HL Deb 07 July 1993 vol 547 cc1391-4

2.59 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, government-backed research continues to support the development of technology permitting novel uses and more efficient methods of straw disposal. The Government plan to spend £1.9 million in the current year, of which £0.5 million is our contribution to the LINK scheme which aims to bridge the gap between science and industry.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I note that the amount spent on research has increased since the last time I asked the Question. Does the Minister agree that, since 29th June when new regulations came into force which will prohibit the burning of straw other than in a few exceptional circumstances, it has become even more important that farmers should have an alternative market open to them? Can he give some idea of the areas which are at present being explored?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, as the noble Baroness pointed out, overall government expenditure has increased substantially since 1991. Emphasis is now moving away from techniques of straw incorporation, which have been well researched, towards the development of alternative uses. The LINK programme, launched in 1990 in partnership with industry, is making a valuable contribution. It is planned to run for five years. There are currently 14 projects, of which six include uses of straw. These cover such diverse possibilities as uses to replace synthetic fibres and inclusion in the manufacture of thermoplastics.

Lord Alport

My Lords, while I warmly welcome the Government's decision to ban straw and stubble burning, is the Minister aware that in many parts of East Anglia crops of linseed are now grown? As the residue of linseed can now be burnt, we shall be in practically the same position as we were before the Government introduced the ban on straw and stubble burning.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, when the intention to ban was announced in 1989, research programmes were already well established. The results have assisted farmers as they have moved away from the practice of burning. The research programme has been refined and developed to meet new needs, including the investigation of alternative uses by industry. We are also now investigating problems, as the noble Lord suggests, with the incorporation of linseed residues.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the research undertaken and the experiments carried out, using bales of straw on still waters and lakes, to combat the growth and spread of algal bloom? If so, with what result?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I think that I answered a similar Question two years ago, also in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. The Answer was that the research was going very well then, and I believe it still is.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister tell us something about the exemptions which will be granted, where there is no easy alternative to stubble burning? Apparently the regulations do not make it clear when the exemptions will be given. Can he tell us a little more about it?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, as I have already suggested, in the main the reference is to linseed. However, there will be exemptions in particularly difficult areas which will remain under the old rules prior to the ban coming into force.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that as long ago as the 1950s and 1960s there was a factory in Stowmarket which successfully produced chipboard out of straw? Can he tell the House whether there has been any development in that line?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I do not know about the specific example which the noble Baroness put forward. All I can say is that I referred to the LINK scheme which aims to accelerate the exploitation of technology and to bridge the gap between science and the market place. It funds collaborative research between industry and academia. As I said, six technical projects are currently being financed.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, what percentage of grant aid can be offered to those anxious to proceed with straw processing plants in rural areas? Could the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food be asked to stimulate bank and private funding when it is proven that chipboard and, more especially, plywood can be manufactured more competitively against imports?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, until September 1992 grants of up to 25 per cent. were available under EC Regulation 866/90 for capital investment in projects aimed at improving the marketing and processing of agricultural produce, including straw. This scheme is now closed and we await proposals for its replacement. Manufacturers in eligible areas may also apply for assistance under the regional selective assistance scheme.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the problem of disposing of straw effectively is not confined to this country? Can he tell us what work is being done in the European Community in this regard and to what extent we are collaborating in it?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I know that Denmark introduced a ban in 1990 and that there is little burning both in Germany and in the Paris basin. Most other member states have local bans.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware—I believe he must be—that the reason for the surplus of straw is the imbalance that we have created in agriculture over the past 40 or 50 years? If we were to go back to the balance of stock on the farm that used to consume all the straw, that would be the right thing to do and we should have better countryside and better farming.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I do not disagree with the noble Lord. From a personal point of view, I do exactly as he suggests.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether it is intended to monitor soil fertility after the ban on stubble burning has been in existence for a number of years? Does he: agree that, if soil fertility declines and is compensated for by the use of chemicals, some of the environmental benefits of the ban on burning will be lost?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, government research suggests that the breakdown of straw organic matter, though requiring nitrogen within the natural nitrogen cycle of the soil, will not require additional fertiliser and nitrogen to be applied to maintain crop yields. In the long term, improvements in soil structure are possible, as has already been noticed by some farmers. Where straw is baled instead of being burnt, additional phosphate and potash will be required to maintain soil fertility. The amount will be dependent on crop yield and soil type and the present fertility.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is it not the case that the reason why mainland Europe does not have quite the same problem is that, as my noble friend Lord John-Mackie suggested, on the whole they have kept more mixed farming than we have? Does the Minister agree that we should return to it if possible?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, again I do not disagree with the noble Baroness. The ban on straw-burning was introduced because in 1989 alone there were 3,500 complaints from the public.

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