Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


6.1 If a product derived from non-food crops has performance or price advantages over its competitors then it is likely to find a commercial market. Even after the recent recovery in the price of oil, there are not many applications for which agricultural products are likely to be competitive with hydrocarbon-based products on price alone. However, there are some plant-based products which have particular characteristics which may warrant their use, even if they bring no immediate commercial benefit to the user. Such characteristics may make it possible to meet environmental or sustainability policy objectives or may represent the leading edge of a major new technology. In these cases there may be sound public policy reasons why the technology should be supported. We have therefore looked at some of the policy objectives which might encourage the use of non-food crops.

Environment policies

6.2 There is a broad group of objectives concerned with global warming and a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases, in particular of CO2. Many of these overlap with policies for sustainable development. In 1997, a European White Paper set the objective that 12 per cent of primary energy should come from renewable sources by 2010. The United Kingdom White Paper Energy Sources for Power Generation of October 1998[22] identified a central policy objective of Government to "ensure secure, diverse, and sustainable supplies of energy at competitive prices". The Government recognised that energy from renewable sources would be an important element in securing objectives relating to both diversity and sustainability.

6.3 In March 1999 DTI published a Consultation Document on renewable energy New and Renewable Energy, Prospects for the 21st Century which made the following points:

  • the Government are committed to a strong drive to develop renewable energy;
  • renewables have a key role to play in contributing to secure, diverse and sustainable energy supply;
  • the Government are working towards renewable energy providing 10 per cent of electricity supplies and hope to achieve this by 2010. The Government are already on target to achieve 5 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2003;
  • when renewables become competitive they will be able to take their place alongside fossil fuel sources in the open market for electricity.

6.4 The DETR Climate Change Consultation Paper of October 1998 noted that a 10 per cent contribution to electricity supplies from renewables might deliver carbon savings of 7.4 million tonnes. This represents about 25 per cent of the carbon savings needed to meet the Government's manifesto commitment. The present DTI energy projections for the United Kingdom show United Kingdom energy levels in 2010 ranging from 3 per cent below to 6 per cent above 1990 levels. It is likely that all measures listed in the DETR Consultation Paper will need to be implemented if CO2 reductions are to be achieved.

6.5 Thus in its policies for CO2 reduction and sustainability the Government have already set policy objectives to which non-food crops could contribute, e.g. as biomass for electricity generation. The Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) contributes to the achievement of these policy objectives. Generators using renewable sources compete for contracts to supply energy under the NFFO. This means that renewable sources compete with each other, with the lowest cost source winning. In many cases, this will be wind power which itself raises other environmental issues. This policy may not be effective in encouraging the development of other technologies with potential in the longer term, despite the fact that a contribution is likely to be needed from a wide range of renewable energy sources.

6.6 There are other measures for environmental protection which can have a direct impact on the market for non-food crops, for example the legislation restricting the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs): see Box 6.

Box 6

VOC emissions legislation

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are one of the key ingredients in the reactions that produce ozone in photochemical air pollution episodes. The high concentrations of ozone that can be created at ground level during such episodes have a damaging effect on the health of humans and plants. Reductions in VOC emissions from human activity (e.g. evaporated solvents and unburnt automotive fuel) have been advocated as a method of reducing photochemical ozone production.

Ozone is often formed some distance downwind of where the pollutants are released and certain meteorological conditions (especially persistent anticyclones) can result in harmful concentrations of ozone building up over a very large area. The problem, therefore, can transcend national boundaries and UK policy has recognised this.

In 1994, the United Kingdom ratified the VOC Protocol to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe's (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, which involves a commitment to reduce overall VOC emissions to 30 per cent below 1988 levels before the end of 1999. An EU Solvents Directive has also been adopted that covers industrial, but not domestic, uses of solvents that are emitted as VOCs. This means that, for example, the VOC emissions resulting from the manufacture of paint and the use of paint on industrial sites ar restricted, but emissions from DIY or trade uses of paint are not. A further EU directive is currently being prepared that is expected to cover domestic and trade uses of paint and varnish.

6.7 Legislation relating to the use of recyclable materials, particularly in packaging, can lead to considerably greater use of products derived from non-food crops. The United Kingdom legislation on packaging (see Box 7) provides no such incentive but we were told at MAFF Central Science Laboratory (see Appendix 3) that in Germany legislation provides a strong incentive to develop biodegradable material.

Box 7

Packaging waste regulations

In 1997, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions introduced legislation to implement the EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste. The legislation aimed to achieve a more sustainable approach to packaging waste, to reduce the amount of material going to landfill, and to make all parts of the packaging chain share the responsibility of dealing with waste.

The legislation defines packaging as "all products made of any materials of any nature to be used for the containment, protection, handling, delivery and presentation of goods". The specific targets are to ensure that, by 2001, 50-65 per cent of packaging waste (by weight) will be recovered, and that 25-45 per cent of all packaging will be recycled, with a minimum of 15 per cent for any given type of packaging material.

There is a hierarchy of preferred outcomes:

·  to reduce the amount of packaging that is used;

·  to re-use more packaging;

·  to recycle more packaging materials.

Of the material that ends up in landfill sites, no distinction is made between long-lived materials and those which are readily biodegraded.

Innovation policies

6.8 Quite distinct from policies relating to sustainability and the environment are those intended to encourage innovation and the development of new technology. Much evidence was presented to us relating to the potential of non-food crops for a range of applications, from low volume products, e.g. pharmaceuticals, to entirely novel ways of producing chemical feedstocks in the "roofless factory". Some of these ideas seem distant possibilities but we find it entirely plausible that advances in biotechnology could lead to significant changes in the way a whole range of products, from feedstock to speciality chemicals, is produced. Faced with the possibility of changes of such magnitude in industries where the United Kingdom has a major stake, especially in areas of research where we are amongst the world leaders, it should be a matter of public policy to evaluate and encourage the development of these technologies.

Life-Cycle Assessment

6.9 Different views have been expressed as to the environmental benefits of growing non-food crops and the extent to which non-food crops contribute to the achievement of policy objectives. It is important that these views are properly considered and evaluated. We heard evidence on Life-Cycle Assessment (QQ 313 - 364) as a tool to aggregate together all the environmental effects associated with a product or process by quantifying energy and material inputs and wastes released into the environment[23]. For products derived from non-food crops, assessments can cover the entire life cycle: growing the crop, processing the raw materials, distribution and final disposal. When combined with a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, Life-Cycle Assessments offer a way of evaluating the externalities - that is, effects which are not captured in the market price.

6.10 The technique was initially developed in a factory environment but considerable effort has gone into widening its application and to standardising the technique. Yet this work has usually concentrated on single processes, such as in the context of waste management, rather than on inter-process comparisons; and assessments have tended to relate to a particular process in a specific location. Further work will be needed in developing approaches that can take into account such aspects as biodiversity and visual amenity which are important in evaluating the overall contribution of non-food crops as sources of raw materials.

6.11 Life-Cycle Assessments of energy crops, both in the United Kingdom and in other European countries, have pointed to environmental advantages of energy crops over fossil fuels. However, the financial costs are much higher. Much further work is needed to arrive at robust valuations of the externalities which would make such techniques of greater value to decision-makers.

22   Cm 4071. Back

23   A detailed description of Life-Cycle Assessment was provided by the University of Bath, p222. Back

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