Industrial crops: Fibre

Fibre production in the UK is an area with a potential for growth, especially in the context of the Government’s focus for sustainable farming systems and the implementation of the 'Strategy for non-food Crops and uses – Creating value from renewable materials'.

The sections below provide an overview of industrial fibre crops sector:

  • applications for industrial fibre crops
  • types of fibre crops suited to the UK
  • grants, support and information on industrial fibre production
  • future development

Applications for industrial fibre crops

Plant fibres have a wide range of uses. A substantial proportion of British fibre goes to the continent to be made into components for car manufacture because it is strong, lightweight and easy to work with. This sector is considered a primary market for the short to medium term future.

Other uses include fibrous matting for insulation (replacing glass fibre), linings for hanging baskets and to prevent erosion of road verges, materials for the construction industry and pet bedding.

Paper and pulp is also an opportunity to utilise farm wastes (e.g. straw) or specially produced crops. Limitations to increased production are costs, processing scale and market instability, if these barriers are reduced or eliminated the market potential of fibre crops is virtually infinite.

Types of fibre crops

Hemp (long and short fibre)

Fibre hemp is an extremely versatile crop with a wide range of potential uses; the industry in the UK is currently based on short fibre varieties. Fibre from hemp is a specialist niche industry in the UK, but the market has grown over the past year and there is potential for continued expansion.

Principal uses of processed UK hemp fibre include: composite materials and insulation materials. Good markets in processed hemp shive have developed, including: horse and pet bedding; construction materials such as hemp and lime bricks and other construction materials.

Due to the potential narcotic aspects of the crop, hemp can only be grown under licence and the Home Office issues licences and offers guidance on siting commercial hemp plantings to avoid possible confusion between industrial hemp and illegal cannabis.

Flax (long fibre)

Traditional production and primary processing techniques have been developed to produce high value long fibre material for the textile industry. There is currently no significant amounts of flax grown in the UK.

Cereal straw (short fibre)

Cereal crops have long been targeted as sources of fibre for the board and paper industries but few commercial developments have occurred. Harvesting and transport costs add significantly to what is perceived as a low value material.

Miscanthus (short fibre)

While its primary market is as a Biofuel, a number of alternative markets utilising its short fibre components have been identified. This crop is expensive to establish it has a long projected life. It is not fully winter-hardy so thought needs to be given to a crop’s siting.

Reed canary grass (short fibre)

This is a lower productive alternative to miscanthus developed in Scandinavia as a source of short fibre for paper pulp. Ideally suited to low temperatures and poor soil conditions.

Grants, support and information on industrial fibre production

In 2005 direct aid schemes such as the Arable Area Payments Scheme were replaced by the Single Payment Scheme. Payment rates for natural fibre crops are the standard SPS rate, which is 90% historic and 10% flat rate for 2005, so will largely depend on the entitlements established by the individual producers.

Strategy for Non-Food Crops and Uses

The joint Defra/DTI Strategy for Non-Food Crops and Uses was published in 2004 with the long term aim to create more demand for, and use of by industry, of renewable raw materials made from  crops, including fibre crops, by increasing commercial opportunities and stimulating innovation. 

The National Non-Food Crop Centre (NNFCC), which take a lead role delivering Strategy actions, is actively engaged in promoting the use of non-food crops and their uptake by industry.

Future developments

The flax and hemp fibre processing aid scheme was reviewed at the end of 2005. A report, recommending a two year roll-over of the existing scheme, was published in March 2006.

This recommendation was approved in June; the current scheme will therefore continue until 2008 when the system will be re-examined.

Useful links

Page last modified: 30 October 2007
Page published: 1 July 2006