HL Deb 12 February 1991 vol 526 cc4-6

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in research into alternative uses for straw.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, research into alternative uses for straw has assisted in developing the technology enabling straw to be used to manufacture board for building and furniture, paper pulp, compost and animal bedding and feeding. New methods for using straw to combat oil spillages have also been developed. The Government are spending more than £1 million per annum on straw research including its use as a fuel. Of this expenditure, about three-quarters is on methods of handling and storage of straw and its incorporation in the soil.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very full Answer. Is he aware that when I last asked a Question on this subject, in 1986, I was told that the Government were spending £2 million per annum? Can he explain why there has been this reduction in the amount spent? Is the noble Earl also aware that at that time the Ministry of Agriculture identified 12 possible alternative uses for straw? Does he not agree that at a time when farmers are in some difficulty an additional source of income would be very helpful to them?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, in answer to the first question put by the noble Baroness, the AFRC/ADAS programme of research on straw incorporation which began in 1984 has now addressed most of the scientific questions that needed to be answered. In other words, the technological investment has paid off. In the past few years the Ministry has funded a number of projects to look at alternative disposal methods. It is currently undertaking a range of projects covering handling and packaging equipment, techniques of incorporation in the soil and the effects on nitrate leaching, and on pests and diseases. Other research funded by the Department of Energy, the Department of Transport and the. Department of Education and Science brings total government expenditure on straw related research to more than £1 million.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the Frogmat? It was devised by a farmer, Ken Frogbrooke, in the Isle of Wight and deals with all these problems. It has been produced during the past five years: since the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked her previous Question. It can control oil pollution—we hope it will be used in the Persian Gulf—and can be used for crop protection and in many other ways.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct. The Department of Transport is spending £20,000 in 1990–91 on the development of a straw baler unit. The only work in 1990–91 involved a capital investment in a straw baler. As my noble friend rightly said, the machine produces Frogmats, which are particularly useful for collecting spilt oil from terrains, such as salt marshes, that present difficulties for heavy machinery. This is the end of a four-year development project. In addition, I should point out to my noble friend that, regrettably, the oil slick in the Gulf is far too large for the use of Frogmats.

Lord Alport

My Lords, does my noble friend have any statistics with regard to the reduction in straw and stubble burning in arable areas during the past season? Further, does he have any information as to whether this produced any problems for arable farmers?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the Government estimate that in 1990 only 17 per cent. of cereal straw was burnt. That represents a fall of 300,000 hectares, which is a 36 per cent. reduction in the area burnt compared with 1989. Responsible farmers are now finding alternative disposal techniques.

Lord Merrivale

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether greater emphasis is being placed on research into the further utilisation of waste straw from wheat, rye, barley and rice? This is of importance to developing countries, bearing in mind the successful Stramit process—a pressure and heat method that produces building boards for low income homes by using it for structural walls, partitions, roofs and ceilings.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, in replying to my noble friend's question, perhaps I may refer to linseed crop residue. The Government are spending £45,000 this current year on research into the extraction and possible use of linseed fibre in products such as matting, board, paper and material.

Lord Carter

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the various products for the alternative use of straw take into account the net use of energy? In other words, is any attempt made to measure the energy used in the process to ensure that it will not be wasted?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I regret that I do not have the answer to the noble Lord's question. However, I shall write co him on the matter.