsifiers)
—Low embodied energy in manufacture
—Reduced toxicity and disposal issues
—Renewable Feedstock
Floor Covering from natural fibres—Reduced health and allergy issues
—Ease of disposal for most materials
—Renewable Feedstock
Biomass Heat Boilers—Renewable Energy
—Efficient and carbon neutral
Geotextiles for Landscaping and roadside use —Very much lower embodied energy
—Degrade naturally at end of life leaving no traces of plastics
—Renewable Feedstock

  Such benefits are gradually being recognised: for example Second Nature UK recently won The Queen's Award for Enterprise (Sustainable Development) 2004 for their wool-based insulation material Thermafleece.


  The Forum's investigations into crop-derived construction materials are continuing. Early findings suggest several major obstacles, which are given below along with some early responses.

Awareness and Demonstration

  Awareness of alternative building materials within the traditionally conservative construction industry is low, and there is a need to increase confidence and demonstrate viability to potential users. Demonstration activity is a key requirement to familiarise architects, builders and planners with crop-derived materials, and to build confidence in their performance.

  The need for demonstration and awareness has been a key theme of the Forum's investigations in this and other sectors. In response to the Forum's recommendations, Defra has released funding of up to £1.25 million per year for supply chain assessment and development for industrial materials from crops. Proposals from the construction sector are eligible for the programme, which is aimed specifically at developing, assessing and disseminating technologies using crops. The programme is administered by the National Non-Food Crops Centre, and the call for proposals was issued in late April 2004.


  A lack of knowledge of, and confidence in, crop-derived materials amongst planners is often a significant barrier to their use. The awareness and demonstration work identified above is the first step to redressing this problem, but an important additional step would be for national planning guidance to give a clearer indication that viable, proven crop-derived sustainable building materials should be favoured wherever possible.

Information and Performance Data

  Crop derived products commonly suffer from a lack of robust performance data. This is especially important given the financial risk involved and the extended life span in construction industry projects. Often key information relating to longevity and durability is not available because the product is relatively new and monitoring has not been carried out; in other cases (eg using straw bales for construction) evidence is available in other countries, but is not available to UK builders and planning officials in English from a source they know to be authoritative. As a partial response to this problem, Defra has commissioned a handbook from the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) to provide architects and builders with a catalogue of crop-derived building materials along with details of performance, environmental specification and availability.

Government Procurement

  The Forum believes that government procurement may have a key role to play in encouraging the use of crop-derived materials. By using such innovative materials on the government estate and in government funded projects a substantial market could be created, which would increase awareness and confidence in these materials. By committing itself to viable crop-derived materials the Government could send a clear signal to the industry, thus stimulating research and development.

  Widespread government procurement may ultimately help to drive down cost by increasing the size of the sector. Cost remains an issue for crop-derived materials, as these materials are often at an early stage of their development and do not benefit from the economies of scale and written down capital costs that conventional materials often enjoy. We understand that Defra are currently looking at opportunities to incorporate crop-derived materials into forthcoming procurement directives.

  The Forum would be pleased to discuss these issues further with the Committee, or to suggest further sources of information.

May 2004

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