“We need to embrace genetic technologies”. An interview with William Cracroft-Eley, Terravesta

William Cracroft-Eley

“I also believe that we need to embrace genetic technologies, rather than be fearful of them, to enable the greatest beneficial outcomes in the shortest time”. To say it – in this interview with Il Bioeconomista – is William Cracroft-Eley, chairman of Terravesta, a leading miscanthus supply chain specialist, producing sustainable energy from marginal land. In this interview he talks about miscanthus and the role of farmers in the bioeconomy, the BBI JU Demo Project GRACE, “which is demonstrating the feasibility of 10 bio-based value chains for hemp and miscanthus biomass at an industry relevant scale”, the bioeconomy in UK after Brexit and the Vivergo’s case.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, called for a greater role for farmers in presenting the update of the European strategy on the circular and sustainable bioeconomy. What is their current role and what can they aspire to have in the next few years?

I believe that farmers have suffered both in reputation and financially in terms of asset degradation in pursuit of unsustainable food production policy in Europe over the last half century. The move to a sustainable bioeconomy makes farmers and land managers the key players, and will throw open to them a new suite of opportunities which will deliver not just good business outcomes, but overriding public and societal benefits. However, as before, both for the policy makers and the policy participants, good intentions need wisdom to deliver beneficial rather than harmful outcomes!

What is your opinion on the new strategy in general? And, as far as you’re concerned, what will be the role of UK in the EU bioeconomy after Brexit?

I welcome the strategy and the overall direction of travel. However, I also believe that we need to embrace genetic technologies, rather than be fearful of them, to enable the greatest beneficial outcomes in the shortest time. With regard to Brexit, the common goals, policies, targets, outcomes and price of failure are global, and Britains commitment is total. In this context, at least, I think we will look back on Brexit as a sideshow and a distraction rather than a gamechanger.

Terravesta states: “The world is responding to the devastating effects of climate change by running down the use of fossil fuels and using more sustainable plant-based alternatives. We need dedicated energy crops that are very efficient, cheap to grow and profitable for farmers, and miscanthus is one of those crops”. What are the main features of miscanthus. And what differentiates it from other dedicated crops and biomasses? How sustainable is its production in environmental and financial terms?

In financial terms, being a perennial crop, and requiring almost no artificial inputs, gives it a very low annual cost with a high level of certainty of output. In energy end use commercial supply chains it has demonstrated itself as being competitive with most other farm enterprises, but with greater certainty and less risk. That same certainty is also attractive for the end use developer in offering contractable long-term certainty of feedstock supply. Biomass is often deemed to be timber by the press, and its sustainable credentials are viewed with scepticism due to the fact that emissions from its use today will take the lifecycle of a tree (30+ years) to be re-absorbed. Miscanthus has an annual harvest, and therefore all of the CO2 released through its use is reabsorbed by the growing crop within a year. In this respect it outperforms all other biomass. It also sequesters soil carbon at the same time through the activity of it’s root system, while also creating soil organic matter and natural soil fertility on depleted soils, regenerating soil life ecosystems.

You are a partner of the BBI JU demo project GRACE: could you explain what is this project and what miscanthus means for the European bioeconomy? What are the goals you have with this project?

The BBI JU GRACE project is a demonstration of sustainable biomass supply chains of Miscanthus and Hemp from marginal land into Bio-refining industries for the production of bio-ethanol, bio-chemicals, bio-plastics, bio-laminates, fibres, building materials and natural agricultural pesticides.

The project is an important public demonstration of the enormous diversity of products that can be produced  from plant based feedstocks to replace their harmful oil-based equivalents. At the same time the Miscanthus and Hemp feedstocks can be produced from land that is either high risk for food production, or contaminated or depleted land, delivering further economic and environmental benefits regionally.

For Terravesta it is an opportunity to trial new seed based Miscanthus hybrids at multiple locations and demonstrate what we already do commercially to deliver supply chains to industry that are reliable, secure and match appropriate technology.

In UK, an important company like Vivergo is on the verge of bankruptcy and complains about a policy that does not support biofuels from the May government. How is the situation of the British bioeconomy today?

The Vivergo closure is indeed a sad outcome that sets back confidence in the bio-refining sector, and all involved in the emerging bio-economy sector would like to see a stronger long-term policy commitment that would give others the confidence to invest.

In Vivergo’s case, an early decision from Government to adopt E10 would have given a significant boost in demand, and possibly created an uplift in price, but there is also another important lesson from this closure for those seeking to compete in the global commodity product sector. 1998 – 2005 saw historically low wheat prices and was the era in which the Vivergo plan would have been conceived. Ironically, it was the effects of climate change, for which Vivergo was seeking to be part of the solution, that  have brought great volatility to the world wheat markets. The ability to lock into long-term contracts for dedicated perennial feedstocks such as Miscanthus offers enterprise and finance security to both end user and grower.



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