Hemp - new crop

Hemp is one of Britain's oldest crops and was once widely planted for fibre and food. Its cultivation was later banned because of its use as a narcotic drug. Its value as a fibre and oil plant were not forgotten and over the years, hemp varieties have been developed that contain lots of fibre and very low levels of the narcotic chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC. Termed as industrial hemp, these varieties are now being grown under strict control in China, Romania, Spain, Chile, Ukraine, Hungary, France and Britain. An exciting future could be looming for hemp. After decades of its absence in our countryside, hemp might soon begin to weave its way back into the fabric of our rural and economic life.

Hemp's revival

A watercolour illustration of hemp leaves.
Hemp used to be widely cultivated in Britain for fibre and food. (1750-1800).

There has been a recent revival of interest of hemp as a health food, fibre and for its industrial potential. It is marketed as an environmentally friendly fibre as it grows prolifically particularly under organic conditions. The fibres are popular for clothes and even shoes. Adidas now make trainers using hemp fabrics and leading fashion designers are also raising hemp's profile: Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein are just two designers who are incorporating hemp fabrics into their collections.

Uses of fibre

As well as clothing, hemp fibre is being used or tested for thermal insulation, pulp, paper and in the car industry. Companies including BMW, Ford and Nissan are exploiting the low weight and high strength of hemp fibre to make door inserts, interior panelling and seating. In 2000, some 3500 tonnes of hemp fibre was used for car manufacture in the European Union alone.

Fibres from hemp stalks can be mixed with hemp resin to make a strong building material. As an experiment, hemp houses have been built at Haverhill in the UK. Non-fibrous portion of hemp stalks, called hurds, can even be used in animal bedding and to make a cellophane packaging substitute. There are also markets for hemp seed and oil, used in foods and to produce body-care products like soaps, detergents, oils, dyes and as a source for the essential nutrient gamma-linolenic acid.

Cultivation controls

European Union controls on the cultivation of hemp were relaxed in 1993 and its production, though carefully licensed, is now increasing. Organic hemp is grown on about 2000 hectares of land in the UK. Even financial schemes are now available from the government to help British farmers cultivate and process it.

At the moment, the growing demand for hemp in the UK can't be satisfied in either quantity or quality by domestic production, and subsidies are required to make it a profitable venture under the current economic conditions. But higher crop yields from new varieties and lower harvesting costs due to new machinery mean that hemp is becoming more profitable. Perhaps fields of hemp will soon be commonplace in the British countryside.