Some cereal crop end users have acted to remove crop biostimulants derived from animal proteins from their UK supply chains, through fears of possible consumer resistance to these materials. But suppliers say there is no reliable way to test whether these materials have been used to treat imported crops.

The National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) says its individual members have all taken the decision to prohibit the use of any material derived from mammalian tissue by-products on milling wheat crops.

These decisions are not retrospective, but will affect wheat crops planted from this autumn, and will be in buying terms for 2018 wheat purchases. A nabim spokesman recognises that this is not a food safety issue, but says the move is to avoid potential ethical and moral concerns among some consumers. He estimates that there are over 200 biostimulant products on the market place, and the association has asked the AHDB to draw up a list of such products by their feedstock source.

The Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB) says it has no policy on biostimulants derived from animal tissues, but has advised members that there could be issues with halal, kosher and vegetarian/vegan markets. But as a trade association, it cannot approve or prohibit individual products unless its members and their customers are totally aligned on the issue and there is a reason to do so.

The AIC has issued guidance on buying terms and contracts. It advises that existing contract terms can only be varied with the agreement of both parties. Buying terms for future contracts should be reviewed carefully in the light of this development – both those for end user processors and for ex-farm purchases.

The Red Tractor Assurance Scheme’s industry and regulatory affairs manager Philippa Wiltshire says the organisation has considered the issue and  has engaged with the MAGB, nabim and the National Farmers’ Union on this topic.

“The use of biostimulants on crops is permitted in the Red Tractor standards as long as they are legal,” she advises. “However, in the standards we also strongly urge members to check if they are acceptable to their customer or trade buyers.

“At present there is no proposal to change the assurance scheme’s standards but Red Tractor will continue to work with the whole supply chain to ensure that crops produced within the scheme match the production standards that farmers’ customers and consumers expect.”

Richard Phillips is managing director of AminoA Biostimulants, an R&D based business that makes and distributes a range of crop biostimulants made from animal, vegetable and synthetic ingredients. He says his manufacturer markets these products in 75 countries, but it is only the UK that has raised the issue of animal sources. He believes this started with the media furore over the use of tallow in the new UK banknotes, which led retailers to scrutinise their supply chains.

“While the use of biostimulants in UK combinable and sugar beet crops is a fairly small – but growing – market, around 50% of horticultural crops are treated. Their use on cereal crops in areas of higher growing condition stress, such as Central Europe and the Ukraine is also much higher than the UK,” he notes.

Mr Phillips stresses that hydrolysation breaks proteins down to amino acid level, which means it is impossible to analyse whether an amino acid is derived from a plant or animal protein. Therefore, the only way of telling whether a crop has been treated is through its spray records – where these exist. “Therefore imported crops are more likely than UK products to have been treated with animal-derived biostimulants, but this is impossible to prove through analysis.”

Mr Philips says animal proteins used in his products are all food grade and tested for bacterial contamination, but concedes that this is not a food safety issue. While his business has been affected this year, it can offer plant and synthetic products to UK growers. But “synthetic versions are more expensive, while vegetable-derived products tend to be less effective in the field”, he notes.

 “The vast majority of agricultural biostimulant products marketed today containing amino acids have materials sourced from the major amino-acid manufacturers within the EU,” says Wilson Boardman, managing director of biostimulant business Micromix Plant Health. “These producers have businesses founded on recycling waste materials, and historically pig skin has been one of the most readily utilised sources for hydrolysing to amino acids. These products clearly will not conform to the requirements of Kosher or Halal.

“While there is a strong argument that their components have been broken down to such fundamental building blocks by chemical and enzymatic breakdown that the source is both chemically and biologically irrelevant, we also live in a society that has experienced BSE and has high levels of political sensitivity around religious tolerance – so animal sourced amino acids are unacceptable.”

Mr Boardman says the amino acids in Micromix products are synthetic and/or produced through the fermentation of crop residues.