Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


2.1 Soils and climate in the United Kingdom are suitable for growing a wide range of non­food crops. Until the 20th century, plants were an important source of raw materials for household and industry use in the United Kingdom; vegetable oils were used for making soap and as lamp oil and lubricants, flax was grown for textiles, hemp was used for making ropes and sacking, and short rotation coppice was used for charcoal. Agricultural products also provided cereals and hay for horses, which were the major source of locomotive power both within agriculture and more widely.

2.2 However, since those times, there have been many changes. Traditional uses of non­food crops have been largely replaced by products based on fossil fuels. Nevertheless there are diverse possible uses for plant products outside traditional food markets. A list of applications of non-food crops and the plant varieties that contain suitable materials is given in Box 1.

Box 1 Examples of non-food crops, classified by end-use
AGROCHEMICALS: Spurge, pyrethrum, annual wormwood, caraway, quinoa
BOARD, COMPOSITES, BUILDING AND INSULATION MATERIALS: Hemp, flax, kenaf, cotton, common reed, miscanthus, sunflower
CORDAGE AND SACKING: Hemp, kenaf, nettle
COSMETICS AND TOILETRIES: Amaranth, caraway, linseed, evening primrose, jojoba, pot marigold, coriander, bugloss
DYES: Woad, madder, safflower
ENERGY AND FUELS: Oilseed rape (OSR), sunflower, willow, miscanthus (elephant grass), poplar, reeds, spurge, cordgrasses
INDUSTRIAL RAW MATERIALS: OSR, sunflower, castor, chicory, crambe, kenaf
LUBRICANTS AND WAXES: OSR, linseed, spurge, rain daisy, honesty, meadowfoam
PAINTS, COATINGS AND VARNISHES: Pot marigold, rain daisy, stokes aster, hemp
PAPER AND PULP: Hemp, flax, kenaf, miscanthus
PHARMACEUTICAL PRODUCTS AND NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS: Amaranth, caraway, borage, honesty, hemp, meadowfoam, linseed, evening primrose, mallows, field scabious
PLASTICS AND POLYMERS: Honesty, castor, meadowfoam
RESINS AND ADHESIVES: Rain daisy, stokes aster
SOAPS, DETERGENTS, SURFACTANTS, SOLVENTS AND EMULSIFIERS: Coriander, hemp, spurge, cuphea, poppy, gold of pleasure, castor, quinoa
TEXTILES: Hemp, flax, nettle
Source: Crops for Industry and Energy in Europe (European Commission 1997).

2.3 The relative importance of potential markets for non­food crops is indicated in Box 2.

2.4 The emphasis of the CAP has been on support for food rather than non-food crops. Certain non-food crops, notably linseed, have also been encouraged under the regime. The non­food crops grown in the United Kingdom that use significant areas of land are oilseeds, such as linseed and high erucic acid oilseed rape, fibres such as hemp and fibre flax, and energy crops such as short rotation coppice (SRC) (Box 3). Of these, hemp and flax fibre depend on a specific support regime and, apart from linseed, most of the other crops are grown only on set aside land. Some food crops, such as cereals and potatoes, provide raw materials (starch) for non­food purposes but information is not available on the precise areas grown for this purpose. The total area devoted to non­food crops in the United Kingdom is thought to be less than 5 per cent of the total area of arable land (6.3 million hectares), although it may be rising.

Box 3

Areas of Non­Food Crops in the United Kingdom, 1998
Oilseeds (on set aside land) for industrial use
Fibre flax and hemp
Short rotation coppice
Source: MAFF, SOAFED, DANI, WO, Agriculture in the United Kingdom 1998, Table 2.2 (TSO 1999)

2.5 Similarly, non­food crops currently make only a modest contribution to the total value of agricultural output. Because of the competition from alternative raw materials and from imports, the value of the main non­food crops is rarely higher than that of food crops. Some non-food crops supplying raw materials for niche markets, such as cosmetics and healthcare, are of high value and profitable to the farmer and processor, but the areas are not currently large. It is almost certain that the current value of the non-food crop sector does not reflect the economic contribution, or the potential scientific and environmental contribution, which these crops could make.

2.6 But there are now signs of a resurgence of interest and indications that non­food crops could provide the basis for new industries. Certainly, there is adequate agricultural land, with arable land accounting for one­third of the total agricultural area (Box 4). With the continuing decline of the agricultural sector[4], non­food crops could provide welcome opportunities for diversification and increased economic activity in rural areas.

Box 4

Agricultural Land Use in the United Kingdom, 1998
000 hectares
Percentage of total
Total agricultural area
Grass and rough grazing
Total arable
Of which
Oilseeds (mainly for food use)
Set aside
Source: MAFF, SOAFED, DANI, WO, Agriculture in the United Kingdom, 1998, Table 2.1 (TSO, 1999)

2.7 In 1990, the European Commission issued a report on non­food crops, and the Select Committee on the European Communities of this House reported on non-food uses of agricultural products in 1991. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) produced a report Alternatives in Agriculture in 1995[5] and updated this with POST Note 125 in 1999. These reports have been essential starting points for our inquiry and in the rest of this chapter we comment on aspects of these as well as some recent developments.

Commission Report to Council, January 1990

2.8 The European Commission, in a report to the Council of Ministers in January  1990[6] on the use of agricultural commodities in the non-food sector, noted that "the structural imbalances between the supply and demand for agricultural products and the intense competition which this provokes in the Community and world markets, justify an important effort in this area". The Commission's report examined the scope for developing agricultural structure policy in a such a way as to encourage farmers' participation in developing products for the non-food industries. From its review of the Community's activities, it concluded that there were a number of important programmes supporting and inciting the processing industries to develop non-food uses of agricultural raw material but noted that there was a lack of instruments which encouraged the active participation of farmers. It concluded that, amongst other measures, the set aside scheme for arable land should be adapted to encourage the development of other new models of land use.

