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Non-food Crops

There is an agricultural revolution taking place within the British countryside with farmers being encouraged to take a fresh look at what they produce and how it is produced. One major aspect of this diversification that seems to have been generally overlooked is the area of non-food crops.

There is nothing new in the use of plants to give us everyday products, for example cotton for clothing, sunflower oil for cooking, hemp for rope and wool for clothes. 
With the pressure for industry to become more environmentally sustainable, there is great interest is using products that are renewable and in some case reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. These are plants such as wheat, oilseed rape and willow that are grown for industrial use for plastics, oils and biofuels. As natural products they reduce CO2 emissions and are also biodegradable which will cut down on problems of waste disposal. However, there are industries with existing investments who are resistant to change, don’t understand the new technology and are unwilling to establish new processes. Until there is demand for the products there are also supply chain issues.

 

The table summarises the key plants involved, gives examples of the products that can be made and identifies some of the opportunities or constraints.

 

Types of non-food crops

 

Type

Description

Examples of plants used

Opportunities

Constraints

Oil seeds

Already extensively used for paints, polymers, lubricants, solvents, sealants, health & personal care

Linseed, maize, rape, soy, flax, crambe & calendula

  • Plants give many oils difficult / expensive to make synthetically
  • Wide range of applications
  • Biodegradable
  • Production is carbon neutral
  • Would need to grow more oil seed crops such as rape
  • Cost v synthetic oils
  • Technology designed for the petrochemical industry
  • Would need to grow more oil seed crops such as rape
  • Cost v synthetic oils
  • Technology designed for the petrochemical industry

Fibres

Natural fibres can outperform synthetics. Many uses in building materials, car components and hygiene products.

Cotton, coconut, hemp, jute, sisal, wood, miscanthus, cereal straw

  • Can replace toxic alternatives such as asbestos and fibreglass
  • Can be composted not landfilled
  • Extracting the fibres can be difficult
  • Non renewable competition is mature
  • Issues of supply
  • Biodegradability can be a disadvantage in some situations.
  • Extracting the fibres can be difficult
  • Non renewable competition is mature
  • Issues of supply
  • Biodegradability can be a disadvantage in some situations.

Carbohydrates

Products such as starch are already extensively used in paper and board and its derivatives in pharmaceuticals, packaging and cosmetics.

Cassava, potato, sugar beet, sugar cane , maize, rye, barley, oats, wheat, peas

  • Synthesis and storage of plant carbohydrates are carbon neutral
  • Opportunities as plastics and detergents
  • Can have new functionalities e.g. slow release
  • Biodegradable
  • Starch based plastics need more development
  • Biodegradability can be a disadvantage in some situations.
  • Segregating biodegradable waste plastics may be an issue
  • Starch based plastics need more development
  • Biodegradability can be a disadvantage in some situations.
  • Segregating biodegradable waste plastics may be an issue

 

Based on information produced by the National Non-Food Crops Centre (see Resources for Learning)

The National Non Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) is an excellent starting point for information about this topic. Their site can be found at:
www.nnfcc.co.uk

 

Why are plant based materials a good thing?

Apart from nuclear energy, all available energy come indirectly from the sun and if it is used efficiently less fossil fuel will be consumed. Plants use energy from the sun for photosynthesis to make all the necessary complicated molecules such as starches they need for growth. When the plants have been harvested, these complex molecules can be broken down and turned into products such as plastics and fuel.

Any CO2 released by manufacture or burning of fuel is the same CO2 that the plant used for photosynthesis. Therefore the level of CO2 in the atmosphere does not rise so it does not contribute to more global warming. When these products are not wanted any more they can be recycled or composted back into CO2, water and plant nutrients. Of course no cycle is perfect, so energy and material is lost but it is better than the ways things are done now.

 

Case Studies:

 

From Field to Fibreboard
This case study looks at the growing of elephant grass which is being used for a range of purposes such as fuel and fibreboard. Read more…

 

From Grass to Grid

This case study looks at a power station which is using straw and other crops to make electricity. Read more…