The Enormous Potential of Industrial Hemp

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An industrial hemp plot at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Spindletop Research Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Credit: UK College of Agriculture, Food & Environment

Hemp is a plant with a long history. It has the strongest fiber found in any plant, and in the Elizabethan period, it was used extensively by European fleets for ship construction, ropes, sails, and for the clothing of their crews.

 

The main variety of hemp, Cannabis sativa, comes with high and low psychoactive levels and has been cultivated throughout recorded history for its industrial fiber, seed oil, food, medicine, and for recreation and spiritual enlightenment.

 

For recreational use, the plant is generally referred to as “cannabis” or “marijuana.” This utilizes the component chemical of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to produce a high in the user. It is due to this connection that certain countries throughout the world have either banned or introduced stringent controls on the growth of hemp. Since the everyday term of “hemp” may include all of the above uses, it has been practical to use terminology that differentiates the legal and nonlegal uses of the plant. This has brought about the use of “industrial hemp” to describe the low, or even zero, THC content of certain varieties of Cannabis sativa.

 

For the purposes of this article, the term “hemp” will refer strictly to industrial hemp.

 

The hemp plant is grown for both its straw and seeds. The straw consists of its fiber and core, which is called the shiv. Hemp fiber is the strongest known natural fiber (apart from a certain type of silk) and has been used extensively over the centuries. It has been utilized not only for ropes, canvas, and clothing, but also for paper, plastic goods, and string. Most ancient manuscripts are written on hemp paper, including the famous British Magna Carta, written in 1215 AD.

 

Due to its high properties for insulation and absorption, the shiv is used predominantly for building insulation and animal bedding.

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A farmer with his hemp crop in Powys, Wales in 2009. Credit: Anson Allen

The seeds are used mainly for food, whether whole, ground, or pressed for oil. The oil is used not only like other oils for cooking and salad dressings but also as a milk alternative. In his comprehensive 1993 book on fat nutrition, Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Dr. Udo Erasmus concluded that “the best-balanced source of essential fatty acids is hemp seed oil.” According to further research based in Kentucky, “the oil is over 70% polyunsaturated or cholesterol-fighting essential fatty acids and contains all 8 essential amino acids.” There is sufficient evidence to show that the seeds are one of the healthiest foods available for human consumption.

 

Hemp is one of the earliest domesticated plants known to man and has been grown for hundreds, and even thousands of years in many countries of the world. It is believed to have originated from the Himalayas, where in addition to its many usages, it was particularly beneficial in preventing soil erosion.

 

Industrial hemp is currently cultivated in 29 countries of the world, including 15 countries in Europe. In recent years, there has been a small amount of licensed crops grown in Wales.

 

Hemp’s Demise and Potential

 

Why was the growing of hemp banned in so many countries? There is much evidence to show that the banning was in effect an industrial conspiracy against the product for a variety of competitive reasons. The manufacturers of synthetic fibers and paper worked together to have it banned in the United States, and then in many other countries, on the pretext that it was only grown for its recreational use as marijuana. Since so many countries have accepted the potential for industrial hemp it is now grown quite widely, but still often with stringent restrictions. For instance in Australia, the United Kingdom, and many other countries, it can only be grown legitimately under license. The process to become licensed is usually expensive and highly bureaucratic.

 

With hemp’s enormous proven potential, the main barriers to its rejuvenation are these legal restrictions.

 

The Benefits of Industrial Hemp Farming

 

The hemp plant grows to a height of up to three meters and is one of the fastest growing biomasses known, producing up to 25 tons of dry matter per hectare per year.

 

One farmer in Wales successfully grew a hemp crop in 2009 at over 900 feet above sea level. He harvested it with a traditional disc mower and round baler, and then used the straw very successfully for animal bedding.

 

In addition to its high yielding potential, hemp has high agronomic and environmental attributes. It requires few pesticides and with its deep rooting, it survives well in dry conditions, bringing up nutrients from deep in the soil. Hence it is an excellent rotational crop. One farmer in Pembrokeshire reported that a barley crop that followed an earlier hemp trial crop was the best yielding barley crop he had ever grown. Once established, hemp grows very quickly. Its short growing cycle appeals to farmers who are using it as a rotational crop, as they are able to introduce the following winter crop in good time.

 

Since its deep roots enhance soil nutrition, hemp is drought tolerant and usually needs no fertilizers, except possibly nitrogen. However, if sowing follows a legume crop, such as lupins, which have been grown very successfully in parts of Australia, then hemp may grow well without any artificial fertilizer at all.

 

Provided it is sown at the appropriate time in the season—when the ground is at a minimum temperature of 10ºC and after rain when the soil is moist—hemp germinates and grows quickly, outgrowing competitive weeds. It can therefore be grown without the use of herbicides. What’s more, the plant also contains a natural insect repellent and, therefore, does not require the use of insecticides.

 

Why is a Revival in the Cards?

 

With a significant number of countries now permitting the cultivation of hemp, its revival is well under way. There is so much evidence both historical and current as to its great potential and benefits that the cultivation, processing, and use of hemp is developing quite strongly around the world. However, its cultivation is not easy in all regions. The areas most suited to its cultivation are those with a Mediterranean climate. The climate in parts of the United Kingdom is not ideal.

