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Nicholls, F.H. 1996. New crops in the UK: From concept to bottom line profits. p. 21-26. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in New Crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

New Crops In The UK: From Concept to Bottom Line Profits

Francis H. Nicholls


  1. QUINOA
  2. BORAGE
  3. LUNARIA
  4. HIGH ERUCIC ACID RAPESEED (HEAR)
  5. SUMMARY
  6. REFERENCES

Development of new crops for the large part appears to be a predominantly academic enterprise. Commercial entrepreneurs on the other hand can often seem to be a minority species. Where are those people who take ideas from off the drawing board and into the ground? John K King & Sons Ltd. have played a considerable role in the commercial introduction of new crops into the UK. This paper presents some of the company's philosophy, together with some of its failures and successes.

Kings is an agricultural supply company which, until eight years ago, had kept to a traditional rôle of selling basic farm commodities, such as seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides and trading in harvested commodities, particularly pulse crops and cereals. Since 1970, alongside our traditional trade, the company also worked on what were then referred to as "odd crops," and are now obligingly called "new alternative arable resources." This new work area fits our situation well because the company has its own farmland on which to trial new material.

By 1985, it was becoming obvious that reliance on trading basic farms goods would not, for ever, keep the wolf (or the bank manager) from the door, particularly with lower trading margins. It was at this time that a closer look was taken at what was already 15 years worth of experience with new crops and new uses for old crops. Over the last ten years the company's contracts for various new arable crops have grown to over 16000 ha (40000 acres) for the 1995 harvest.

New crop introductions into the UK are not always a success. For example, based on a theory that the UK could grow its own navy beans, Kings decided to take on Michigan and Ontario. In 1974, after three reasonably successful years of trials, the company contracted 280 ha of navy beans with local growers. The result was a total yield of less than 50 t. Yet there are four crops which merit highlighting: quinoa, borage, lunaria, and high erucic acid rapeseed (HEAR).

Before starting any project there are key questions that must be asked. (1) Is there a viable end use for the crop? (2) Will it perform satisfactorily in the field on a long term basis? (3) Will trials convert to economic field scale production? (4) Can the crop be mechanically harvested? (5) Will the end product have a quality that is stable, is able to be replicated, and give 100% confidence to the end buyer? (6) Is the new crop going to be as good as, or preferably better and/or cheaper than, what is already available?

This all needs time and investment for initial research and market development. There is no standard blueprint for success. Whilst a new arable crop is being tried and tested in the field, a working relationship must be developed with a potential end-user. The knot must be tied between the worlds of research and commerce. This is a skilled job, because the company is acting as mediator to the most exacting person in the world--the raw materials buyer.

Then at a critical stage, the new crop must be moved on from research trials and put under a contractual system, often throughout the UK, to produce continuity of supply and quality. The timing of this move is crucial. Over-production at a premature stage clearly does not make good commercial sense; equally, neither is the inability to supply an end-user's demand. Constant liaison is the only remedy.

Even when all has worked to plan, things can go awry because of elements out of our control, such as international market prices or new legislation. The whole field of new crop development requires initiative and fast reaction, good management-and a lot of luck.

QUINOA

The history of quinoa (Quinoa chenopodium) as a human consumption protein crop, originating from South America, is well documented (Galwey 1993). Washed or decorticated quinoa is now a widely sold product in health food outlets in Western Europe and North America. This crop has probably become our company's best example of making quick initial commercial use of a product and then utilizing the income from this to put towards R&D for wider industrial uses.

Our involvement with the species began in 1983 with a trial of a quinoa selection from Chile. A 10 m x 25 m plot was grown at our company trial ground in the Spring of 1983. It had a number of faults, not the least of which, was its uneven ripening and its lateness. What quinoa did do however was to: (1) appear to grow well under UK conditions; (2) produce good quality seed (albeit rather late); (3) grow to a height suitable for combine harvesting; and (4) attract a large number of wild pheasants and partridges. Quinoa also appeared to have potential as a gluten-free food with an excellent amino acid profile and the possibility of an unusually small starch granule size.

