HEMP — Cannabis sativa — has been cultivated for use as food, feed, clothing, and building in Ireland for at least 1,000 years, yet discussions are only recently reigniting for it as an incredibly useful crop that can grow well in Ireland, particularly the temperate south.
During World War I, West Cork had a thriving hemp growing industry. It was short- lived, the market collapsed after the war ended with many stocks left unsaleable.
Hemp growing was reconsidered for the region in a 1963 report, ‘West Cork Resource Survey’, as the best climatic area of Ireland to successfully grow crops, but the idea didn’t take off and instead hemp was imported from elsewhere.
In the past decade, interest in hemp as a commercial crop is on the rise again; and as it is a plant where every part of it can be transformed into something useful, it is fast gaining traction as the ultimate zero-waste crop.
Studies by Teagasc have also shown that planting other grains, such as barley, as a follow-on crop after a hemp harvest can increase yield by as much as 30%, due to the ability of hemp to ‘clean up’ the soil of toxins, a process known as bioremediation.
And because hemp seed is sown thickly, and growth is speedy, producing thick canopy cover, it does not require the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides as it can out-pace weed growth.
Although it is a crop that is well suited to the Irish climate, growing hemp is still a tricky business.
To grow it legally requires a licence from the Health Products Regulatory Authority of Ireland (HPRA).
It is a thirsty seed and must be planted in moist soil, and needs a lot of rainfall almost immediately after planting. It is not frost-tolerant, and to avoid use of fertilisers and pesticides, seed must be sown more thickly than other similar crops. Yet hemp seed is more than three times the price of barley: €160 per acre versus €40 for barley.
Seed is proprietary also, meaning seeds cannot be collected for replanting from an existing crop, instead new seed must be purchased every year.
Seed ripens at different rates and harvesting equipment must be modified.
However, despite these challenges, the fact that 100% of the crop can be utilised can offset the financial challenges of growing hemp.
As an excellent plant for crop rotation, for its positive effect on the soil, and its lack of dependency on chemical inputs, hemp growing has some impressive bonus credentials.
Cian Walsh, a student at St Brogan’s College, Bandon, received an award from Teagasc at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition for his research entitled ‘Hemp for a Sustainable Future’. Walsh found that clarity around what hemp is, how it can be grown, and what it can be used for, changed attitudes in a positive way, with a reduction in belief that growing hemp was illegal or only grown indoors, and an increased interest in growing if there were more processing facilities close to the farm, or if more farmers began growing hemp.
Teagasc’s recognition of the findings of his research aligns with their own strategy for encouraging more hemp farming in Ireland, as well as researching ways in which hemp can be used, potentially creating a new indigenous farm-to-fork stream of agriculture in Ireland.
At this point, you may still be unsure about what the difference is between hemp and marijuana? First thing to know is that they are different plants: hemp is not marijuana! However, hemp is regulated as a controlled drug as part of the Misuse of Drugs Act — which is why farmers need a licence to grow it.
Both hemp and marijuana produce two compounds: non-psychoactive Cannabidiol, or CBD, and psychoactive Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The difference is in the levels of THC produced by each plant. Hemp produces low THC concentrates (typically 0.3%, although current regulations require food products derived from Hemp to have <0.2%), while Marijuana produces between 5-35% THC.
This difference in psychoactive potency of THC is why Hemp/CBD is regulated, while Marijuana/THD is illegal.
Whereas, historically, Ireland has a recorded history of growing hemp for us as a high-protein animal feed, for the textile industry, and even construction, there is less tradition in growing hemp as food for humans, and even less still for extracting oils from the seed.
Because of this, hemp and hemp products straddle the boundary of whether some hemp-derived products are considered a ‘Novel Food’ under European food regulations.
