The question of non-food crops from agriculture is as old as farming itself. The traditional role of agriculture to supply food, fuel and fibre varies with technological and fashion developments. Wool was of course the primary, original example. Meat was almost a byproduct and great fortunes around the world were built on the wool industry. With the development of oil-based synthetics, especially in clothing and carpets, the wool sector is a shadow of its former self.
Agriculture’s role as a provider of fuel has also varied over time. Originally the trees simply grew and wood provided and still provides a valuable fuel source.
Until recently, grain was never seen as a real fuel for heat and electricity generation – that has now changed with the US having a legal system that compels all petrol to have a corn (maize) produced proportion of ethanol in the blend.
The US system is straightforward and easily understood and, at one stage, up to 40% of the maize crop was producing ethanol for transport, though it should be added with a valuable byproduct – corn gluten produced as an animal feed. The same principles apply in Brazil with its sugar industry.
The EU has dithered and changed direction several times in its attitudes to biofuels which, from a grain farmer’s point of view is a pity – but should farmers and policymakers be lifting their sights?
There is now a realisation that plastics that do not break down are causing permanent and damaging pollution. We know that the gluten found in wheat can be used to make plastic that is biodegradable and photo- (light) degradable. In other words, it is naturally broken down and if it gets into the oceans, it is not picked up in several years’ time as food for wildlife.
We have seen this biodegradable plastic used, for example, in the sheeting used for maize so it’s not inordinately expensive. At this stage, we have the head of Coca-Cola and other consumer goods manufacturers agonising about how a return to glass bottles is unthinkable and how they will phase out plastic bottles intended to be used only once.
Now is the time for a major international research effort to develop a whole suite of biodegradable plastic containers from agricultural products. Here, the Department and Teagasc have significant research funds – we should co-ordinate a European effort using the strong French research body INRA as well as the UK and Germany to come up with a real plastic alternative and portray agriculture as a major positive environmental contributor.