THE number of German farms growing industrial hemp has hit 863 – the highest figure since the federal republic legalised the cultivation of the crop in 1996.
This is a year-on-year increase of 172 farms compared to 2020; and more than a tenfold rise on the 86 operating in 2013.
According to the latest figures from Germany’s Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (Federal Office for Agriculture and Food, or BLE) a total of 6,444 hectares (25 square miles) has been given over to industrial hemp in 2021, a rise of 1,082 hectares on last year.
Lower Saxony and Bavaria had the most growers (173 and 254 respectively) and hectares under cultivation (1,555 and 843) according to the figures taking in all 16 of Germany’s federal states.
Only Bremen in northern Germany had no acreage under cultivation, with even Berlin recording one grower propagating three hectares.
Campaigners promoting the growth of Germany’s domestic industrial hemp sector have welcomed the increase in farmers and acreage under cultivation, but reacted cautiously to suggestions it could herald the beginning of a renaissance for the age-old crop.
Aaron Kamperschroer, Managing Director of the Nutzhanf-Netzwerk e.V, (Industrial Hemp-Network e.V.), a German-wide, non-profit association promoting the cultivation and processing of hemp, said: “The increase in cultivated hectares of hemp by 1,082 hectares to 6,444 hectares in 2021 is high in percentage terms, but still very low in absolute terms when compared to the 2.8 million hectares of maize cultivated in Germany.
“With less than 7,000 hectares under cultivation in the whole of Germany, commercial hemp is currently still clearly classified as a niche product.”
But he added a note of optimism. “We hope we are working on the fact that the cultivation of industrial hemp in Germany will increase more in the future than it has so far. We are already observing that commercial hemp is increasingly being seen in the public consciousness as a great opportunity to alleviate the ecological crisis, such as products made from commercial hemp that meet the sustainability requirements of our time to a high degree.”
The full legalisation of cannabis – which looks possible following the shift in the nation’s political landscape in September’s Bundestag elections – would be unlikely to have much impact on the hemp sector, Mr Kamperschroer said.
Whilst a coalition government still has to be announced, both the Liberals and Greens have plans to relax and decriminalise cannabis – which was legalised for medicinal purposes in 2017 – and are set to be a part of any administration going forward.
“The parties are currently discussing legalisation. However, the outcome is still completely open. In our opinion, however, a possible legalisation will not have any direct impact on the cultivation of industrial hemp,” Mr Kamperschroer explained.
Of greater bearing would be lifting the current maximum 0.2% Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content allowed for industrial hemp. Under current legislation, any crop exceeding the 0.2% THC limit has to be destroyed.
In November last year the EU signified its intent to raise the requisite THC percentage for industrial hemp from 0.2% to 0.3%, bringing it into line with America.
But in July this year, a motion in the Bundestag instigated by The Greens and The Left Party aimed at removing industrial hemp from the nation’s Narcotic Laws and setting an upper THC limit of 0.6%, was rejected – despite widespread political support for the reform.
Mr Kamperschroer said: “If a higher THC content than 0.2% were allowed, as is already the case in other European countries, this would be advantageous for commercial hemp farmers in Germany.”
It would mean that commercial hemp growers could concentrate on other properties of the plant, such as greater seed yields or better quality fibre, as well as avoiding the possibility of their crop being destroyed for exceeding the 0.2% legal THC limit.
The number of industrial hemp growers in Germany has fluctuated erratically over the past 25 years since the cultivation ban was lifted. BLE figures show that in 1996, 568 growers were cultivating 1,416 hectares.
In 2011, the number dropped significantly from 148 to just 96 and by 2013 just 86 farms were cultivating hemp across 437 hectares. This decline coincided with the ditching of various subsidies.
Since 2014 the number of farms and acreage under cultivation has slowly, but steadily, increased mainly, explained Mr Kamperschroer, to a general trend among Germany’s growers for exploiting rarer fruits as they look to expand crop rotations.
“Those who now also cultivate commercial hemp on the one hand appreciate the ecological advantages of cultivating commercial hemp and, on the other hand, see the potential to gain further sources of income from products made from the hemp plant.
“Some of the farmers are also trying out whether, and how well, commercial hemp or winter hemp is suitable as a crop for intercropping.”
Interest in hemp-based products such as seeds, oil, flours, cereals and cereal bars and CBD as a treatment for health issues like arthritis, insomnia, epilepsy and anxiety, has also been growing in Germany, especially in the organic sector.
But Mr Kamperschroer said: “At the same time, we know from personal conversations that the raw materials for these products are mostly still imported from China, France and other countries.
“It is important that we achieve a sustainable expansion of commercial hemp cultivation. For this, an overall strategy must be developed that meets the requirements of hemp farmers, processors and marketers, and ultimately those of consumers.”
Industrial Hemp In Germany
Industrial hemp – the non-psychoactive cousin of cannabis – was a significant agricultural crop in Germany until its cultivation was banned in 1982 due to the concerns over the intoxicating effect of the cannabis plant.
In 1996 the cultivation of industrial hemp was legalised – as long as it doesn’t have a THC content above 0.2%.
Hemp is subject to Germany’s Narcotics Act. Exceptions are in place for certain products, however, such as foods made from hemp seeds.
Exemption permits to handle hemp varieties with a THC-content above the legal limit are handled by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, BfArM (Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte).
The Berlin Museum of Hemp exercised this option to be able to display some cannabis varieties with a THC level exceeding the legal limit.
In line with all EU countries, only certified hemp varieties can be cultivated in Germany.
Farmers must obtain a license from the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) to cultivate industrial hemp.
They must also declare in writing to the BLE their intention to cultivate and indicate the planned acreage.
The BLE performs field inspections during the cultivation process to ensure THC-levels do not exceed the legal 0.2% limit.
Around 30% of the areas declared for the production of hemp undergo spot checks.
Finally, the farmer must notify the BLE of the beginning of the flowering stage and can only harvest once all test results for THC content come back negative.
Hot Crop Headaches
If a crop has ‘grown hot’ with THC levels above the legal limit, the entire harvest will be destroyed, the variety will be further examined, and possibly be removed from the common variety list.
Per Article 9 of EU Regulation 639/2014, the common variety catalogue for agricultural crops is published on March 15 of each crop year.
At present around 40 hemp varieties are approved for cultivation.
In Germany, hemp is used for a wide range of commercial products, including food, animal feed, textiles, paper, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, construction material, and more.
More generally, the hemp plant has multiple uses – not all of them currently sanctioned.
The stems can be utilised to feed two different production processes. Larger pieces can be used for the fibres, while the smaller hurds, or shives, can be applied to a range of products as diverse as insulation or pet bedding.
The seeds can be turned into oils, flour, food ingredients, animal feed, and protein powder.
The leaves and flowers can be used for tea, animal bedding, compost and recreational purposes – although the latter is currently illegal in Germany and across Europe.
Even the hemp plants roots can be used in medicine or as organic compost.