Cream of the crop


CLA Land Use Policy Adviser Fraser McAuley explores the potential benefits that growing hemp could offer farmers and landowners. 

Growing Cannabis may not sound like a typical CLA member's enterprise but it may be worthwhile considering - it can improve the bottom line of your business and deliver a range of environmental benefits. Hemp, sometimes known as industrial hemp is a strain of cannabis sativa which has been bred specifically for the traits required for a range of industrial products. It is different from the illegal strains of cannabis which contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element, with hemp varieties grown in the UK having to contain less than 0.3% to be approved. Current UK production of hemp is thought to be around 800 hectares indicating the potential for massive growth in the coming years.

In comparison there is approximately 33000 hectares of hemp grown in the EU - it even has a crop code under the Basic Payment Scheme. One reason, aside from a lack of awareness of the benefits of growing hemp, is that to grow it you need to be licensed by the Home Office and adhere to a set of strict regulations regarding location and proximity to sensitive areas.

For centuries hemp has provided raw materials for paper, textiles, rope for ships, medicine, oil and now environmentally sustainable building products. There has been a recent resurgence in demand for hemp and products derived from hemp. Most notably, the use of Cannabidiol (CBD) products as a remedy for a range of ailments has increased in popularity dramatically over the past few years   Research from the Cannabis Trades Association found the number of CBD oil users doubled in 2018 and now sits over 250,000 regular users.  It has also been named one of the fastest growing industries in the United Kingdom. 

Hemp is a very robust, competitive plant that will outcompete weeds - it can grow to over 4.5 metres depending on the variety. In most cases this makes production possible without the use of herbicides. Hemp has a large tap root that is capable of penetrating deep into the soil profile to pick up water and nutrients for plant development. This is a benefit as hemp recovers nutrients that might otherwise be leached below the root zone and enter the groundwater. In addition, the deep roots open up the soil and enhance the structure of the soil for future crops. 
High biomass crops such as industrial hemp are associated with the ability to sequester higher amounts of carbon through photosynthesis, storing it in the body of the plant and its roots. The carbon in the fibre is then transferred into processed fibre products with the biomass thought to contain approximately 40% carbon. Processing of the fibre will sequester carbon that will be captured and tied up in manufactured products for significant periods of time.

There is relatively little awareness of how to grow it and the benefits it can provide in terms of public benefits and environmentally sustainable final products. If you wish to find out more on licensing or the crop in general there are a number of links below.