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van Soest, L.J.M. 1993. New crop development in Europe. p. 30-38. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

New Crop Development in Europe

Louis J.M. van Soest

    1. Domesticated or Partly Domesticated Oilseeds
    2. Oilseed Crops
    3. Breeding Research
    1. Starch
    2. Sugars
  8. Table 1
  9. Table 2
  10. Table 3
  11. Table 4
  12. Table 5
  13. Table 6
  14. Fig. 1

This paper summarizes the present activities on new crop development, particularly industrial crops in Europe. As Europe consists of more than 25 countries, this overview only briefly summarizes some of the continents new crops activities. The paper will mainly concentrate on plant exploration and primary production considerations of potential industrial crops, in the European Communities. The new crop programs in The Netherlands will receive special attention. Although several East European countries have a long history in industrial crop research, this paper will only deal briefly with developments in this part of Europe.

The surpluses of the major agricultural food crops in Europe have increased interest in new directions for the utilization of agricultural land. Options which have been taken in consideration and partly realized are: set aside programs, reforestation, biomass production for energy, land for recreation and nature preservation, and the production of agricultural feedstocks for industrial utilization. Since the second part of the 1980s, the Commission of the European Communities (EC) and several European governments, have stimulated research programs to develop crops for the production of renewable resources for industrial application (EC 1990; Raymond and Larvor 1985; von Wüllerstorff 1990). In The Netherlands, the narrow crop rotation and the intensive high input farming has caused large pressures of pests and diseases, particularly soil born pests like cyst nematodes and fungal diseases. New crops could reduce this pressure and broaden the present rotation.

Private breeding firms in most of the EC countries are responsible for the cultivar development of established crops. Cultivar development of new crops is considered a risk investment and therefore governmental institutes in Europe are responsible for both genetic research and cultivar development.


There are four types of new crop development programs in Europe:

Agro-industrial Programs, established and co-financed by the EC, are "pre-competitive" research programs in the areas of agro-industry (EC 1990). Participation is required by two or more countries, including research in the field of primary production, industrial processing, transformations and utilization of biological feedstocks. Participation of private enterprises is sometimes required. Some of the EC programs include development of new potential crops, such as: Cuphea, jojoba, crambe, meadowfoam, castor bean, coriander, Dimorphotheca pluvialis (L.) Moench, Euphorbia lagascae Spreng., high erucic rape, high oleic sunflower, flax, Miscanthus, sweet sorghum, Jerusalem artichoke, and lupines.

Bilateral Programs are not common but are carried out on an informal basis between countries. These include exchange of information and germplasm.

National Programs have been established in several European countries in which universities and agricultural research institutes are working on new crops. Several new crop research programs with a duration of four years have been developed in the Netherlands (Table 1). In the Federal Republic of Germany programs are carried out on new oilseed crops such as coriander, marigold, Euphorbia spp., high erucic rape, and honesty (Röbbelen 1987; Wittmeyer 1990). Other new crops under investigation in Germany include Jerusalem artichoke, root chicory, sweet sorghum, and Miscanthus. In the United Kingdom, a new national program for the development of Chenopodium quinoa Willd. was initiated. An overview of a number of potential new crops investigated in Europe is illustrated in Fig. 1. Several countries in South Europe (France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal) are exploring the possibilities to introduce new crops, such as kenaf, castor bean, jojoba, Cuphea, and guayule, for the Mediterranean basin.

Industrial Programs are carried out by the private sector. Some industries are looking into the possibilities to develop new crops for the production of pharmaceutical, aromatic, and bioactive compounds. Research in this area is sometimes conducted with private breeding firms (e.g. evening primrose) but also on contract basis with governmental institutes. Information on these programs is often difficult to obtain.

Plant exploration and primary production is presently receiving high emphasis in European new crop programs, although several programs also involve characterization and processing of the desirable compounds (Table 2, 3, 5, and 6). Programs within the framework of the EC-ECLAIR (European Collaborative Linkage of Agriculture and Industry through Research) need to have industrial partners where research on processing and application of potential products forms an integral part of the program. These EC research programs are aiming to improve the interface between agriculture and industry (EC 1990). In 1992, the EC will start a new research and technological development program in the field of Agriculture and Agro-Industry. This program with a duration of three of four years encompasses crop diversification, particularly for non-food production.

Several new crops for industrial use have considerable of interest for Europe. The status of development varies from crop to crop and the opportunities to commercialize them depends particularly on the degree of domestication of the crop, the economic perspective of cultivation for farmers, and the interest of industries in the raw materials. Crops producing vegetable oils for industrial use, fibers for paper production as well as cellulose, and carbohydrates for industrial sugars and starches have been selected for further domestication. A number of pharmaceutical, aromatic, and medicinal crops are under investigation.


