Europe and China need each other if the cultivation of fibre crops such as flax and hemp is to remain economically viable, according to European and Chinese researchers, who are collaborating in the project FIBRA.
The mechanised cultivation, harvesting and processing of European flax and hemp fibres lead to very high quality fibres. Chinese growers who still produce traditional fibre crops such as hemp, kenaf and ramie, still almost entirely by manual labour, are giving up the cultivation as a result of severe competition. Yet the linen textile industry, which processes most of these fibres, has largely disappeared from Europe, having moved to China where wages are lower. This means that various interdependent links in the manufacturing chain are located too far apart for it to work effectively.
Less fibre crops
At the same time, the trade in natural fibres is gradually diminishing. For thousands of years, fibre crops have been cultivated, bred, refined and processed to produce clothing, yarns, rope and paper and, these days, car parts as well. This expertise threatens to be lost because bio-based fibres are often being replaced by cheaper but less sustainable synthetic fibres. Another important point is that other crops such as subsidised energy crops are often more profitable for the growers than traditional fibre crops. The present price of petroleum makes it impossible to compete with petrochemical synthetic fibres, but there is a niche market: the consumers who consciously choose sustainable, bio-based products.
Mechanisation and quality
The report 'Markets for fibre crops in EU and China', published by Wageningen UR in the Netherlands, contains several recommendations for expanding the market. Mechanised cultivation and processing of fibre crops in China is important for raising the quality of fibres and for ensuring that prices remain competitive in relation to new low-wage countries. This does not necessarily constitute a threat to European chain parties; on the contrary, it is a chance for them to sell their know-how, skills and machinery in China. Another of the researchers' recommendations is to set up international quality labels. These would ensure that companies on the world market could buy precisely the fibres they need – from high-quality fibres for clothing to low quality fibres for use in, for example, insulation materials.
Source: Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research
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