A novel food is one that has no history of consumption in the EU. Seeds, seed oil, hemp seed flour, and defatted hemp seed are not considered novel foods. But seed oil extraction methods that use solvents, such as ethanol and carbon dioxide, are considered novel foods and not permitted for use or added to foods for consumption. However, seed oil extracted by cold pressing is permitted, and this is the process utilised by Cork-based Remedy Health.
Remedy Health established Ireland’s first state of the art hemp processing plant in Youghal, registered with HPRA and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. It produces an extensive range of different food-grade products that contain CBD extracted from hemp seed by cold pressing, a process that doesn’t require chemicals.
Cold pressing utilises pressure to extract the oil and, in so doing, preserves all the natural nutritional goodness in the oil. It’s a time- consuming method requiring 24 hours to process one tonne of seed. As the seed is milled, press heads separate oil from sediment, which forms into ‘nuts’ of ‘meal cake’, which itself is broken down and used as ‘CBD powder’ — a protein dense natural hemp seed powder sold as a food supplement: added to smoothies, sauces, mixes for baked goods, or seasoned as used as a coating on meat or veg. It contains high levels of vitamin E and B, as well as omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, is vegan friendly and gluten free too. The oil is also sold as a food supplement, and great if used as a salad oil for the basis of dressings and vinaigrettes.
Hemp growers and producers of food grade products must be cautious about making health claims about their products, no different to any other food produced and sold in the EU.
Some argue the inclusion of hemp, particularly CBD, under the Misuse of Drugs Act impedes development of the sector for growers and food producers — even research can be hard to fund because of popular misconceptions about hemp.
Notwithstanding regulations forbidding health claims on food, studies continue to show the benefits of hemp as food.
Chris Allen, Executive Director of Hemp Federation Ireland, founded at UCD in 2019, recently wrote: “Hemp is the most complete plant-based protein known to man. It provides the same amount of high quality protein as an equal portion of red meat, it contains all essential amino acids plus omegas 3, 6, and 9, and almost every other essential nutrient required to support healthy human growth and development.”
In addition, cannabinoids and terpenes, compounds naturally found in hemp, can support systemic health by how it interacts with the bodies Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
ECS regulates important functions in the body including central nervous system, gastric system, immune system, metabolism, and hormones.
The Hemp Federation of Ireland are particularly vocal on this, whereas the Hemp Co-Operative Ireland focus on the wider applications for hemp in Ireland as a way to increase awareness and understanding of it as a cash crop and product, for its versatility and environmental benefits.
Both organisations represent growers and producers in tackling the challenges facing Ireland’s hemp industry.
Despite the challenges, the industry is growing, and interest is awakening. Remedy Health in 2019 took the entire harvest from ten organic hemp farmers for use in producing their range of powders, oils, and balms, as well as growing seed on their own farm.
In 2019, Teagasc reported that 373 hectares were under hemp cultivation in Ireland with the most popular variety being Finola.
In Cork, production can be traced from supply through farm to fork. Fruithill Farms is a registered supplier of industrial hemp seed offering for sale eleven varieties, including Finola. Durahemp, a small organic hemp farm in West Cork, specialises in only growing hemp; and Cian Walsh’s award-winning project shows there is a growing interest for hemp production.
Organic farmers and those looking for ways in which to reduce their carbon emissions and environmental footprint by inter-cropping are ideal candidates for getting on board with hemp production.
Producers such as Remedy Health and their seed oil processing facility in Youghal can turn an entire harvest into high-value products for food and wellbeing.
Other businesses that specialise in herbalism, such as April Danann in Caheragh, near Skibbereen, has developed a range of co-efficient herbal products with hemp CBD at their core, including a CBD infusion of her barrel-aged wild- fermented Apple Cider Vinegar, and a blended hemp, peppermint and nettle loose-leaf-style tea.
The possibilities seem endless for hemp cultivation, CBD oils and powder being just one of them. As an indigenous Irish food industry that is well suited for our climate, and well placed to aid in environmental mitigation and remediation, the potential is obvious.
Maybe it’s time the idea of a hemp revolution in Ireland became a reality.
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