Most of the oilseed crops under investigation in Europe produce special fatty acids. These include more or less domesticated crops like high erucic rapeseed and high oleic sunflower as well as those which need further domestication (Table 2, 3). The common feature of these oilseed crops is that the unique fatty acids in the oil are present in high amounts, sometimes up to 80%.

The production of bio-diesel from oilseed crops, particularly rapeseed, has been under discussion in several countries in Europe.

Domesticated or Partly Domesticated Oilseeds

High erucic rape seed (Brassica napus L.) and high oleic sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) are now commercially grown in some European countries. The area of these crops, however, does not exceed 10,000 ha. Breeding programs have been established to enhance the erucic acid level of rapeseed above 50% and to increase the percentage oil of high oleic sunflower.

Linseed production in Europe, particularly Great Britain, increased tremendously from 20,000 ha in 1989 to more than 120,000 ha in 1991.

Castor bean (Rinus communis L.) and jojoba [Simmondsia chinensis (Link) Schneid.] are not sufficiently domesticated for commercial cultivation in Europe, but research continues in several South European countries. According to Mignoni (1991) the first crop of jojoba was harvested in 1989 in Sicily, Italy. Coriander (Coriander sativum L.) is presently cultivated in Europe for aromatic, medicinal, and cosmetic purposes, however the seed-oil which contains about 80% petroselenic acid, has potential for the production of oleochemicals (Röbbelen 1987). The EC (Directorate General for Science, Research and Development-DG XII) is supporting demonstration projects of most of these more or less domesticated oilcrops particularly those with promising market possibilities such as erucic rapeseed, oleic sunflower, and castor bean (von Wüllerstorff 1990).

Oilseed Crops

Numerous new potential oilseed crops have been introduced and evaluated, particularly in Germany and The Netherlands (Meier zu Beerentrup and Röbbelen 1987; Röbbelen 1987; van Soest 1990; Mulder et al. 1991). Many produce unique fatty acids with functional groups or double bonds, but they need to be further domesticated to achieve commercialization. In The Netherlands some 40 different potential oilseed crops were introduced and evaluated in the period 1986-1989 (van Soest 1990). Meier zu Beerentrup (1986) tested nearly 50 potential vegetable oilcrops with unusual fatty acids in Germany. Breeding research in Germany concentrates now on Calendula officinalis L., Coriandrum sativum L., Cuphea spp., and Euphorbia spp. Similar programs with a limited and selected number of species which are based on experience in Germany and The Netherlands, are being conducted in Norway and the United Kingdom. Breeding research on these crops, however, is concentrated presently only on a selected group (Table 4). Data obtained in The Netherlands of some promising new oilseed crops are presented in Table 4.

Breeding Research

There are major agricultural constraints related to the domestication of the novel oilseed crops:
Current research in Europe is aimed at finding solutions to these constraints. Our breeding research at the Center for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research (CPRO-DLO), Wageningen, concentrates on further domestication of crops such as C. abyssinica, D. pluvialis, E. lagascae, and L. alba. One of the major problems is to locate sufficient variation in the available genepools for some of the constraints mentioned above. In general, the world-wide available germplasm of most of these new oilcrops is limited. Additional collection in the centers of origin is needed. Further domestication and genetic enhancement in the near future will obviously create new variation and broaden the available genepool. In C. abyssinica, a few new cultivars and lines have been developed during the last decades.


Potential new crops being explored in Europe include both starch and sugar producing crops for industrial use (Table 5). Some of these crops are often also considered to have potential for the production of biomass for renewable energy production.


Some research is underway on the pseudograin amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), but quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) has received the most attention (Galwey 1989; Risi 1986; van Soest 1987). Quinoa is considered a multipurpose agro-industrial crop. The grain may be utilized for human food ("health sector" and low diet flour products) and animal feedstocks because of its high nutritional value. The starch with its uniformly small granules has several potential industrial applications. Breeding for genetic adaptation is presently a major research objective in Europe. According to Risi and Galwey (1989), plant characters required for temperate agriculture are present to a large extent in the accessions from near sea level in southern-central Chile, but the seed characteristics are scattered throughout the germplasm. Further breeding of quinoa in Europe needs to concentrate on earliness, uniformity, higher yields and quality aspects of the protein, and physico-chemical properties of the starch. An advantage of quinoa in Europe is that the crop is not very susceptible to soil-born nematodes like beet cyst and root-knot nematodes. As such, it may be of great importance in narrow crop rotations as presently practiced in The Netherlands.


