ERA-Net SusCrop - ERA-Net SusCrop

Valorization of fibres from nettle grown on marginal lands in an agro-forestry cropping system – NETFIB

Valorization of fibres from nettle grown on marginal lands in an agro-forestry cropping system

The NETFIB project (Valorisation of nettle fiber grown on marginal lands in an agro-forestry system) coordinated by the Chrono-Environment Laboratory of Bourgogne Franche-Comté aims to develop the production of nettle in agro-forestry system on marginalized land, to feed a sector in plain expansion, without accentuating the pressure on agricultural land.

NETFIB combines experimentation for nettle production and processing of its fibers, and places all this information in a broader context of commercial feasibility and sustainability

NETFIB’s overall aim is to develop the capacity for farmers and other land managers to recover nettle as a fibre crop from marginal land, which would otherwise remain under-used. Within this aim it has four specific objectives, each of which tests a different hypothesis which is linked to a specific work package (WP):<br />· Obj1: To test the hypothesis that nettle production under short rotation coppice can reliably produce harvestable nettle biomass to a quality and quantity that is likely to be commercially viable.<br />· Obj2: To test the hypothesis that the yield of nettle biomass in agro-forestry systems on marginal land can be enhanced by manipulations of soil and microbes<br />· Obj3 To test the hypothesis that nettle fibre from marginal land sites can effectively substitute existing fibre feedstocks in a range of biocomposites, and create opportunity for new biocomposite products<br />· Obj4: To test the hypothesis that nettle fibre production with short rotation coppice on land being risk managed by phytoremediation has sustainability benefits compared with conventional phyto- management of such land and that the fibre produced has a comparable or better life cycle assessment outcome than existing biofibres like flax from conventional agriculture in the market place

The implementation of field trials will be done on 4 industrial sites, made available by the industrial partner INOVYN in France (St Symphorien sur Saone), Belgium (Jemeppe), Italy (Tavazzano) and Germany (Rheinberg). The productivity of nettle in agro-forestry system will be studied by the French (LCE & LIEC), Italian (UCSC) and Austrian (BOKU) partners. The quality and mechanical properties of the fibers produced will be studied by the French (FEMTO-ST) and German (ATB & HSB) partners. Finally, the study of the economic and social impacts, as well as the potential impacts on the environment will be coordinated by the English partner (R3 Environment).

WP1: In Task 1.1, poplar plantations at the French, Italian and German sites have been done. The plantation of Poplar started with 2-4 month delays at the German site due to the COVID-19 shutdown at the industrial site and late discussion with site owners. Plantation of nettle could not be done in 2020 at all sites and will have to be rescheduled in 2021 (one year delay) because nettle must be planted in Spring. Data from the 2nd growing season of poplar and nettle clones are essential to asses production and fibre quality for WP3 applications.

WP2: In task 2.1, Local amendments have been selected and tested. Experiments are still in progress. Significant effect of some amendments on nettle growth have been obtained. For instance, digestate greatly improved aerial and root biomass production at a moderate concentration. In task 2.2, Metabarcoding analyses revealed which microbes associate with nettle. More than 200 strains have been isolated and are currently tested for their growth improvement. In task 2.3, a range of cultivars have been obtained from a plant producer in Germany and should be planted in April 2021.

WP3 : In task 3.1, harvesting procedures techniques have been developed and different options tested. In task 3.2, Development of mechanical extraction techniques has been sought: Lab decortication & separation of nettle stems has been acquired, method for water retting (incl. report) has been developed. In task 3.3, mechanical properties of the nettle fibres have been studied. The measured properties will be useful to select the best varieties, growing conditions as well as to optimise the transformation processes of nettle straws

WP4 : In this WP, site users (e.g. hunters), Site committee, Land owner, Neighbouring land owners, Farmers, land managers, Tree and plant breeders have been invited to answer a SURF questionnaire, for the three implemented sites. The data are currently been analysed.

