Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


25 November 1999

  By the Select Committee appointed to consider Science and Technology




  Most of the agricultural land of the United Kingdom is devoted to food production, through crop cultivation or grazing for livestock. A small but significant proportion, however, is used for the cultivation of crops used by other industries. Although some of these "non-food crops" - for example, hemp and flax - have a history as long as cereal production, others are quite novel or are being grown for novel purposes ranging from energy generation to the manufacture of pharmaceutical products. Exciting possibilities include, for example, the development of plant-derived vaccines, and speciality chemicals for industrial use that may be prohibitively difficult and expensive to synthesise. Indeed, the opportunities offered by advances in plant biochemistry to generate renewable materials that could replace products synthesised from mineral oil are almost limitless.

  The combination of pressures on the food production sector and scientific advances is causing increasing attention to be directed towards the potential of the non-food sector. However, our inquiry found that the development of new industries is inhibited by a number of factors. The system of financial support for crop cultivation - under the Common Agricultural Policy - is directed towards food production. While some non-food crops do enjoy a significant degree of support under the CAP, this is largely as a by-product of the cereals regime and is not therefore well-focused on the development of new industries. When we began our inquiry, it seemed possible that major reform of the CAP was finally under way. In the event, major reform has been put back to the middle of the next decade, but we consider it essential that the Government should use the period before further reform to evaluate the potential for the growth of new non-food industries, and the appropriate regime for them.

  The second problem we identified is that these industries fall between several Whitehall stools. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not of course responsible for energy policy, or for environmental policies, or for industrial innovation. There is a grave danger that research and development may be concentrated on crops which may appear to have significant potential in terms of land use, but whose output has no clear place in the priorities of other departments. At the same time, there is an equal and opposite danger that other departments may maintain regulatory regimes or policy strategies that inhibit the development of viable industries. We are, for example, concerned at the excessive regulation surrounding the growth of industrial hemp, and believe that the hierarchy of objectives for waste management gives too little encouragement to the development of biodegradable packaging from non-food crops.

  In order to achieve more co-ordinated thinking about the potential for these industries we conclude that it is imperative that they should have a ministerial "champion" in the shape of the Minister for Science. Britain has a leading position in the field of research for pharmaceutical and other products, and we believe it is important that this should be maintained.

  We believe it should be the responsibility of the Minister for Science to chair an inter-departmental committee, supported by the Office of Science and Technology. This should involve all interested departments, to ensure not merely that their policies are compatible but that they are focused on the potential of these crops to form the basis of new industries. We hope that this modest proposal for improvement in the policy framework will not fall foul of departmental inertia.

  A third and parallel problem we identified is a similar need for more co-ordination of policy at the level of the European Commission, and we urge the Government to press for a more coherent European approach, with emphasis on the support of a co-ordinated research programme. We are particularly concerned that this should be concentrated not merely on the development of new crops, but on the handling and processing techniques essential to their industrial exploitation.

  The fourth set of issues we identified relate to the environmental impact of these crops. Their development offers important environmental benefits, enabling natural, renewable and biodegradable materials to be substituted for synthetic materials whose production involves substantial use of non-renewable resources, and whose disposal may be difficult and costly. On the other hand, some developments depend on techniques such as genetic modification which themselves raise serious environmental concerns. Detailed research and careful analysis of the environmental costs and benefits of these novel crops is essential. This is a further important reason why there is a need for "joined-up thinking" in this area, with the Minister for Science accepting responsibility to lead an informed debate.

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