Two crops, Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.) and root chicory (Cichorium intybus L.) are sources of inulin which are stored in the tuber or root. Inulin can be transformed into fructose syrups by means of hydrolysis. Inulin can be used in food products as a low calory agent, whereas the fructose syrups can be used as a sweetener in beverages. Meanwhile application research is conducted to utilize inulin and possible derivates (furan chemistry) as industrial feedstock (Fuchs 1989). During the last 10 years breeding and crop improvement of H. tuberosus has intensified in Europe (Schittenhelm 1987; Spitters 1987; Mesken 1989). Meyer et al. (1991) studied the inulin production of both crops over a two-year period in The Netherlands and calculated inulin yields of Jerusalem artichoke from 4.5 to 8.3 t/ha, whereas root chicory produced 9.8 to 16.1 t/ha. Breeding of H. tuberosus in The Netherlands (CPRO-DLO) resulted in some 10 clones with inulin yields of 16 t/ha in 1989, but in the very dry year of 1990 only 7 t/ha (Toxopeus et al. 1991). Sugar industries in The Netherlands and Belgium recently selected root chicory as inulin-producing crop, and about 5,000 ha are expected to be cultivated in 1992 in both countries.

Sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor L.) is considered as an alternative low input crop for the Mediterranean areas and has also been tested in Germany (Anderlei et al. 1987). The crop can be used for syrup production, soft drinks, and confectionery, but also has potential for the production of renewable raw materials such as citric acid, and molasses for fermentation (Anderlei et al. 1987).

The production of ethanol from carbohydrate crops has been under discussion and several countries in Europe have conducted agronomic tests. The average yield of raw sugar of sweet sorghum cultivars tested in Germany from 1982 to 1986 was 8 t/ha. Anderlei et al. (1987) calculated that in Germany ethanol production of 5,770 liter/ha was feasible with sweet sorghum.


A number of fiber crops are cultivated or under development in Europe (Table 6). Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.) has been cultivated for thousands of years in Europe. During the last two decades the cultivation of fiber flax for linen declined substantially in several countries of Europe (Riensema et al. 1990). Meanwhile research is underway for alternative utilization of flax fibers such as composite panels, geotextiles, and reinforced plastics (Riensema et al. 1990). The research on flax in Europe concentrates on processing and application aspects for non-traditional outlets, but breeding is conducted to improve fiber yield and quality related characters (Marshall 1989).

Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) and kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus L.) are both considered as alternative fiber crops, particularly for paper pulp production. The development of kenaf is concentrated in the Mediterranean region in areas with subtropical climates, and focus on primary production (e.g. cultivar testing). Hemp is grown commercially in some East European countries, particularly for the production of textiles and rope, whereas a small area is cultivated in France for paper production. In Hungary, hemp hybrids have been developed with higher stem yield. In 1989, a large multidisciplinary research program to develop hemp as alternative fiber crop for paper pulp production started in The Netherlands. Besides disciplines dealing with primary production, studies on economic perspectives and processing research are included in this program. At CPRO-DLO, breeding research on hemp concentrates on developing efficient selection methods to increase stem yield and stem quality related properties such as bark (phloem fibers) content. Furthermore the development of genetic stocks with low levels of cannabinols, particularly D-9-THC and CBD is of importance for commercial cultivation as is work on optimizing growing and harvest techniques and pulping processes.

The perennial grass Miscanthus sinensis `Giganteus' and the annual sorghum Sorghum vulgare var. technica (broomcorn or fiber sorghum) are also evaluated in Europe as potential fiber crops (Nielsen 1987; Nimz and Pilz 1991). Total dry matter production of Miscanthus can reach 35 to 40 t/ha annually once the crops has been established (Frerichs 1991). Several research groups in northwest Europe are considering Miscanthus as possible energy crop (Knoblauch 1991; Rupp et al. 1991). The EC is developing demonstration projects of many fiber crops (Table 6).


A very large and diverse group of more or less domesticated crops are under investigation in Europe. This group can be divided in a number of subcategories:
Some of these crops are already cultivated, particularly in East Europe. All these specialty crops have limited acreage which can fluctuate tremendously due to uncertain markets. Most of these crops are of interest to individual farmers, but can however, only partly solve the structural problems of European Agriculture (Franz 1987).

Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.) was introduced in the UK some 15 years ago (Lapinskas 1989). In The Netherlands, the area of evening primrose was approximately 700 ha in the mid-1980s, declined to about 50 ha by the end of the decade, and now in 1991 about 1,000 ha were grown.

Caraway (Carum carvi L.) has grown in The Netherlands for the past 200 years on an area fluctuating from 100 to 10,000 ha. The seeds are mainly used in the bakery trade, and its essential oil for cosmetic products. A national Dutch R&D program started in 1990 to create new markets for carvone as the most important bioactive compound of the essential oil. Potentially, carvone can be used for the inhibition of sprouting of potatoes, as an insect repellant, and for the inhibition of fungal growth in cereals.


Over 100 potential new crops are presently being explored in Europe. Some of these crops are cultivated to a limited extent whereas others are only grown in the framework of demonstration projects. Interest in new crop development has increased tremendously in Europe during the last five years. The EC and national governments are stimulating and increasingly funding research programs to create alternatives for the surpluses of the major agricultural food crops.

