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Opportunities to increase Cannabis production highlighted

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Hemp, also known as Cannabis sativa, historically has been widely grown in the UK for fibre, however the high levels of the psychotropic chemical THC in drug strains of Cannabis sativa led to its cultivation being banned in the UK and much of Europe in the 1950s. 

Opportunities to increase Cannabis production highlighted

Since 1993 it has been legal to grow low THC hemp varieties under licence in the UK aimed at the fibre market. The surrounding regulation has meant that research, breeding and commercial cultivation of hemp varieties has been relatively limited over recent years. However this now has the potential to change following the changes to legislation as of 1st November 2018 meaning medicines based on cannabis are now permitted for prescription by specialist doctors.

The crop has recently made an appearance on BBC’s Countryfile, with presenter Adam Henson visiting one of the world’s largest production sites of medicinal cannabis at British Sugar in Suffolk. ADAS has a long history supporting the sustainable production of agricultural commodities, including hemp. In 2005 ADAS worked with DEFRA to identify barriers to the expansion of hemp production for fibre in the UK and provided advice on the suitability of varieties available. This study highlighted the barriers for expansion of hemp production in the UK, as well as the opportunities for the crop. We summarise the main concepts of the 2005 report that remain relevant as interest increases in Cannabis sativa and places them in to the 2019 context.

Uses for hemp

Hemp is well suited to the UK climate, being a historically important fibre crop, but it is now entering other markets including for fuel, food, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals. With the introduction of synthetic fibres lower quality fibres like hemp, have been pushed into mainly industrial use. Synthetic fibres are very adaptable however unlike hemp, they are not biodegradable or easily recycled. Due to growing concerns over the pollution impacts of a range of materials in packaging and construction it is considered by some that hemp could have a bright future in the UK in a post-Brexit materials landscape, with some operators considering house-building from hemp as a core construction material. The shiv from processing hemp is used for cat litter and animal bedding. Hemp is also a source of an essential oil (CBD oil), extracted from the flowering tops of low THC hemp varieties. CBD oil is reputed to have a range of properties and it has been sold since 2016 in the UK for a range of claimed properties and for use in aromatherapy and related applications.

Growing hemp

In order to be able to cultivate hemp in the UK it is important to obtain the appropriate licence. Different products are produced from different parts of the plant for example fibre based products are produced from the stems, whilst CBD oil is produced from the flowers whilst the seeds can be used for hemp seed oil. Although it is possible to harvest both the seed and the stem, yields and quality tend to improve if the agronomy and variety choice is optimised for a particular use. For example with the increasing value of CBD oil focusing on improving management to optimise oil yield and quality will ensure that the most valuable part of the crop is optimised. The fibre may also be harvested but yields and quality (therefore value) may not be as high as a result of the focus on oil production. Therefore, it is important to ensure that variety choice and agronomy are aligned with the business model. 

There has been little research in recent years into the optimisation of hemp production systems for different uses, with the majority of experience in producing hemp for fibre. Until recently the main focus of legal breeding programmes was in the production of high biomass varieties for fibre and fuel production. Although, with potentially high value markets for CBD oil and medicinal uses there is expected to be increased interest in developing varieties for these markets. 

ADAS have researchers experienced in working across a range of arable and horticultural crops, who are able to apply their knowledge of crop production and yield management to support the development of improved production protocols for hemp based on the specific end use. 

Opportunities for hemp

With the increasing demand for hemp based products identified in this article and the original work we undertook in 2005, it is clear that there has been a significant attitude change towards hemp. Materials from hemp are showing great potential - CBD oil has been a recent phenomenon that is driving a great deal of interest as is the medicinal use. There is a deal of excitement in many parts of the world about the legal recreational use of the product. In the UK there are hopes for the hemp as a sustainable material. The most prominent development since the 2005 report is the CBD oil marketplace which is growing rapidly and means more CBD brands are seeking quality supplies. Whilst hemp has many uses there are still barriers to overcome for those seeking to grow under licence, namely licence application approvals as well as ensuring that a crop is responsibly produced and has a marketplace. The marketplace is growing and in some cases the constraint is that there is a demand for the crop itself which is not entirely met. During 2019 ADAS will be actively involved in the marketplace and we will bring updates as we observe them as we contribute to the development of the sector and apply our knowledge to support the marketplace. 2019 will be a very exciting year for Cannabis sativa.

ADAS support on responsible and sustainable Cannabis value chains

With the predicted expansion of hemp production for a diverse range of uses, businesses will begin to face a number of sustainability challenges. ADAS has a wealth of expertise in crop physiology and cultivation, and historical experience in hemp production. With a growing market for products derived from hemp, including cannabis for medicinal purposes and CDB oils, ADAS has the knowhow to support businesses develop a sustainable, responsible and legally compliant cannabis value chain. There is a greater need for understanding the agriculture of production and more research is needed which ADAS can lead or support. There is also a greater role for collaboration across the value chain, and the need to build a robust system from growing to processing to market of the final products and a need to leverage innovative opportunities to use cannabis products across a range of applications. Visit our service page to find out more how we can support. If you want to discuss with us how we can help you with economic production of hemp then please get in touch by writing to Colin Morgan.

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