Hemp, which is also known as cannabis, is a plant that can grow in the UK without causing damage to soil and water. It’s a cash crop, providing a source of income for the British farming industry but also a way to help the environment.

Hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years for its fibrous stalk, used in many applications including clothing and paper. It’s also a highly nutritious food, containing protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. But, due to its appearance, it has never been grown commercially. Hemp is considered to be a low crop risk due to its short lifespan and high organic yield. Its seed is also considered to be an excellent source of protein, and is now being investigated by the pharmaceutical industry as a means of rapidly producing proteins for human consumption. This article will discuss the need for hemp to be grown in the UK, and the potential benefits of doing so.

Industrial hemp could be a valuable tool for UK agriculture, helping with the transition to more sustainable practices and providing a new crop, according to a farmers’ group.

To further explore the potential of hemp, five farmers are working with researchers from Cranfield University and the British Hemp Alliance as part of the Association of Soil Scientists’ Innovative Farmers programme.

They plan to conduct on-farm field trials to gather science-based data on the ecological benefits of this crop.

Hemp has long been stigmatized as belonging to the cannabis family (Cannabis Stiva L strains have low THC content and are not used for drugs), hemp requires no agrochemicals.

Researchers say there is growing evidence that it can help increase biodiversity, fight pests, improve soil and sequester carbon.

It could also be a useful alternative to rapeseed, which is becoming increasingly difficult to grow in the UK.

However, unlike many other countries, industrial hemp in the UK is still classified as a controlled drug and farmers wishing to grow the plant must apply for a licence from the Home Office.

As a result, there are only about 20 licensed producers in the UK with a total area of 2 000 hectares.

With post-Brexit agricultural policy focused on delivering public goods such as biodiversity and carbon sequestration, we need to rethink the approach to cannabis cultivation in the UK, says Nathaniel Loxley, project coordinator at Innovative Farmers and co-founder of the British Hemp Alliance.

Hemp could be a very valuable tool in the arsenal of UK farmers, but the UK is currently lagging behind internationally and there is a distinct lack of data in the UK context, said Mr Loxley.

We hope that by better understanding the benefits of cannabis and gathering evidence of it, we can pave the way for more producers in the UK.

Industrial hemp is a versatile plant used for building materials, clothing textiles, animal bedding and as a plastic substitute.

Manufacturers in the construction, fashion and packaging industries are increasingly looking to the factory for environmental solutions.

Britain has a long history of hemp cultivation, and during the reign of Henry VIII hemp was so important to the British Navy that landowners were not allowed to grow it.

Henry Ford even built a car from and with hemp, and the plant was used to remove pollutants after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

More and more benefits are being discovered from this incredibly versatile plant, says Helen Oldis, Innovative Farmers program manager.

There is real potential for farmers in the UK to use cannabis to restore their land, deliver public goods and grow a new crop, so it’s great that Innovative Farmers can get involved.

It is vital that farmers and researchers work together on these on-farm trials so that we can determine the true environmental benefits of cannabis and share this knowledge with more farmers.

Environmental benefits

Currently, most of the evidence for the environmental benefits of cannabis is anecdotal or from a limited number of studies in the U.S. and Europe, said Dr. Linda Dix, a researcher at Cranfield University who has conducted research on the plant.

It’s been shown to be good for the environment, both on the ground and above ground, but it could potentially provide other environmental benefits, and that’s something we need to understand, says Dr. Dix.

One of the areas to be studied is the carbon sequestration potential of cannabis. According to Dr Dix, the plant has the potential to store carbon in the soil and, through the use of its fibres in biocomposite materials, for example for construction or the automotive industry.

Data from other studies show different rates of carbon sequestration, likely related to soil types. So we need to know what that would look like under British conditions, she says.

It also has a strong taproot that can contribute to soil health by reducing compaction, improving drainage and aerating the soil.

When the roots eventually break down, the carbon should provide a more stable soil structure.

Farmers’ perspective

Study participant Nick Voise and his company East Yorkshire Hemp are at the forefront of cannabis cultivation and product innovation in the UK.

Fifteen years ago, he converted most of his farmland to cannabis and now has 450 acres planted with cannabis.

Mr Voaz processes the harvest into fibre, animal bedding, HempLogz (firewood briquettes) and hemp concrete (for construction).

Although we’re not an organic farm, we grow cannabis without pesticides, seed treatments, whatever – it works without them, says Voaz.

Currently, there are no fungal diseases or insect pests causing significant damage.

That makes it very useful for insects, and at this time of year cattails often congregate on the hemp, he said.

I’m also interested in the carbon sequestration potential – if we turn hemp into hemp concrete, we may be sequestering carbon as long as the building stands.

Camilla Heiselden-Ashby from Kent is growing cannabis for the first time on her family’s 320-acre mixed farm. She plans to add hemp to the farm’s crop rotation.

When hemp takes root, it gets a very dense canopy, which shades the weeds – we like that, because we have a problem with quackgrass, says Haiselden-Eshby.

The roots of the plant go deep, so they take up nutrients from depth and make them available for future crops.

I hope that by collecting data on the environmental benefits of cannabis, we can facilitate the licensing of cannabis.

It is not a dangerous drug, but a crop with great potential, and farmers should be encouraged to grow it, just as they encourage the cultivation of legumes to improve the soil.

Court

All the farms participating in the Innovative Farmers survey are licensed cannabis growers and were selected to represent a wide range of different climatic, topographical and soil conditions in England.

They will grow commercial hemp at two sites, including a control plot, and analyze the soil for organic carbon content, soil structure, soil biology and biomass nutrients. They will also conduct biodiversity surveys to observe butterflies, insects and birds.

Pre-seeding for baseline data is currently underway.

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