Although expectations of the farmers are high, it will take years before a real breakthrough can be expected. Only a few crops have reached the stage that would permit commercialization in the next 5 or 10 years. Most of the crops discussed need to be further domesticated. Plant breeding for adaptation and particularly increase of yield stability should be given high priority in future research activities, as well as product development and marketing. After years of plant exploration and evaluation in several European countries, it is now time to select the most promising new crops and concentrate further research and commercialization on these species.


Table 1. National programs on new crops in The Netherlands (research conducted over 4 years).

Crops R&D
(per year)
Hemp I to III 1989 some 25 12 Agrotechnological Research Institute, ATO-DLO
Caraway I to III 1990 some 15 7 Centre for Agribiological Research, CABO-DLO
Oilseeds I to IV 1990 yes 17 9 Centre for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research, CPRO-DLO
Quinoa I and II 1992 yes 2 4 Research Station for Arable Farming and Field Production of Vegetables, PAGV-DAT
Agricultural Research Department of The Netherlands
Research and Development categories (R&D)
I = Plant exploration and evaluation
II = Crop improvement including plant breeding and agronomy
III = Processing and application research
IV = Marketing, commercialization, and utilization

Table 2. Domesticated or partly domesticated industrial oilseed crops in Europe.

Crop Potential use R&D
Coriander Oleochemicals, cosmetics I to III Trials-demo* Germany, UK, Netherlands, Norway, Eastern Europe
Crambe Erucamides, plastics (nylon), lubricants I to III Trials-demo Bulgaria, Germany, UK, Italy Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, USSR
Rapeseed (erucic) Erucamides, lubricants, nylon 13 I to IV Medium scale Germany, Eastern Europe
Sunflower (oleic) Coatings, detergents, lubricants, cosmetics I to IV Medium scale France, Germany, Italy
Linseed Coatings, lino I to IV Large scale Northwest, Eastern Europe
Castor Lubricants I to III Trials-demo Spain, France, Italy, Portugal
Jojoba Cosmetics, lubricants I to III Trials-demo Spain, France, Italy, Portugal
zSee Table 1.

Table 3. Industrial oilseeds under development in Europe.

Crop Principal
fatty acid
Calendula spp. Calendic I to II Trials Germany, UK, Netherlands
Cuphea spp. Short chain I to II Trials Germany, Portugal, Spain
Dimorphotheca spp. Dimorphecolic I to III Trials-demo Netherlands
Euphorbia lagascae Vernolic I to III Trials-demo Germany, Netherlands, Spain
Euphorbia lathyris Oleic I to III Trials-demo Germany, Eastern Europe
Limnanthes spp. Long chain I to III Trials-demo France, UK, Netherlands
Some exploration work on Camelina sativa, Eruca sativa, Lesquerella spp., and Lunaria annua.
zSee Table 1.

Table 4. Seed and yield characteristics of some promising new oilseed crops in Dutch trials, 1988-1990.

Species Principal
fatty acid
fatty acid
Oil (%) Seed yield
Calendula officinalis Calendic 58 17-20 1500-2500 18
Coriandrum sativum Petroselenic 80 16-25 1500-2500 14
Crambe abyssinica Erucic 58 26-39 2000-3000 26
Dimorphotheca pluvialis Dimorphecolic 63 15-25 1500-1800 21
Euphorbia lagascae Vernolic 61 45-52 1000-2000 25
Limnanthes alba Long chain 94 17-29 200-1000 26

Table 5. Crops producing carbohydrates (starch-sugars) under development in Europe.

Crop Potential use R&D
Quinoa Industrial, starch, food I to III Trials-demo Denmark, UK, Netherlands
Amaranth Industrial, starch, food I and II Trials Denmark, UK
Root chicory Fructose syrup (inulin) I to IV Small scale Belgium, Germany, France, Netherlands
Jerusalem artichoke Fructose syrup (inulin) I to III Trials-demo Austria, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Netherlands, USSR
Sweet sorghum Syrup, acids, solvents I to III Trials-demo Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, USSR
zSee Table 1.

Table 6. Fiber crops under development in Europe.

Crop Potential use R&D
Flax Linen, geotextiles, composites I to IV Large scale cultivation Northwest Europe, Eastern Europe
Hemp Textiles, rope, paperpulp I to III Small scale cultivation France, Hungary, Netherlands, Rumania, USSR
Kenaf Paperpulp, composites I to III Trials/demo Italy, France, Portugal
Miscanthus High quality paper, energy I to III Trials Denmark, Germany, Netherlands
Fiber sorghum Special paper I to III Trials Spain, France, Italy
zSee Table 1.

Fig. 1. Industrial crops under investigation in Europe. (Crops in bold print are already commercialized, others need to be further domesticated.)

Last update September 5, 1997 aw