ACTIN up to tap the cleverness of plants

August 18, 1995

Planting fields of plastic, and coppicing willows for the village power station are just some of the ways in which British agriculture might have to diversify to keep up with international competition in growing non-food crops.

To head off foreign competition, the Alternative Crops Technology Interaction Network (ACTIN) has been set up to coordinate the disparate groups within UK agriculture. The argument is that farmers, industry and academics need to talk to each other more if novel crops are to be grown and sold in the marketplace.

While the British and other Europeans remain reticent, American and Japanese biotechnologists and agriculturalists are racing ahead to develop non-food crops for the set-aside land not needed for food production.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the National Farmers Union and several interested industrial groups have funded this alternative crops network. The purpose is to "stimulate the uptake of novel technologies to meet industry demand for alternative crop products enhancing wealth creation in the UK".

Tom Blundell, chief executive of the BBSRC, and a molecular biologist at Birkbeck College, London, points to the historical precedents for economically important crop technology. Before the 19th century, virtually all of our food, fuel and material needs came from the land, mainly from plants.

"It's a 20th-century idea that man is clever and can produce anything in factories. It just might be possible that plants are cleverer than us," he says.

For instance, if more than 10 per cent of global emissions of nitrogen oxides (which contribute towards acid rain) comes from making the ingredients for nylon, why not get a plant to make the ingredients and cut out the emissions?

Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, identified pressures from three different sectors of society for change in the relationship between industry and farming: pressure from the public, who are showing "great concern that we use renewable resources"; pressure from agriculture for diversification under a tougher European Common Agricultural Policy; and pressure from the scientific community that industrial feedstocks should, where possible, be grown rather than manufactured.

Environmentally, the proposals sound green and rather pleasant, if not quite feasible now. But some environmental groups have expressed fears about letting genetically altered organisms into the wider ecosystem.

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