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Industry Hemp: A Key Crop to Advance Circular Systems?

Jul 11, 2024 11:51:03 AM

Hemp is hip — almost nobody in Germany has escaped the recent discussions about cannabis legalization. But did you know that hemp has much more to offer and even holds considerable potential as a climate-friendly alternative to other crops? Scientists, politicians, and  the industry have renewed interest in Cannabis Sativa, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history.

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Rootcamp’s interest: hemp’s potential for the bioeconomy

Commissioned by the  German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture (BMEL) and funded by the Rentenbank, RootCamp has recently launched the Bioeconomy Deep Dives Series. In the first Deep Dive we are currently working on assessing the industrial hemp value chain to understand innovation potential, address possible gaps in the value chain and foster collaboration. 

While the potential is high, and the industry is motivated, there remains room for growth. RootCamp’s mission in this Bioeconomy Deep Dive is to identify innovation potential and growth barriers. Together with the stakeholders we want to define the transformative need, and initiate positive change. Please find more information about the project here.

Where Hemp came from

Despite the recent popularity, hemp is by no means a new crop. In fact, it has been around a while. The region around the Himalayas is considered the likely  origin of the wild form of hemp. Genome analyses suggest that the plant was already being cultivated around 12,000 BC in northwestern China. Until around 1900, cannabis was one of the most important crops in Europe and North America and was cultivated on a large scale. It was only with industrialization and the production of cheaper plant fibers that hemp cultivation declined.

Hemp - an overlooked all-rounder

The hemp plant is generally considered a hardy and resistent crop that requires relatively low inputs compared to many other agricultural crops. Hemp is naturally resistant to many common pests and diseases, thus reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Its rapid growth and dense canopy can also outcompete many weeds.

Hemp exists in numerous strains and varieties that differ in growth form and usage. In the public discussion, it is necessary to distinguish between low-THC and high-THC hemp. THC, the abbreviation for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive substance in the hemp plant, which is the basis for hallucinogenic drug preparations like hashish or marijuana.

In contrast, no intoxicants can be produced from THC-free hemp, also known as fiber hemp or industrial hemp. Although the European Union has reduced its subsidies for the hemp plant by about one-third since 2001, the once marginalized industrial hemp is gradually reappearing in German agriculture.

Protein-rich hemp seeds can be used to make cosmetic preparations as well as food products such as the valuable hemp oil.  Research is underway to assess the potential of production residuals of the for human consumption:  The fiber-rich fractions that remain after the extraction process are processed together with the hemp seed oil and the protein ingredients obtained into prototypes for sausage alternatives (e.g. vegan sausage), seafood alternatives (e.g. vegan scallops, fish sticks or crab cakes), or vegan milk alternatives. On top of that, residuals from the seed processing are a valuable source of protein and nutrients for animal feed

Hemp’s potential as a carbon sink

While hemp in Germany is primarily grown for nutritional value, the raw material from hemp fibers can be used as the basis for numerous textile and paper products. Hemp fiber is unusually elastic, tear-resistant, and durable. For example, several automobile manufacturers contemplate using hemp fibers to produce car interior panels. Given the climate change and mitigation approaches, there are also promising opportunities for the use of industrial hemp in the construction sector. 

Despite all the uses described above, a large part of the plant remains either unused or is sometimes used for animal bedding, or for horticultural mulch. The shives, also known as hurds, are the woody core of the hemp stalk. On average, the shives constitute about 60-70% of the hemp plant's stalk by weight. This percentage can vary depending on the specific variety of hemp and growing conditions, but the shives generally make up the majority of the biomass in the stalk. The rest of the stalk primarily consists of the fibrous outer layer, which is used for producing textiles and other products.

Compared to the relatively slow growth of trees, hemp grows quickly within a few months and can store a substantial amount of CO₂. To fulfill their CO₂-binding potential, however, the conversion into durable goods is advisable. Companies such as Schönthaler Beton, Silent Fiber,  among others, use hemp for building blocks, insulation and soundproofing, or furniture. The materials not only sequester carbon but also offer sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives to traditional building materials. The use of hemp in construction contributes to carbon reduction and supports green building practices, making it an attractive option for sustainable development.

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Stay Tuned

You can read more about the project here and follow us on LinkedIn for updates. 

Annkathrin Wahbi

Written by Annkathrin Wahbi

Annkathrin is curious about sustainable production and technology adoption. She is currently pursuing a PhD in agricultural economics from the Georg-August-University in Göttingen and has studied Sustainable International Agriculture in Germany and Chile. Her work experience includes academic research, project management and innovation in various countries and institutions such as KWS, Oxfam and the DAAD. As Project & Innovation Manager at RootCamp she is responsible for various projects and business development activities. 

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