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.