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Red tape holding back the potential of hemp farming

Farmers, scientists and environmentalists are calling on the Government to deregulate a crop that could solve so many problems

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Top of the crops: Hemp has multiple industrial uses, including  insulation, clothes, animal bedding and car parts

Top of the crops: Hemp has multiple industrial uses, including insulation, clothes, animal bedding and car parts

Top of the crops: Hemp has multiple industrial uses, including insulation, clothes, animal bedding and car parts

It has been hailed as a wonder-crop, an environmentally friendly, multi-use product that could provide significant extra income for tens of thousands of farmers across the country while reducing our carbon footprint - but only if Ireland's restrictive legislation is changed.

Farmers, scientists and environmentalists are united in calling for a loosening of the regulations surrounding the growing of hemp.

They are not talking about legalising marijuana for recreational use: hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant grown for industrial uses - of which there are many, including fibres, insulation and biodegradable plastics - and it contains negligible amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis.

But in Ireland, hemp is classed as a controlled drug, and you need a special grower's licence (from the Health Products Regulatory Authority) to grow it. Various restrictions apply - plants must not be visible from the road - and the THC content must not exceed 0.2pc. In most other European countries, the threshold is significantly higher. As a result, hemp is only grown on a minuscule scale here - just 370 hectares were planted last year, mostly for cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which is used in medical, cosmetic and food products.

"That's why the industry has been slow to take off in this country," says Dr Barry Caslin, Teagasc's energy and rural development specialist. "We don't have a processing infrastructure that would give farmers confidence to grow the product. And that's because of the grey areas in the legislation. Investors are slow to invest.

"There's an imperative there to look at hemp as an alternative crop in agricultural systems to help us meet all these challenges we have going forward, such as meeting energy needs… hemp ticks many boxes: it addresses the bio-economy; it's a multi-use crop - none of the plant goes to waste. For example, people are insulating their houses with fibreglass, which is derived from fossil fuels. We could be using a natural product, hemp, which is even more effective - it has a higher U-value."

Tom Short, IFA's Renewable Energy Project Team Leader, is among those calling for the Government to take action and allow an Irish hemp industry to mushroom.

"If the legislation changes, there would be an explosion in hemp growing," he says. "It's an amazing product - so many uses, and it's sustainable.

"Traditional farmers are struggling to make ends meet, and they are looking for alternatives - and hemp could certainly be part of the answer. It's something that can be done on a small scale.

"The legislation needs to change to differentiate between industrial hemp, with very low levels of THC, and cannabis grown for marijuana. But we have been talking about this for 10 years and very little is being done," Short adds, pointing out that one of the reasons hemp legalisation has become bogged down is that it comes under the remit of three Government departments - Health and Justice as well as Agriculture.

"But it's not are we going to do it, it's when are we going to do it. The Government is under massive pressure... we are so reliant on oil/coal, and that has to change. We have to reduce our carbon footprint, and this is an ideal way to do it. If we don't do it, we will be importing hemp when we should be growing it ourselves."

Green Party agriculture spokesperson Pippa Hackett adds: "The Green Party would be very much in favour of supporting farmers to diversify into hemp growing, and we had a very informative presentation from hemp growers at our last party think-in. It is an incredibly useful plant.

"Unfortunately, the uptake of hemp growing seems slow in Ireland, partly due to the licensing requirement. On the legislative issue, it really should be as simple as legislating on the seed that can be sold/grown here in a similar way to seeds for other arable crops.

"Routes to market would also be an important aspect that would need to be considered. We do not want to end up in a similar situation as farmers who were lured into miscanthus growing for biomass and then left with no market for their product.

"We are actually looking into growing it on our own farm in Co Offaly."

Hemp is not some new fad: it has been cultivated by mankind for 10,000 years and was widely grown in Ireland until the 1930s.

"That coincided with the banning of marijuana and the development of synthetic plastics," says Dr Caslin. "I certainly see a great need for the crop - it's a crop that farmers can diversify into, that can give them a meaningful return.

"We could be using hemp for insulation, for animal bedding, clothing, even for car parts."

Dr Caslin is confident that hemp would flourish in most parts of Ireland - he says it prefers well-drained soils with nutrient retention, and a pH greater than 6 - "you may need to elevate the soil pH through liming".

"Teagasc research in the early 90s established that the high biomass yield from hemp can be obtained at relatively low levels of input in terms of fertiliser," he says. "It grows quite aggressively in the right conditions - you could be getting yields of 12-14t dry matter per hectare per year; with grass, you're talking an average yield of 5-7t."

Dr Caslin says there are "no known pests associated with hemp", it tends to outcompete weeds, and Teagasc harvesting trials found that "you can use a standard combine harvester with modified chopping box".

Agriculture minister Michael Creed was unavailable for comment.

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