This article appeared on 26 September, 2006 in the Guardian:
Hemp is at hand
Hemp is back and is throwing off its "hippy" shackles to emerge as one of the UK's fastest growing sustainable industries. "Not before time," says Bobby Pugh, environmental campaigner and hemp aficionado, who runs several successful hemp businesses. "Hemp can provide the answer to many of our environmental woes, yet it's been stigmatised, sidelined and denied for decades."
The hemp community has been shouting about the environmental benefits of the plant for years. An oft-quoted statistic is that hemp has more than 25,000 natural uses - ranging from food and oil supplements, made from its seeds, to strong industrial materials processed from its woody outer core. It is fast-growing and can thrive in British soil with little water and with no pesticides or other soil-polluting chemicals.
The ban on hemp cultivation, imposed in 1971 under the Misuse of Drugs Act, was finally overturned in 1993. Campaigners successfully argued that although industrial hemp was a variety of the cannabis plant, it could be grown as a legitimate crop as it contained practically no tetrahydrocannabinol, the property that gives marijuana - a different strain of cannabis - its potent effect.
Pugh says: "It's tragic when you think of the waste of natural resources - the thousands of trees that have been cut down to make paper when hemp could have been used, the tonnes of carbon dioxide that have been released into the air, the economies crippled by the cotton industry. All of this could have been avoided by using hemp."
Since 1993, the growth of the hemp industry has mostly been a matter of research and development. New farming and processing technology, and a lot of investment, are now needed to help industrial hemp to compete with other commercial crops.
BioRegional, a sustainable development company, has been researching and developing techniques that it hopes will help realise the potential of hemp as an alternative to cotton.
On an environmental level, this makes sense. Research by the Stockholm Institute has concluded that the "ecological footprint" of hemp is lower than polyester and half that of cotton. Unlike hemp, cotton needs huge amounts of water, herbicides and pesticides to help keep it disease-free. "The world has reached its limit on cotton production," says Sue Riddlestone, a director at BioRegional. "We need to find an alternative to cotton that we can produce in volume and, with the right technology, hemp could provide the answer, as well as being far kinder to the environment."
Riddlestone says the major obstacle is that they have yet to find ways to produce a hemp material that is of comparable quality to the cotton we have all become accustomed to wearing. "There are lots of small businesses selling imported hemp clothing and textiles, but we just haven't got the capacity in the UK yet," she says. "Manufacturers need to be shown a good product, with an established supply chain, before they'll invest. I think we're two to three years off making this happen, but it will come."
In other areas, hemp is booming. Hemcore, the UK's first large-scale hemp company, has seen rapid growth over the last five years. It now owns the only hemp processing plant in the UK and currently contracts 40 farmers to grow 3,500 acres of hemp a year, which it converts into industrial materials. It currently provides all BMW 5 Series cars with hemp door panels, as well as making high-quality horse bedding.
"It's cost us a hell of a lot of money to get where we are today, but now I think we've got a commercially viable business on our hands," says Hemcore director, John Hobson. "It's helpful that companies are wising up to the need to act in a more environmentally sustainable way, but we've also managed to show them that we're more than a couple of well-meaning hippies and that we've got a serious product to offer."
According to Hemcore, the next big growth area for hemp will be the construction industry, especially as an environmentally-friendly alternative to glass- and fibre-based insulation. Adnams, brewers of traditional English beer, is using bricks made of a combination of lime and hemp in a new "eco-brewery" it is building in Southwold, Suffolk.
It is also easier for farmers to grow hemp than ever before. In the years after the ban, farmers wanting to grow the crop were still viewed with suspicion. They were required to apply for individual licences from the Home Office and were subjected to spot checks and testing by the local drugs squad to make sure nobody was using hemp as a cover for growing fields of marijuana. Most hemp farmers now work under contract to companies such as Hemcore and are required only to notify the local police station about where they will grow their crop.
Ian Squire, a farmer contracted to grow hemp for Hemcore on his farm near Rochford, Essex, says: "It's definitely moved on. It was too much hassle before, but now we're treating it like any other non-food crop. It's quick to grow, and finally we can make a profit growing it."
He admits that his hemp fields are still subject to the odd midnight raid conducted by misguided locals who see the distinctive pronged leaf and draw the wrong conclusion. "You try to tell people they could smoke my whole 350 acres before they feel a thing," says Squire. "It's ludicrous that people actually think that large-scale professional farmers are openly growing fields of marijuana, but it's amazing how uneducated people are."
The hemp community insists that it is moving hemp away from its associations with drugs and the people who smoke them, but tensions still remain.
"I loathe the fact that there are still people who think the hemp industry is run by a bunch of potheads trying to legitimise their own drug habits," says Kenyon Gibson, hemp researcher and co-author of Hemp for Victory, a new book on the history and uses of hemp. "It could not be further from the truth, but there are people out there who benefit from keeping the link between hemp and marijuana alive and kicking."
He believes the misrepresentation of hemp as a dangerous narcotic has been pushed for decades by international conglomerates, who are well aware of the threat that the plant poses to their trade.
"It was the large multinationals who helped ban hemp decades ago, and it's the large multinationals who are still ensuring that natural alternatives to their products are being sidelined even in this time of environmental chaos," Gibson says. "Look at how many trees we could save by investing in a global hemp paper industry. Look at its potential to contribute to natural ethanol, yet we're lagging behind countries such as Brazil which are making great strides in creating fuel from domestic products."
"We can't let token investments from the government into niche hemp industries divert us from keeping on pushing for the true environmental potential of hemp to finally be exploited," Gibson continues. "The true power of hemp will be unlocked only when we're able to use it to challenge large-scale, environmentally-damaging industries, and this isn't happening yet."
It is a line that companies such as Hemcore are eager to distance themselves from. Hobson says that his company prefers to treat hemp as a sustainable but commercial product, rather than getting into arguments about corporate politics.
But for Gibson, Pugh and others like them, the two issues are inextricably linked. "As hemp once posed a threat to some investors, so it does again today - for which reason some would rather leave the issue of hemp alone," Gibson says. "With such a commodity, many positive changes can be put in place from which we can all benefit. The battle to get this recognised still needs to be fought."
· A history of usefulness
· Britain's naval strength in the 16th century was reliant on hemp rope, to the extent that Queen Elizabeth I decreed that farmers had to grow hemp on part of their land.
· The oldest piece of material known to man is a piece of hemp fabric, dating back to 8000BC.
· Hemp-seed milk was used as a cure for tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s.
· Hemp seeds are acknowledged as being one of the best sources of essential fatty acids. Health guru Gillian McKeith (right) is promoting the benefits of hemp seeds in her latest Channel 4 TV series.
· In 1941, Ford produced a car that was 70% made from hemp plastic and designed to run on hemp fuel. The US bans on hemp and alcohol (Mississippi, in 1966, was the last state to repeal prohibition) meant that the car was never mass produced.
· Rembrandt and Van Gogh both painted on hemp canvas, using oil paints made from hemp seeds.
· America's Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper in 1776. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson farmed hemp, and the statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin owned a hemp-paper mill.
Kenyon Gibson is co-author, with Nick and Cindy MacKintosh, of Hemp for Victory: History and Qualities of the World's Most Useful Plants, published this month by Whitaker Publishing (price £17.95). He also writes a blog at www.Hempforvictory.blogspot.com