Quinoa for industrial use requires longterm research, so Kings looked at quinoa as a potential game cover crop for pheasant and partridges, (based on the initial chance information gained from the 1983 field trial). A blend of early, medium, and late maturing types were selected and the natural seed drop occurred throughout the European shooting season from Oct. to Jan. Thus our Kingmixreg. product evolved, containing a mixture of kale for cover and quinoa for feed. Kingmixreg. is now selling in 14 European countries and contributes considerably towards in-company R&D costs and bottom line profits.

Further investigations into quinoa led down two distinct paths. The first was quinoa for human consumption. Decorticated UK grown quinoa was sold by Kings in half kilo packs and initially retailed well. However, in 1992 an amendment to the UK Food Labelling Regulations was introduced and moved this retail human consumption operation out of King's sphere of normal trading activities. The regulations were onerous as to the correct level of saponin removal. This outlet for quinoa was therefore shelved until another day. Other industrial uses, such as the following are now being reviewed by ourselves and others, these include: a flow improver to incorporate into starch flour products, fillers in the plastics industry; anti-offset and dusting powders and complimentary protein for improving the amino acid balance of human and animal foods.

In 1993, Nutrasweet filed a European patent for a cream substitute with quinoa starch which highlighted the seriousness with which industry was taking this species. Saponins in themselves are also interesting, as potential insecticides, antibiotics and fungicides and also in the pharmaceutical industry as a mediator of intestinal permeability which could aid the absorbtion of specific drugs. Much of this work is outside the sphere of Kings' R&D activities. It is useful to be aware of the full scope of quinoa's potential even if it is likely to be a very long haul. Our expertise is in the supply of new selections of quinoa cultivars, which are adapted to UK cultivation and have higher yields. This R&D is financed by the income drawn from quinoa game cover products and is a good example of using an initial idea as a stepping stone to find other, more commercially sized opportunities.

BORAGE

Borage (Borago officinalis L.) is a crop which presents the farmer and his contracting merchant with the problem of producing what is essentially a garden flower on a field scale. It is widely recognized that borage, together with evening primrose, are the main arable sources of gamma-linoleic acid (GLA). (Galwey 1987). Whatever the claims and counter claims of the efficacy of GLA, the retail demand, certainly in Europe, for both evening primrose and borage oil is unquestionable.

In the mid-1980s the company helped to pioneer the commercial field production of borage. Early trials proved that borage likes heavier, well drained soil and dislikes most pesticides, which is a good thing for an oil crop mainly destined for the dietary health food trade. The crop appears to grow best in areas with moderate summer temperatures and reasonable moisture. Countries bordering on the North Sea offer the best European conditions for borage and the east coast of England has become the prominent European production area for the crop. The world production of borage is estimated by some to be between 1600 and 2000 ha. Thus in every sense this is a niche market. If however the use of GLA is widened, perhaps into food or pharmaceutical products, then the scope of borage would become even more attractive. The main world production areas are currently the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

Early trials proved that the borage crop grew well, but its complete aversion to chemical desiccants, resulted in swathing with a rapeseed swather becoming the standard practice. After 7 to 10 days, combine harvesting takes place, in most cases using a special pick-up reel. The growers have become experienced with the correct combine settings, aspiration and forward drive speed when combining into the swathed crop. The aim is to end up with a recleaned seed crop with about 30% oil and 23% to 24% GLA. In hot years, the GLA can drop below 20%. The price per tonne of seed to the grower in the mid-1980s was about US $4.25/kg. However, with improved growing techniques and higher yields (and also resultant early over production) this reduced to US $3.20/kg, which has been about the going rate for the past five years.

The first objective is to obtain the tonnage requirements of the end buyers for the next season. Orders are then covered with back-to-back contracts with experienced growers. An updated annual average yield is kept in order to evaluate the required acreage to fulfil orders. The second objective is to keep all growers alert to new techniques, ideal planting, swathing and harvesting times. Each grower can expect 3 to 4 visits from company representatives during the growing season, backed with information by telephone or company Newsletters.

