Industrial hemp is a booming industry with many environmental and health benefits, if we can just look past its connection with marijuana. Nathaniel Loxley from Vitality Hemp grows hemp on the South Downs and caught up with me about the benefits of hemp for the environment, why Henry VIII was so keen on it, and how restaurant chefs are starting to use it to create best-selling dishes.
NL: There are at least 100 different varieties of hemp (cannabis sativa) and it’s important to choose the right variety for your growing conditions. Industrial hemp is a variety with very low levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical that makes you high in marijuana. Different countries have different rules, but in the UK we have to adhere by the list of allowed plants provided by the EU and also UK rules surrounding the levels of THC permitted. To be called industrial hemp, the THC levels have to be less than 0.2%. It would be great to move hemp licensing to a more environmental department so that these rules can become more sensible.
SD: I did hear that some hemp farms experienced problems because people thought they were growing cannabis. Did you experience any difficulties like this?
NL: I had thefts in the first year. Unfortunately the location of the site got out on Facebook, but they can only have been disappointed because you can’t get high on industrial hemp. Every hemp farmer is in the same position. It’s really a matter of misinformation and miseducation. We had the Drugs Liaison Officer over to show them the site and we suggested putting up a sign that said Industrial Hemp not Cannabis, but they advised against it, because they thought it would simply advertise the site. It’s a shame because ultimately hemp is one of the most nutritionally sound crops in the world and it also has medical benefits through CBD. Since the use of medical cannabis has become more recognised, people’s perspectives have gradually changed. Now we need to move the conversation away from just the medical angle and bring more attention to the environmental benefits. I see this as partly my responsibility and as a result I get involved in events like Product Earth at Stonleigh Park. The event, happening on the August bank holiday, will explore all the various aspects of the hemp industry and its potential for the future.
SD: What kinds of environmental benefits does industrial hemp have?
NL: Hemp is a crop that is naturally very pest-resistant so it makes the perfect crop for organic cultivation. It actually doesn’t have any registered pesticides of herbicides in the EU. On top of that it absorbs more CO2 per hectare than any other commercial crop or forestry and enriches the soil with nitrogen. It’s not yet clear whether the plant actually fixes the nitrogen in the soil like a legume or whether the nitrogen is later absorbed by the soil from organic matter in the stalk and the root system remaining after harvest.
“Hemp is a crop that is naturally very pest-resistant so it makes the perfect crop for organic cultivation…On top of that it absorbs more CO2 per hectare than any other commercial crop or forestry and enriches the soil with nitrogen.”
It’s important for us to understand the difference, because we’d like to use the stalk for fibre production and building materials, so we’re currently working with the University of London on an assessment project for the lifecycle of industrial hemp to determine whether harvesting the stalk would remove the nitrogen benefit for the soil or not. The stalks contain a high-level of cellulose, which means it can be developed into “hempcrete”, a concrete alternative that is both breathable and thermo-efficient. France is one of the world leaders and has been using hempcrete since the 1990s. They originally developed it as a means of improving the thermal performance of historic buildings since it breathes and retains moisture in a similar way to the original wood.
In the UK hemcrete has been used for the last 20 years. Now there is increasing interest in other sustainable materials that can be made with the stalk too. Hemp stalk fiber is one of the strongest fibres known to man – that can be a bit of a pain during harvest!
SD: I read that hemp was used to clear up the nuclear spill in Chernobyl, Russia. Why was that?
NL: Hemp has a very deep tap root and intricate root system, which makes it an excellent phyto-remediator because it draws toxins from deep within the soil into the plant. That does mean that if you’re buying hemp to eat, it’s important to know where and how its grown. It should be grown organically, but you also need to check what kind of soil it grows on. Some CBD that you can get online is grown on soil with high arsenic levels, for example, which would make it dangerous to ingest. As an industry, the global hemp supply chain needs to push for greater transparency, so that we don’t damage what is a highly beneficial industry by association with bad practices.
SD: Does that mean that hemp takes on the different flavours of the terroir it grows in like wine? What does hemp actually taste like?
NL: Absolutely! We are lucky in the South Downs. It’s mineral rich and well-drained so the quality of our hemp is second to none. In fact, it’s one of the prime wine-growing regions in the UK. Hemp has a very nutty flavour like sesame, but also very fresh. It’s rich in both fatty acids and amino acids which gives it a very full flavour.
SD: In 1533 Henry VIII made growing hemp compulsory for farmers. Why was he so keen on it all those years ago and how did we come to stop growing it?
NL: Henry VIII was keen on hemp to turn into canvas and ropes for the construction of his growing navy. The word canvas actually comes from cannabis. But it wasn’t unusual to be growing hemp then. France and Russia have grown hemp continuously for centuries. During the Russian revolution the plant saved thousands of lives, because it was the only thing they could grow in parts of Siberia!
“France and Russia have grown hemp continuously for centuries. During the Russian revolution the plant saved thousands of lives, because it was the only thing they could grow in parts of Siberia!”
By the 1930s it was the fastest growing crop in the USA after cotton and was acknowledged as a billion dollar crop. After the war, however, there was a rise in agrochemical, petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies, which led to a general lack of support for what would otherwise have been a competitive crop. I don’t think it was inconsequential that marijuana scaremongery was used to push cultivation down and ban production in many countries. It’s only been recently that perspectives have changed and hemp is now seeing a resurgence, but there are many ancient recipes that use hemp as a source of vegetable protein.
This isn’t anything new!
SD: How do you see restaurants using hemp in cooking today?
NL: We make a cold-pressed hemp oil that can be used like olive oil as a dipping oil or in salad dressings. Similar to olive oil it denatures at high temperatures so it isn’t a cooking oil. A by-product of making this oil is milled hemp seeds. One of our customers is a vegan pizza restaurant in Camden called Purezza. Their best-selling pizza base is made with hemp-dough. The chef there says that the slight bitterness of the hemp combined with the other ingredients makes for a more sophisticated flavour. Hemp hearts are a more palatable way of consuming the seeds than as whole seeds. They have a nutty flavour and creamy consistency similar to pine nuts. You can use them as healthy snacks or appetisers at the start of a meal, in salads or blend them to make a creamy sauce.
SD: The EU has recently stated that it needs longer to investigate the safety of CBD as a food source. How has that affected your business?
Firstly I should explain that the EU Novel Food directive is the EFSA’s step towards categorizing Cannabinoids as being “novel” and not available prior to 1997, but the evidence to rebuke this claim is vast. In terms of how it has affected my business – not very much. The ban of harvesting of leaves and flowers is a domestic issue to do with the low-THC Cannabis (hemp) growers licence which is exclusively for seed & stalk. The remaining plant is still considered as a controlled drug and this is why we are unable to harvest without further “controlled drug” licensing.
One licensed hemp farm has recently had their license revoked due to the change in regulation and are having to destroy their crop. In the meantime, demand for CBD in the UK continues to increase and the Food Standards Agency have given their support. They understand how important and safe it is as a food source. WHO have also made recommendations to the UN to remove industrial hemp from the regulations relating to growing marijuana. There is evidence that the flowers and the leaves have been used as a traditional food source for centuries too, so I’m sure we’ll get there in the end.
To read more about CBD, go to the post about Cannabidiol in food.