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Crambe - An ancient vegetable crop which has a new use in plastics or fuel.

Updated on September 8, 2016
Crambe field coming up to harvest time
Crambe field coming up to harvest time
Plastic film made from high erucic acid Crambe
Plastic film made from high erucic acid Crambe

It has been apparent for some while that the British farmer is losing out by being denied the commercial opportunity to grow oilseed rape for use in a green biofuel.

Well, we now have another chance to grow a product that is in serious demand in the industrial world. If we move fast enough, or are allowed to move fast enough, the arable farmers amongst us can be to the forefront of a relatively unknown demand.

The product in question is Crambe (crambe abyssinica) also known as Ethiopian Kale, originating in the Mediterranean area and producing high levels of erucic acid (56-58%) in its seed oil. It was only commercialised in the 1990s and is therefore considered a relatively new crop.

The primary use of erucic acid is a key additive in the plastics industry. This product is erucimide, a slip and anti-block agent critical in the manufacture of polyolefin films. (Such items as bread wrappers, plastic bags, rubbish bags, shrink film and plastic sheet.) Northern, Eastern Europe and Canada has traditionally been the supplier of erucic acid from the crops of Rapeseed (Canola), with a massive market in the USA.

However, the world demand for edible rapeseed oil has encouraged the introduction of Canola types (no erucic acid) and a significant reduction in the older high erucic acid crop.

Crambe was first evaluated as an oilseed crop back in 1932, but it wasn’t until 1983 that its potential was realised. In addition to the uses mentioned above, erucic acid, being a long-chain fatty acid, has many other potential uses in lubricants, coatings, plastisers, slip-agents, polymers and nylon precursors.

As a crop it is far easier to produce, requiring less drying and no insecticides or herbicides due to a greater resistance than rapeseed or canola, it is also not generally eaten by birds.

The FDA and AAFCO list crambe meal for use as a protein supplement in beef and sheep feeds. There is a small problem with its use as animal feed. As a member of the mustard family, crambe seed and meal contain several glucosinolates, which give it a sharp taste. Because of this cattle fed only crambe meal would not consume it until it was blended with molasses or corn silage. Extensive research has shown this to be just a matter of taste and has no effect on milk yield, feed intake, weight gain, haemoglobin blood cell volume or the thyroids of calves. However, the glucosinolates are toxic to monogastric animals and unless removed cannot be fed to pigs or chickens.

What is the future of the Crambe crop ?

Crambe has been grown commercially in North Dakota since 1990, but in recent years production has fluctuated as the commercial growers and users have changed.

Production peaked in 1993 at 24,000 hectares, dropped to almost zero in 1995,rose again to 16,000 hectares in 1998 and has been dropping steadily since then. Compare this to the production of canola in 2000 at 500,000 hectares and wheat at 4,100,000 hectares.

Currently in the UK the primary crusher and refiner of erucic acid is Croda and they expected to crush increasing quantities of UK grown crambe. In early to mid-2000s contracts were on offer throughout the UK to cultivate crambe, but poor yields resulted in the product not being competitive and since then there has been little uptake.Work is on-going to develop winter Crambe varieties which could offer better economic potential. However, it is unlikely the UK will benefit from this product as these days we are no longer the architects of our own destiny and the EU Common Agricultural Policy is likely to decree that France and Germany or Poland will be the beneficiaries.

One of its original uses was to be a clean non toxic furnace fuel for power generation. However governments have refused to subsidise it and in consequence oil fired power stations are being closed creating a serious power shortage.

© 2012 Peter Geekie


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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 5 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Angie,

      The older I get the more I am dismayed by the actions of the EU. Usually I try to avoid them but sometimes I feel certain subjects need to be aired.

      Kind regards Peter

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Fascinating hub, Peter ... but of course I got hot under the collar again at the possibility of the usual biased interference from the EU.

      Apart from raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels I would say this is a very important hub, Peter, so I have labelled it interesting and useful. There no longer appears to be a vote up button and FB/Tweet/Pin is just a joke for the sharing of important or scientific information.

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 5 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear writer20

      Anyone in the industry are appalled by this situation. It's all politics again ?

      Kind regards peter

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 5 years ago from Southern Nevada

      My knowledge of this plant is very limited so I'll say you have a good hub to enlighted your followers.

      Vote up and interesting.