Until now the gross margins have been, on average, higher than other spring-sown crops like cereals, pulses, or linseed. The recent EU Area Aid support and set-aside regime for main cereal and oilseed crops is likely to increase the contract borage seed price (and the resultant oil).

Borage has now settled into a regular UK farm rotation. It is a specialist crop requiring very special attention. Borage may well continue to be a Cinderella niche crop, but it has increasing commercial interest from international companies such as Hoffmann la Roche. Promotional material has also subtly changed the name borage to `starflower.' Whatever the eventual nomenclature, borage has now been commercialized for growers in eastern England and has created a worldwide portfolio of buyers.

LUNARIA

Lunaria annua L. is a biennial garden flower which produces characteristic silver seed capsules often used in dry flower arrangements. The seed contains about 36% oil with an unusual distribution of fatty acids. The main feature is the simple lipid profile, the main constituents of which comprise 24% oleic acid (C18:1), 47% erucic acid (C22:1) and 21% nervonic acid (C24:1). Nervonic acid is unusual in plant seed oils, but is present throughout mammalian nerve tissue--hence its name. Nervonic acid and its derivatives can be produced from lunaria oil by conventional techniques. A UK company, Croda Universal, is investigating its use in a variety of applications including its use in pharmaceuticals.

Since nervonic acid is an important constituent of brain and membrane phospholipids, it is vital that the body has an adequate provision of this fatty acid. If, for any reason, the body cannot make this lipid, then a dietary source is indicated. Two such situations are under active investigation; multiple sclerosis (MS), where there are indications that there is inadequate provision of nervonic acid; and premature birth, where the infant no longer benefits from maternal nutrition. It is of interest to note that human breast milk contains nervonic acid and that MS has been linked to the use of formula feeds. It is suggested that, breast milk appears to confer a resistance to developing the disease. Croda Universal have filed patents on the treatment of MS with nervonic acid and the use of nervonic acid as a lipid supplement for babies. Products containing lunaria oil are in clinical development and are expected to complete the initial phases of development within 2 to 3 years.

In 1991 Croda Universal approached Kings to grow this biennial garden flower on a field scale basis. The first problem was to recognize that growers would only be prepared to take on a biennial crop if they could derive two years' worth of income, if the land was to be occupied for two growing seasons. With potential recleaned seed yields of 60-100 kg/ha, this indicated a prohibitive end price. Lunaria had been tried as an open seeded crop over an 18 month period and it certainly looked good, with easier inter-row weed control. The end product price remained the major problem.

It was decided therefore that lunaria seed could be sown into a standing crop of winter wheat, with a special seed-drill, in mid-Mar. Lunaria seems to establish and thrive underneath the growing cereal. The wheat is harvested in Aug., leaving the young lunaria plants to grow away from within the stubble. It is by this method, that the grower is given the chance to produce a biennial crop, but with two distinct monetary returns over the two year period, the first from the winter wheat, the other from the undersown lunaria the following year.

Weed and disease problems have by no means been conquered but nevertheless Lunaria has been a reasonable success story in the UK. It really is a case of not being daunted by whatever is asked by an end-user. If an initial idea is taken steadily at the start and thought through, with a bit of luck, it is usually possible to respond with positive results.

HIGH ERUCIC ACID RAPESEED (HEAR)

In 1984 Kings specialist work with new arable crops came to the attention of the UK's main user of high erucic rapeseed oil (HERO) derived from Brassica napus L. A small UK production of HEAR was contracted with them in an initial effort to make them less dependent on Polish and East German supply. As it turned out, their strategy for a UK production was absolutely right but the actual reasons behind the strategy turned out to be wrong. Eleven years ago the conceived Western view of Russian policy was still one of suspicion and mistrust. The possibility of Russian tanks rolling westward over the plains of Germany towards the North Sea was a notion with which a UK user of HERO could not afford to feel entirely at ease with. As we know now, it was democracy which in fact flowed eastwards. As a result both Poland and the former East Germany quickly changed from HEAR into "double low" (low erucic acid, low glucosinolate) types. Thus our buyer's longterm defensive strategy, albeit based on political uncertainty, created a key position for HEAR production in the UK. From a 16 ha trial in 1985, the current production area now extends from Scotland down the East coast of England and into the south west. For the 1995 harvest it is estimated that 36,423 ha of HEAR were grown in the EU of which 13,234 ha were produced in the UK.

