As Ecuador’s traditional rose farmers swop flowers for hemp plants in a bid to recover from dwindling sales, could this herald the start of a domino effect for the world’s farmers?
Ecuador’s flower industry was hit hard during the pandemic and growers have seen an opportunity to reinvent in order to survive. Legal reforms mean cultivating cannabis plants is now legal, although any cannabis products must contain less than 1% THC content.
Italian farmers have turned to hemp in the face of low wheat prices. Growing hemp has been legal in Italy since 2016, with around 4000 hectares of land currently dedicated to growing hemp. Like Ecuador, Italian hemp can only be grown for non-pharmaceutical use with THC limited to 0.2%. Italian hemp is being used to make pasta, oil, flour, biscuits and ricotta, as well as environmentally-friendly bricks. With wheat crops achieving a profit of around €250 per hectare and hemp netting over €2500 per hectare, it’s easy to see why Sicilian farmers are substituting wheat for hemp.
Centuries of monoculture, exacerbated by climate change, has left much of Italy’s farmland desiccated but hemp farming could help there too with a diversification of crops helping return soil to a fertile condition where deep-rooted hemp plants bring up nutrients and make it available for future crops, improve soil drainage and aeration.
Making the case in the UK
Here in the UK, hemp plants are being trialled by Scottish farmers in Aberdeenshire and Angus in a move away from cattle farming. Not only could this help British farmers recover from the pandemic, Brexit and a gradual consumer shift away from red meat, but hemp is also beneficial to the environment. According to the Scottish Hemp Association, hemp can remove 15 tonnes of C02 per hectare and, with the number of Scottish farmers making the switch to hemp the positive environmental impact could be significant.
In East Anglia, farmers are exploring the ‘huge potential’ of cannabis crops while the Home Office continues to limit commercial viability with licences to use just the fibres and seeds and limit THC content to 0.2%. Currently, UK hemp farmers can only utilise part of the plant that cannot be used for CBD – meaning anyone processing cannabis or hemp for CBD must import raw product from abroad, limiting the UK’s ability to compete in this commercial market.
While we wait for the UK’s legislation to catch up, there are plenty of uses for industrial-grade hemp seeds and fibre and researchers at Cranfield University say there is growing international evidence that it can boost biodiversity, control pests, improve soils, sequester carbon, and it could also provide a useful break crop alternative to oilseed rape, which is becoming increasingly challenging to grow in the UK.
To investigate hemp’s potential as a UK crop, five farmers are collaborating with researchers at Cranfield University and the British Hemp Alliance as part of an Innovative Farmers programme by the Soil Association. They will grow industrial hemp over two plots, including a control plot, and will test their soils for organic carbon, soil structure, soil biology, and biomass nutrients. They will also run biodiversity surveys for butterflies, insects, and birds.
Pre-sowing preparation to achieve baseline data began in July so it will be some months before any meaningful data is available but any research into the advantages of hemp for society or the environment will add weight to the call for UK legislative reform.