2.9 The Commission added that "It is evident from the foregoing review that the Community's commitment to non-food production from agriculture is already important and is seen in a wide variety of policies. It is nevertheless also evident that these policies are somewhat independent of one another. It has now become necessary to reinforce the Community's role and achieve a more effective concentration of effort".

Select Committee Report, February 1991

2.10 When the Select Committee on the European Communities examined non­food uses of agricultural products in February 1991, in the context of a previous round of CAP reform, it observed that "in the absence of clear commercial benefits, there are few reasons for industry to seek new sources of raw materials. Up until now hydrocarbons have been a plentiful and cheap source of energy supplies and chemicals… The consequence has been a lack of incentive in industry to diversify into the use of agricultural products… The evidence we received about the technical and economic potential of agricultural products for industrial use gives no grounds for any expectation that large new markets will soon appear" (paragraphs 94-96).

2.11 When considering environmental implications, it noted that there appeared to be a common assumption that use of agricultural raw materials for industrial purposes will be environmentally beneficial but that more research was needed before industrial use of agricultural products could be put forward as a "green option". However, the report noted that "use of agricultural materials in place of hydrocarbons will certainly contribute to reductions in CO2 and SO2 emissions, while they may also contribute to savings in net energy use" (paragraph 103).

2.12 The European Communities Committee also expressed the view that it would be premature to develop schemes to support any large­scale expansion in the production of agricultural crops for industry, either through subsidies or through market measures. "Such schemes might merely serve to perpetuate the subsidised over-supply of agricultural commodities in the Community and create artificial distortions in the industrial sector at very high cost". Furthermore, while noting that the set aside scheme would enable farmers to obtain subsidies to grow crops for industrial purposes, rather than grow nothing at all, the Committee did not, on balance, consider that industrial set aside would be a profitable course to pursue. It "would merely transfer into the agro-industrial sector the kind of protectionist measures which most people wish to see reduced in the CAP". The Commission, in its evidence to the Committee, stated, "Reductions in support prices are precisely what is needed in order to develop new markets, non-food or food".

2.13 The European Communities Committee felt that, in the first instance, support should be restricted to research, development and demonstration projects which integrated agricultural and industrial concerns. It went on to note that "in the absence of pressing strategic arguments to the contrary, industry is understandably reluctant to invest in research, particularly into novel manufacturing or processing techniques, with such poor prospects of short-term application. But without such research, the full economic and environmental implications cannot properly be assessed, nor can a dialogue be established between the industrial and agricultural sectors over the optimum characteristics of the feedstocks required".


2.14 In its January 1995 Report Alternatives in Agriculture - Growing Crops for Industrial, Energy and Other Non-Food Uses, POST noted that "interest in non-food crops has re-awakened and their potential as raw materials for industry, as energy sources, and for other uses is being evaluated in several countries". This re-awakening of interest stemmed partly from technological advances, partly from prospective environmental benefits, e.g. CO2 reduction, but mainly from changes to the CAP and the introduction of set aside. The key issue which POST identified was whether non-food crops offered a real economic opportunity or were attractive only because of the distorting effects of CAP payments and rules.

Post Note 125

2.15 In March 1999, at our request, POST produced a Note which looked at developments in non-food crops since the 1995 report. This noted changes in the production of non-food crops, for example increases in linseed and oilseed rape and significant growth in flax and hemp production because of higher subsidy levels. Again the possible environmental benefits of non-food crops, particularly energy crops, were itemised and possible dis-benefits, for example increased water demand, were identified. The 1999 Note repeated the conclusion, "the overall environmental advantages compared with using more conventional materials are not self-evident".


2.16 The Alternative Crops Technology Interaction Network (ACTIN) is an industry-led initiative, set up in 1995, to promote the use of raw materials derived from agricultural crops as sustainable, biodegradable and CO2 neutral replacements for petrochemical feedstocks. It encourages collaboration between researchers and the agricultural industry and, as a member of the Interactive European Network for Industrial Crops and their Applications (IENICA), builds networking opportunities throughout Europe. Details are available on ACTIN's website:


2.17 One of the sixteen panels of the United Kingdom Government's original Foresight programme was Agriculture, Horticulture and Forestry. The panel published a report on crop production (August 1998) which dealt briefly with non-food crops. When considering market and other opportunities, it noted that changes in crops grown in the United Kingdom are driven by factors including alternative uses of crops such as industrial uses and energy.

2.18 The new Food Chain and Crops for Industry Foresight Panel has now set up six task forces to focus on the future of industrial crops. They will examine the potential of crop-based industrial products and consider the research and development needed to underpin new products and processes. The six task forces are:

Information about the work of the task forces will be published on the Internet in the Foresight Knowledge Pool ([7].

4   Agriculture's contribution to gross domestic product has continued to fall and is provisionally estimated at £7.3 billion for 1998, around 1 per cent of GDP. Similarly, the workforce in agriculture, at 615,000, represents only some 2.3 per cent of the total in employment.  Back

5   POST, Alternatives in Agriculture - Growing crops for industrial, energy and non-food purposes, January 1995. Back

6   COM (89) 597 final, Brussels, 23 January 1990. Back

7   See MAFF News Release 340/99, 7 October 1999. Back

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