The principal end use of the HERO is erucimide, which is used as a slip agent on polythene film, for which there is an increasing world demand. The UK has an intensive oilseed rape production area, with average yields of just over 3 t/ha and average oil contents of 42% to 45% at 9% moisture content. HEAR is therefore an example of a new variation on an already accepted agricultural species. Due to the lower yield of HEAR (by about 250 kg/ha) compared to the "double low" types, Kings offer a premium to compensate growers for the lower yield. The premium also has to compensate for all the "hassle" factors such as field isolation and separate storage.

HEAR deliveries to the buyer are monitored so that product specification is realised in the resultant oil, i.e minimum 45% erucic acid. We have access to both winter-sown and spring-sown varieties. Winter varieties are currently "double high" (high erucic acid, high glucosinolate) types and spring are currently "high/low" (high erucic acid, low glucosinolate) types. It was found that the variation in the fatty acid profile of winter sown crops proved to be minimal. Individual spring sown crops have, however, shown much more variation but when bulked with other individual lots, the minimum specification has been achieved. The first winter "high/low" has just appeared on the EU market and we expect to progress down this road and eventually to HEAR hybrids. This improvement in yield must go hand in hand with the correct end product specifications and therefore is not necessarily a guaranteed smooth progression.

To counteract some of the negative comments about introducing new types of rape into UK farming rotations, Kings have also instigated a number of research projects, including joint work with Newcastle University to test the isolation requirements of oilseed rape. The results from the University and Kings showed that heavy, sticky rape pollen travels less than a few meters. Most cross fertilization occurs due to physical contact between plants and very limited cross pollination occurs by bees (Bilsborrow 1994). Through this work the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) was persuaded to reduce the isolation requirement to 50 meters.

There is also the question of volunteers. A field survey was instigated on actual numbers of volunteers of rape from 1 to 5 years after a HEAR crop had been grown. Due to problems with distinguishing between HEAR and "double low" cultivars in the field this study was made in the intervening cereal crops before herbicides were applied. It was found that the maximum volunteers occurred in the second year out of HEAR production and that they were under 1 plant/m2 (Ramans 1995). From this work, advice could be passed to growers about the correct strategies to minimise volunteer contamination by good husbandry and rotational practices.

These investigations were necessary to facilitate a continuing confidence in HEAR in the UK. Sensitivity to the major political changes occurring within the EU also had to be shown. The introduction by the EU of the set-aside scheme provided a new challenge for the placement of the crop. Reductions in set-aside area over the last two seasons add to the challenge. GATT/Blair House considerations also effect and influence attitudes to non-food oilseed production.

Kings current area of winter and spring HEAR is contracted throughout the UK via Agents and more locally by the Head Office. The company and its buyer work together on the basis of mutual trust and confidence. The buyer brings the chance for Kings to participate in an expanding and secure end market. Kings provide the fine-tuning of many of the sectors of rapeseed agronomy and crop production. In addition, the correct buyer/seller contractual paperwork must be provided, under the obligations as participants within the EU Area Payment Scheme. Following the success of HEAR, Kings are now as well placed as any to participate in the expansion of other rapeseed types with their widely differing fatty-acid profiles.

SUMMARY

Having detailed some of the background agronomy and development of just four new crops, here is a summary of a few of the requirements for anyone trying to evaluate and commercialize new crops. By necessity, they are subjective, but are nevertheless a guide, based on experience.

If indeed a 1% success rate is anywhere near correct, one should be happy to accept this. The 99% balance is just part of the price of being fortunate enough to be living in these exciting and challenging times. These exiting times, however, can be best served by the greatest possible co-operation between academics and commerce.

REFERENCES


Last update May 23, 1997 aw