Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


1.1 At the start of our inquiry in February, the Agenda 2000 proposals for further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) seemed likely to make significant changes to market support for some of the main agricultural products grown in the European Union (EU). We were concerned as to whether these changes would have particular consequences for non-food crops. Would they inhibit innovations in science and technology, which might lead to the introduction of new industrial products or to environmental improvements by the substitution of renewable for non-renewable resources?

1.2 Non-food crops considered in this report include all agricultural crop products that could be used by industries other than the food industry, with the exception of timber, tobacco and horticultural products. We have considered only crops grown deliberately for industrial use; we have not considered industrial use of agricultural waste[1].

1.3 An objective of the original Agenda 2000 proposals was to cut market support so that the gap between EU internal prices and world prices would be reduced, providing both food and non-food industries with more competitive raw materials. Direct income support for arable crops would be given as non-crop-specific area payments, the compulsory set aside rate[2] would be fixed at 0 per cent, and no new crops would be eligible for subsidy. As a significant proportion of non-food crops are planted on set aside land and farmers are unlikely to introduce new crops unless returns at least match those for existing crops, the impact of these proposals on non-food crop production in the EU could have been significant.

1.4 But the potential difficulty for non-food crop growers from the CAP reforms was not our sole concern, however significant those reforms might be. Our interest also lay in the implications of EU and national policy for advances in biology, biotechnology and technological developments more generally. Are these advances, which might allow processes currently undertaken by conventional chemistry[3] to be achieved by cultivation and/or genetic modification of plants, being impeded by regulation and by a failure to recognise the contribution that such products can make to the achievement of policy objectives? We were especially interested in the implications for the use of plant products as fuel or in sustainable and biodegradable products, and in new applications of plant-based material.

1.5 In March 1999, after a long period of negotiation, agreement on the Agenda 2000 proposals was finally reached at the European Council in Berlin. These represented a considerably less radical reform than had been envisaged. In particular, cuts in support prices were more modest and it was agreed that the default rate of compulsory set aside would be set at 10 per cent until 2006. But this amounted to a delay rather than a reversal of the pressures that had triggered our inquiry. The focus of our inquiry therefore shifted to the question of the best use of this breathing space. Would it allow time for the evolution and testing of new technologies that could, in the long term, prove economic and advantageous to the United Kingdom? Or would the perpetuation of subsidies, driven by an outdated and time-limited food policy, stifle innovation and inhibit the development of new technologies?

Structure of Inquiry

1.6 The emphasis of much recent work on non-food crops has been to consider alternative uses for agricultural products. We have looked at the other side of the same coin, the technological opportunities presented to industry by non-food crops. This has meant that our focus has been different from that of previous reports. We have examined the potential of crops to produce materials that could lead to new industries or to innovative ways of meeting existing demands. We have not examined alternative uses of land, for example for amenity purposes or housing. Although these may represent significant opportunities for diversification for farmers, they are different from the innovative processes for industry we wished to examine.

1.7 This inquiry was conducted by Sub-Committee I (see Appendix 1). They issued a call for evidence in February 1999 inviting submissions on the general economic potential of these crops and their role as replacements for less renewable resources. We asked in particular for evidence on environmental and ecological implications and for the role of Life-Cycle Assessment. In our call for evidence, and at almost every oral hearing, a question was asked about disincentives or regulatory barriers to the development of non-food crops.

1.8 Written evidence was received from forty-seven organisations or individuals and oral evidence was taken at ten meetings. We would like to thank the many individuals and organisations who responded to the call for evidence, and those who presented oral evidence; they are listed in Appendix 2. We are most grateful to them for their time and effort. We also wish to express our thanks to those whom we visited, in particular those involved with Project ARBRE, the MAFF Central Science Laboratory, the Biology Department of the University of York, and Croda Universal Limited in Hull (notes of these visits are in Appendix 3). We would like to thank them all for their time, their hospitality and their patience with us over the many changes in arrangements that had to be made. We would also like to thank the staff of the United Kingdom Permanent Representation in Brussels and staff of the European Commission for their assistance during our visit to Brussels. Particular thanks go to our Specialist Adviser John Slater, former Chief Economist, MAFF, whose experience and expertise with agricultural support programmes has been invaluable.

1   Though the use of forest waste for energy generation is mentioned. Back

2   The proportion of arable land which a farmer must set aside to qualify for arable area payments.  Back

3   By taking small molecules and synthesising more complex ones for producing specific products. Back

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