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A licensed hemp trial crop in Pembrokeshire, Wales in June 2011. Credit: Anson Allen

A few years ago, a group of farmers and other interested parties got together in Southwest Wales to re-establish the regular growing of industrial hemp by providing other farmers with the necessary information and support, and to secure the required processing and distribution channels for the selected products.

 

The main emphasis of this project, called Hemp Wales, through 2011 was to support a farmer with his four-acre, organically grown trial crop in Pembrokeshire. However, although the trial crop grew very well, it could not be harvested due to wet weather and boggy soils. The following trial in 2012 did not develop properly due to bad weather, and the 2013 crop also grew well but could not be harvested. Very disappointedly, Hemp Wales had to give up the re-establishment of hemp as a regular crop in Wales.

 

In spite of the disappointing results in Wales, the crop is grown successfully in some other parts of the United Kingdom, and ever encouraging research indicates the great global agricultural and industrial potential for the crop. Since Australia has more suitable climates than Wales, we would encourage farmers, businesses, and politicians in the country to do much more for this high-potential industry.

 

The Current Scenario

 

So what is the current scenario affecting the rejuvenation of hemp and its products around the world? It is a mix of positives and challenges, although there is no question about its enormous economic and environmental potential. There is much information about the cultivation of hemp and the steps being taken by many countries to rejuvenate the growing of the crop. A comprehensive 45-page thesis by Erin Young at Lund University in Sweden gives many insights into current activities and the great potential for hemp.2

 

Hemp entrepreneur and author of many books on the subject, Paul Benhaim, provides a wealth of information. Having been involved in the various hemp industries for over 15 years, he founded one of the most informative websites on industrial hemp. “Over the past decade I’ve amassed a lot of knowledge on what it takes to grow hemp for profit,” he says. This knowledge “comes from being involved in hemp growing, processing, and manufacturing and from working with successful hemp farmers across the globe. But most people don’t know the wonderful qualities and the amazing potential of the hemp plant.”3

 

In the United States, the current and historical uses of hemp are well documented; however, due to its current legal constraints, cropping is still virtually nonexistent. The result is that most hemp products in the country are imported from Canada.

 

The hemp industry thrives on a small basis in parts of the United Kingdom. Good Hemp brand oil, produced in Cornwall, is available for sale in many shops and supermarkets, and there is limited use of hemp and lime in construction. Hemp growing and processing is much more developed in France and other European countries where the climate is more favorable.

 

The Future of Industrial Hemp

 

If THC varieties are legalized, then the market potential for the industrial hemp sector is enormous. Essential oil is highly concentrated, and when the THC variety is used, it is alleged to be an effective treatment for many forms of cancer. Recent reports suggest that there is currently a Cannabis sativa research project developing in Western Australia to explore the medicinal uses of hemp oils.

 

From the collated data, it can be seen that whether for whole seeds, de-hulled seeds, or oil, the market potential for the development of hemp seeds is considerable. Provided restrictive legislation gets no worse, the market potential is enormous. If legislation is eased, this will grow even faster.

 

Turning to the plant’s straw, the whole straw is equally suitable for animal bedding, providing the material with a ready market. The market is particularly attractive for small-animal bedding, which is sold at an even higher premium.

 

There is also great scope for hemp in plastics. At the 2011 Hemp Conference in France organized by Chenvriere de l’Aube, many plastic goods made with hemp were on display, including furniture and footwear.

 

There are few environmental risks in the growing, harvesting, and processing of industrial hemp. In fact, the attributes of the species are highly beneficial in terms of potential for carbon sequestration in particular. For every ton of above ground biomass, 1.83 tons of CO2 are sequestered in the soil. With carbon emissions rising higher on the political agenda, the carbon sequestration potential for hemp products could be of great benefit. The agronomic benefits are considerable.

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Agronomist David Williams spoke at the first UK Industrial Hemp Field Day at Spindletop Research Farm.
University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Agronomist David Williams spoke at the first UK Industrial Hemp Field Day at Spindletop Research Farm in August 2015. Credit: UK College of Agriculture, Food & Environment

With its growth rate four times more productive than timber, there are environmental benefits in using hemp for paper and biomass, as well as in construction. It is also a good source of protein for animal fodder.

 

There are many economic benefits in production of hemp products both locally and on a global scale. With increasing populations and pressing climate issues, the efficient production of more healthy food products is of great benefit to society and should be encouraged by governments.

 

While the outcomes of Hemp Wales were intensely disappointing due to climate constraints, the overwhelming research on the positive attributes of industrial hemp production should encourage countries with more suitable climates such as Australia to develop the industry for the considerable benefits it heralds for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

 

References

  1. Erasmus, U. Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill: The Complete Guide to Fats, Oils, Cholesterol and Human Health (Alive Books, Summertown, TN, 1993).
  2. Young, EM. Revival of industrial hemp: a systematic analysis of the current global industry to determine limitations and identify future potentials within the concept of sustainability. Lund University [online] (2005) http://www.lumes.lu.se/sites/lumes.lu.se/files/erin_young.pdf.
  3. Hemp Foods Australia [online] www.hempfoods.com.au.