WP1. Data from the 2nd growing season of poplar and nettle clones will be evaluated in spring 2021, and are essential to assess fiber production and quality for WP3 applications.
WP2. In task 2.3, a range of cultivars were obtained from a plant grower in Germany and are expected to be planted in April 2021.
WP3. The properties measured through the actions already carried out will be useful to select the best varieties, the best growing conditions as well as to optimize the transformation processes of nettle straws.
WP4. The results will be used to support the NETFIB project, to consider scaling up the site and inform future land use decisions of Inovyn.
Concerning impact of COVID-19 to research activities, university and INOVYN experimental sites were not accessible during COVID-19 crisis in France, Italy and Germany. We had a 2-3 months lockdown where personel was not allowed to access universities lab, office and greenhouses facilities, where in the latter was running preliminary pots experiments. Furthermore, Tavazzano (Lodi) was within the first red-zone declared by Italian governments.

Scientific articles are being written.

The sharp increase in demand for plant based fibre raw materials as substitute for man-made fibres in products as diverse as textiles and car parts can only be met by an increased land area given over for fibre production. However, land is a scarce resource and there is perceived land-use conflict between the needs of food production and non-food production. Producing non-food crop on land marginalised for example by contamination, which is unsuitable for food production might help mitigate this conflict. Nettle (Urtica dioica) has a long history as a fibre crop, but has not been well used in modern times. However, the special properties of nettle fibres (length, strength) have led to increasing market interest in their use and they are now an important “new” emerging fibre crop. They also seem particularly well suited to production on marginal land. The spontaneous appearance of dioecious nettle is prevalent in short rotation coppice (SRC) cropping systems, especially at phytomanaged marginal land sites. Nettles and coppice, such as poplar coppice, provide a multilevel canopy and production of both biomass for energy (coppice) and biomass for fibre (nettle) extending the productivity of the marginal land from coppice alone, whilst still maintaining a functioning phytomanagement system of rehabilitation and risk management of the marginal land. Nettles as a fibre crop also bring land rehabilitation and ecological benefits that can be combined with low-input rehabilitation of soil functionality and mitigation of risks (e.g. to human health and the wider environment). The use of native species (e.g. nettles) creates significant habitat development and wildlife refuge opportunities. These are major sustainability gains.
An industrial sector that consumes high and increasing amounts of plant fibres is the production of biocomposites, which currently make significant use of flax, hemp and other, mainly imported raw materials. To fully exploit the nettle fibre resource, a good understanding of their behaviour and mechanical properties as well as control of their durability is required under controlled environmental conditions. Despite a promising potential for applications, the establishment of nettle cultivation and use at scale remains a challenge and the limited availability of such fibres does not encourage industrial uses. NETFIB addresses this negative feedback loop. NETFIB will promote the development of a site-specific phytomanagement strategy while proposing an innovative production of crop fibre resources, representing a complementary resource of interest for the European needs and economy. The main outputs of NETFIB will largely contribute to provide pioneer territorialized-pan European data on new plant production opportunities on marginalized lands.

Combining the skills of academic and industrial partners will be the basis to integrate the technical and economic aspects of the development of this sector throughout the value chain. The consortium will be organized around 4 technical WPs in addition to the coordination and dissemination WPs. These WPs are closely interlinked. WP1 focuses on nettle production as a part of existing agro-forestry process on marginal land. WP2 focuses on the improvement of nettle production to generate recommendations for optimizing nettle crop performance within agroforestry context. WP3 explores the functional use of nettle fibres in a key industry sector, and WP4 explores the overall sustainability of this combined system for the better management of marginal lands.
Overall NETFIB combines experimentation for nettle biomass production on land and the processing of its fibre outputs, as well as potential constraints, for example uptake of contaminants into usable biomass, and sets all of this information in a broader context of commercial feasibility and sustainability.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


r3 environmental technology ltd (R3E)
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU)
Hochschule Bremen - City University of Applied Sciences (HSB)
UL Université de Lorraine (UL)
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (UCSC)
Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB)

Help of the ANR 299,994 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2018 - 36 Months

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