In early March Vera Twomey walked from her home in Aghabullogue in Co Cork to the steps of Leinster House in Dublin, to protest the fact that she could not legally access a proven medicinal drug which would help her daughter Ava. Seven-year-old Ava suffers from Dravet Syndrome, a rare type of epilepsy. Along the way people cheered Vera on, schoolchildren provided guards of honour and a marching band even came out to greet her.
The drug she seeks permission to use is medical cannabis. If it were licensed here it would be cheap and easy to produce. Cannabinoids are acknowledged to be among the most effective drugs against a range of conditions, including chronic pain and MS.
But even though a wave of countries worldwide have recently introduced regulations to allow for medical and recreational uses of cannabis, Ireland has not yet followed suit. That's because although cannabis has thousands of uses, it is popularly associated with its psycho-active properties. In terms of medicinal cannabis, these can be easily isolated and removed from medical treatments, while hemp varieties have negligible THC levels. Nevertheless, Irish authorities have been hesitant.
The cannabis sativa plant was once one of the world's most widely grown crops. Its uses ranged from fibres to lamp oil. Many of the functions for which we today use plastics once used hemp. Hemp fishing nets, twine, rope, rigging, sails, sacks and paper were then all the rage. It can be used for plastering as it has great insulation properties. It can even be moulded into chipboard and used in construction. Its long fibrous stems are valued for their strength and durability and of course it is 100% biodegradable. With so many advantages, how did it ever fall foul of authorities?
In 1937 the US placed controls on hemp production. This took place in the context of Dupont releasing its first commercial plastic fibre which grew to dominate the materials industry. People have always speculated about the timing of the Marihuana Tax Act, but its impact was immediate and hemp farming all but disappeared, with plastic, nylon and other synthetics taking over.
From a farming point of view hemp has the potential to be an effective crop. It is one of the fastest growing plants and does not need to be sprayed or treated, as it has few pests or ailments. In 2001 Teagasc published the results of field trials in which it grew hemp for the MDF fibre industry. In their introduction the report's authors outlined the vast potential market for hemp. They said that given the fact that medium density fibre (MDF) board production required 2 million tonnes of wood per annum, supplying even just 10% of that would create a market for 6,000ha of hemp.
Teagasc grew five field varieties of hemp and had success with all of them. “The crop established quickly and smothered any developing weeds. Despite the height of the crop (up to 3 meters), no lodging occurred. Apart from Botrytis cinerea [a fungus commonly known as grey mould which does not affect the crop], no other pests or diseases were recorded. Crops flowered around mid-August and were cut with a disc mower in early September. Despite the large volume of green matter, the stems dried to 85% dry matter over a period of 7 to 10 days. The dried stems were wind rowed and baled without difficulty. While total biomass dry matter yield has been very high at 21.2 t/ha, the percentage of non-stem material was very high at 24.7%. Also, each increase of 10 cm in stubble height reduced the stem yield by approximately 8%.”
The potential of hemp as a biofuel was established by its high DM content at harvest “leading to reduced transport costs and efficient combustion”, its short growing season, low overheads and its simple production requirements, meaning existing machinery can be used to harvest and sow it. It yielded 10-14T/ha of stem material and can be grown in any arable mineral soil without the need for agrochemicals. There were some issues with processing the plants for fibrous uses, as factory intake and conveyor systems were unable to deal with the long loose blast fibres, but nothing that could not be overcome.
The vast number of potential applications for hemp production and the new desire of finding solutions to waste management make renewable technologies associated with hemp particularly attractive. Being biodegradable, it will not present the problems of plastic, which lingers as unsightly rubbish while causing numerous problems for wildlife. Hemp can form the basis of a large number of home-grown industries that could help offset and reduce the need for tropical deforestation around the world.
Deforestation worldwide is currently a huge issue, but much of this is unnecessary considering the potential of hemp to replace wood as a raw material in so many industries. For example, the US/Canadian NGO Forest Ethics believes that “Canada's boreal forest (alone) stores 23 percent of the planet's terrestrial carbon-more carbon per acre than any other ecosystem on earth, including tropical forests. However, Canada's old growth and intact forests are logged at a rate of five acres a minute, 24 hours a day."
Toilet paper currently contributes enormously to deforestation. Its largest manufacturer Kimberly Clarke are the top seller in over 80 countries, but according to the NGO Worldwatch, “there is no strong movement among many toilet tissue companies to shift consumer preferences to more environmentally friendly products”. As hemp can be used to make a perfectly good toilet paper, here is another area in which its production could benefit more sustainable trends.
Hemp is easy and cheap to grow with potential to fill many niches. At present many products are destructive in their manufacture and their aftermath. As the world increasingly moves towards developing long-term solutions to climate change and waste management, it becomes imperative that humanity find solutions to a range of problems. As hemp can do so much to fill this need, its production will in all likelihood continue to grow. Its medical value has been recognised by international consultants and numerous countries have already licensed it. France is currently producing 70% of the hemp used worldwide, and their technologies are a short hop away for study, so we can start our own industry.
It is time for Irish farm bodies to push for broader hemp licences, in conjunction with incentives for the development of renewable hemp technologies. Ireland should move quickly to corner these openings in the marketplace and set ourselves up in an industry with too many advantages not to grow.