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Hemp Has A ‘Key Role’ To Play In Efforts To Achieve Global Net-Zero Ambitions

The first phase of an ambitious decade long project aimed at boosting UK industrial hemp production 100-fold by 2030 has won £200,000 in government backing.  

Dr Joe Ross, of the University of York research team behind Hemp-30, tells Jane Hall what needs to change if the project’s germ of an idea is to reach maturity.

A REFORM of the UK’s hemp harvesting rules will be key to helping re-establish the much-maligned plant as a major agricultural crop.

Dr Joe Ross – one of the team behind a bold University of York and Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC) project working to increase UK industrial hemp cultivation – says policy reform ‘is the single biggest change that could be made to encourage people to grow it’.

This would mean allowing hemp growers to reap the economic benefits of not just legally harvesting the stems and seeds for oil, but also the CBD rich leaves and flowers, which are currently controlled under the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and have to be destroyed as soon as they are separated from the plant.

Dr Ross, who is the BDC director, told BusinessCann: “If we want one thing that is going to make people want to grow this crop, this is going to be it. It appears to be the case that there are a number of other countries within mainland Europe and North America that are doing this, so there are plenty of precedents out there we should be looking at.”

UK Law Changes Needed 

Britain currently imports large quantities of CBD oil and raw hemp material for the production of everything from medicines to body care products, paper, building materials and bioplastics, despite the fact it could be produced more cheaply and effectively domestically.

Changing the current regulations would help free-up an industry that is already worth more than £300m a year in the UK – and potentially play a major role in the University of York and BDC’s Hemp-30 project reaching its goal of boosting industrial hemp cultivation from a current 800 hectares to 80,000 hectares by 2030.

Dr Ross says how the 10-year roadmap will ultimately be achieved has yet been determined.

Dr Ross

But some priorities are already coming to the fore, policy change being uppermost, along with better ways of communicating with farmers.

“Others are looking at how much of a benefit to farmers it will be if we can develop new varieties which offer new traits that are of interest to the UK agricultural community. Also, how feasible it will be to innovate better on farm processing capability,” Dr Ross explained.

“Any innovation we come up with has to be something that can be deployed before the farm gate.

“Then, of course, there are the things we haven’t found out yet. The whole point of talking to these stakeholders is to discover what they think is important. That is the nature of the project, to investigate and get views first hand from people who are involved in the industry.”

Plant-Based Food Opportunities

The early signs are there is a big opportunity waiting to be exploited by the UK.

“I do feel we are in a phase at the moment where there seems to be an openness within government to look at changes in policy regimes, so I guess we are going to find that out. But it feels like it is a good time to be doing this.

“On top of that, there is the technological developments that are happening that allow us to do things we couldn’t have done five years, and certainly 10 years, ago. For example, some of the hemp varieties have had their whole genome sequenced recently, and that gives you a lot more information in terms of making specific changes.

“I think the other one is the food industry. There seems to be this ongoing sea change to vegetarian and vegan-based diets, and the interest that that then generates in a whole range of plant-based foods is interesting. 

“If we can find novelty and innovation there which the UK can lead on, then that is an opportunity both for things that are grown and produced here, but also potentially for something we can export to the rest of the world.”

Hemp’s Versatility Gaining Support

Hemp was once an important agriculture crop across Britain. In Tudor times farmers could be fined if they didn’t give over land to the growing of hemp, which was heavily used in shipbuilding and as a textile.

But in the 20th Century it was banned when prohibitionists confused it with high-THC cannabis. It was only in 1993 that the UK legalised the cultivation of hemp as an industrial crop. Since then, its cultivation has been allowed under licence, although tough restrictions continue to apply.

Hemp’s versatility is gaining traction, however, especially as a food, fuel, construction material and in pharmaceuticals, as well as its untapped potential as a low carbon raw material.

It also offers environmental benefits as a fast-growing ‘break’ crop that improves soil health and for its ability to capture atmospheric carbon.

Dr Ross understands that the economics have to be right for farmers to buy-into hemp.

“If the aim of our project is to encourage greater growing of this crop, then you want to try and maximise the economic benefits. We are working with a monitoring officer on the project from BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) who is seeking to set up meetings between ourselves, BEIS and other parts of government to discuss this.

“It is at a very early stage and we will just have to see where that goes, but it is good to be getting that opportunity through this project to be having those discussions.”

Hemp-30 & Net Zero Targets

Hemp-30 has recently been awarded £200,000 of government money to fund the project’s first development stage through to January next year. 

It is one of 24 projects that have received government funding of up to £200,000 to increase UK production of biomass that can be used as sources of green energy.

The funding is part of the government’s target for biomass feedstocks to help achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

A new biomass strategy is expected to be published in 2022 which will review the amount of sustainable biomass available to the UK and how this could best be utilised across the economy to help achieve the government’s net zero and wider environmental commitments.

The team will then bid for three years’ worth of Phase Two cash from the government’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme – funded through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) £1bn Net Zero Innovation Portfolio – to help turn the project’s findings into reality.

Hemp-30 aligns with the University of York’s broader ambition – articulated through the BioYorkshire initiative – to harness the region’s biotechnology expertise to grow a dynamic green economy.

Hemp As A Break Crop

Dr Ross said: “We are quite hopeful, given the sort of background we have in this area, that we will have an opportunity to take this project forward. We have already talked to a number of groups who have said they are interested in this as an alternative break crop.

“Oil seed rape and sugar beet have had difficulties with pests and parasites and I think people have started to look at hemp as a possible alternative.

“It brings a lot of benefits, not just environmentally, but economically.

“Given this whole scheme is funded from BEIS, it gives us an opportunity to talk to people in government, and we are starting to have some discussions with interested groups about the policy regime that exists in the UK.

“That is being looked at a lot at the minute in terms of the ability of UK farmers to harvest the flowers and leaves. At the moment those parts of the plant can’t be harvested or used and it is where the vast majority of CBD is located.

“One of the ways that we may be able to encourage greater growing of hemp is to change that policy position.

“I realise that we, certainly as a group at the University of York, are really just at the start of getting involved with those discussions. I know there are other groups that have been a lot more involved than we have. 

“But we have been reading the reports advocating a change in policy, and one of the things we will be seeking to do is to talk to some of those groups.”

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