Exploring the Environmental Benefits of Hemp

by Katya Kowalski


Industrial hemp is an incredibly sustainable and versatile crop that is able to produce a range of products. These include: textile, paper, ropes, insulation material, fibre boards, bioplastics, compost, animal bedding, fuel, paint, feed, food, dietary supplements, cosmetics and medicinal preparations.

The crop also possesses a range of environmental benefits. So, what are they?  

Hemp grows easily in a wide range of climates with few resources. It is also naturally resistant to most insects and kills weeds without chemicals. This means fertilisers aren’t needed as the crop grows densely and regenerates quickly.

Through the process of phytoremediation, hemp is able to remove harmful contaminants to improve soil quality. Hemp converts large quantities of extracted nutrients into useful products due to its large root system digging deep into the soil, stabilising and protecting the plant from erosion.

Hemp has a crucial role in a greener and more sustainable society. It is excellent at carbon sequestration, rapidly capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. For every tonne of hemp produced, 1.63 tonnes of CO2 is removed from the air. Hemp absorbs 15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. This is approximately equivalent to 34,496 miles travelled by an average car.

This makes hemp a more effective CO2 sequester than trees, being one of the fastest natural CO2 biomass conversion tools and as efficient as a tropical rainforest. So, hemp eliminates a significant amount of waste, offsetting carbon-intensive building material whilst providing a long-term carbon store. 

This crop is a sustainable alternative to various products. For instance, hemp is stronger, more durable and cost effective than cotton. Hemp has significantly better water usage too. It takes over 5,000 gallons of water to produce 2.2 pounds of cotton – to produce the same amount of hemp, it takes less than 700 gallons of water.

The same goes for hemp-based paper. Plus, because it is naturally bright it doesn’t require bleaching making it more sustainable by not releasing harmful toxins. Hemp paper can be recycled up to 8 times, compared to 3 uses for tree-based paper. Substituting tree-based paper for hemp will help decrease deforestation.

Essentially, hemp is a cost-efficient and sustainable crop which does not require pesticide use. Substituting a wide range of materials for hemp would have positive economic and environmental impacts. 

Nevertheless, the UK has a mere 900 hectares of hemp farmland compared-to 33,000 hectares across Europe. Given the clear benefits of hemp, why is the UK not farming more of it?

Current UK legislation imposes outdated restrictions on farming. Legislation requires 80% of the hemp plant to be destroyed, meaning farmers are unable to harvest, process, transport or extract cannabinoids from the flower and leaves of the hemp plant. Only the seeds and stalks of hemp can be used under current law, making it unviable for many potential growers.

If all parts of the hemp plant were harvestable, there would be much greater economic and environmental  benefits to growing hemp.

Hemp fibre can reach 7.5 tonnes per hectare, valued at around £160 per tonne. However, current UK legislation means only 1.5 tonnes of hemp can actually be used, meaning farmers are losing £960 per tonne.

Margent Farm, a 53-acre hemp farm in Cambridgeshire, last year had to throw away £100,000 of CBD from a crop on their farm. Not only is this incredibly wasteful, it is damaging to the pockets of hard working farmers across the UK. 

Undoubtedly, current hemp farming policy needs reform. Current law means the UK relies on importing CBD, despite the fact that it could easily be farmed within the UK. Brexit is creating huge uncertainties around the future of British imports, so now is the time to invest in our own resources.

Significant amounts of the most valuable part of the hemp crop are wasted, with the potential for sustainable alternatives to various products and incredible revenue.

We are in current economic turmoil and hemp farming is an effective way of boosting the economy for sustainable recovery. UK regulations currently do not allow for economic growth with hemp farming by limiting commercial prospects for business. However, hemp has the potential to become one of the most profitable crops for UK farmers. It could play a pivotal role in the economic revitalisation of rural areas in the UK.

By increasing the capacity to farm hemp, it will greatly increase job opportunities in the sector. But in order to do this, policy must be reformed.

Volteface is launching Pleasant Lands, a campaign to reform UK hemp farming policy and finally unlock the potential of hemp. We must remove the outdated restrictions that prevent hemp farmers from using the most valuable parts of their crop. At a time when the Treasury is scrambling around to plug economic gaps, support rural communities and move towards our net carbon zero targets – there is a seriously compelling argument to reform hemp, and make our lands all the more pleasant.

This piece was written by Katya Kowalski, Stakeholder Engagement Officer at Volteface. Tweets @KowalskiKatya

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