A recent announcement by the UK Home Office to delay processing farmers applications for licenses to grow industrial hemp is yet another roadblock deterring British farmers from growing a natural solution to the climate crisis.

During the key season for hemp farmers to apply for next year’s growing licenses, the UK Home Office has announced that it will not begin processing applications until Monday the 4th of January 2021(1). This move puts the likelihood of UK hemp farmers growing this climate-friendly crop next year, into serious jeopardy.

Hemp is an environmentally and economically sustainable solution to many of the UK’s challenges in this post-Brexit, Coronavirus landscape. Not least in its army of environmental accolades, is hemp’s efficiency in naturally capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Industrial hemp has been scientifically proven to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop, making it an ideal carbon sink. (2) The CO2 captured by the plant is permanently bonded within the fibre that is used for anything from textiles, to paper to building materials.(2)

Once grown and harvested we can make over 20,000 sustainable products from its seed, fibre and flower. (3) Hemp, if encouraged and supported, can help to create a lucrative green and sustainable UK economy and enable the UK Government to keep its promise of carbon net-zero by 2030.

From both an economic and environmental standpoint the Home Office’s decision is a move that potentially closes off a sustainable and valuable long term economic avenue for the UK’s green recovery. In one breath the UK Government have laid out an ambitious ‘10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ and documented its goals to ‘capture 10 Metric tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide a year by 2030’ and further claims, ‘The natural environment is one of the most important and effective solutions we have for capturing and sequestering carbon long-term.’ (4) But in the next breath, deploys a serious barrier to British farmers wishing to grow a valuable, carbon sequestering, soil restoring plant in the next available growing season.

Instead of de-prioritising hemp cultivation in the UK, we’d like to see our Government recognise that setting our country up to participate in the globally emerging hemp market is a way to simultaneously create green jobs, stimulate green industry and meet our climate action goals.

Nathaniel Loxley, Director of Vitality Hemp, a firm based in Sussex working with farmers and industry to develop applications for the use of UK grown hemp can see the recent announcements impacting farmers from several angles. “There are a couple of issues which will likely affect growers; the first being a supply chain issue regarding the sourcing of EU certified C1 growing seed. By the time the license is approved, there will be further supply restrictions of particular varieties, due to basic market forces – Demand outstripping supply for certain varieties means that ordering early avoids disappointment. This, coupled with the fact the administration of backlogged applications will potentially take even longer than normal, and all of this is amplified with the Brexit deadline looming. The combination of all these factors creates a detrimental effect on our efforts to progress a legal and efficient industrial hemp industry here in the UK.”

Under current legislation, farmers who wish to grow industrial hemp in the UK must apply for a growers license via the Home Office which, although commonly regarded as a cumbersome and deterring multi-step process, has seen some easing and improvements for new and returning applicants in the last few years.
Due to review lengths for these applications taking anything up to 12 weeks before farmers hear back regarding their license status, it is recommended for new and recurring hemp farmers to lodge their applications in November for growing the following year. This ensures they have the legal elements in place before financially committing to ordering seed.

The UK is reliant on Europe for its supply of hemp seed. This new delay in processing licenses puts UK hemp farmers in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether they take a financial risk now and purchase hemp seeds from Europe for next year’s crop before Brexit comes into place in January 2021 but without a growers license in place, or whether they wait it out and purchase seed once they have certainty over their license but with no idea what trade with Europe looks like or the implications on price.

Either way, UK hemp farmers are confronted with risk and uncertainty at a time when the Government’s topline to the UK public on the topic of Brexit is to ‘get your business Brexit ready’. A touch ironic.

The third option for our farmers, of course, is to give up and grow crops that present fewer obstacles. Our concern is twofold, many farmers may opt to give up on hemp, at least for the short term, and those that persevere may struggle to get licenses, seeds and all the practical elements lined up in time to grow a crop in the UK in 2021.

We are already well behind our European neighbours in hemp cultivation. In 2019 we grew just 900 hectares to our neighbouring France’s 17,900 hectares (5), we were dwarfed even by Germany’s more modest 4,500 hectares. (6)

The Home Office justified their decision as a matter of reshuffling resources for Brexit, numbers of bodies involved in the administration for the application review have had to be stationed elsewhere to handle the transition out of Europe and although that is entirely understandable we don’t believe, on this occasion, the UK Government have found the right answer. A closer look at the already tight timeline faced by farmers for renewing licenses and growing a hemp crop the following year would have shown that delaying the process is the opposite of what is needed.

One lucky hemp farmer has landed on his feet. Steve Kinghan, a smallholder based near the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, will be able to use a surplus of seeds purchased for his crop earlier this year to ensure a supply of hemp fibre for his customers in 2021. Steve, who grows hemp for natural housing materials in Wales, said, “I bought too many seeds last time so I should be okay, overall though it throws the window out to the right. I can see some of the larger farms that are at the point of re-submitting their 3-year licence being in a difficult position with it all. They’ll need to factor in the impact of Brexit and will likely be hit with wider administrative issues which none of us currently have visibility of. I think the whole situation adds more weight to the call for the entire licencing program to be passed to the correct department to manage this, DEFRA.”

The knock-on effect of the Home Office’s decision to kick growers license applications down the path has both immediate and long-term implications for the UK.

Immediate Implications
The decision by the Home Office will lead to a number of negative impacts that we can expect to see unfold in the short term;

  • Already low volumes of hemp grown in the UK are expected to further reduce.
  • Hemp is unlikely to play a valuable role as a natural solution towards the UK’s green recovery or the UK Government’s commitment to becoming carbon net-zero by 2030.
  • The UK will lose out on valuable jobs, income, innovation and leadership opportunities in the global hemp economy.

Long Term Implications
By refusing to invest in hemp at this point we risk witnessing the following negative impacts transpiring in our not too distant future;

  • Potential delays in our progress towards climate change milestones through a lack of inclusion of naturally efficient solutions within the UK’s climate strategy.
  • We risk the health of our soil and could see a negative impact on crop yields through a lack of biodiversity and natural soil fixing solutions.
  • It may become impossible for the UK to catch up with the global hemp industries progress, falling permanently out of the race and becoming a bystander in this global green economy.

What can you do?
If you would like to see hemp farming become recognised and accessible in the UK for the creation of a thriving domestic hemp industry, please join us at the British Hemp Alliance.

For more information about our mission to lobby for change and remove the barriers to growth for the UK hemp industry please read our UK Hemp Manifesto and ‘Add your Support’

To keep up with our progress please follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

References

(1) Source: Gov.UK Licensing
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/controlled-drugs-industrial-hemp

(2) Source: Vosper, J The Role of Industrial Hemp in Carbon Farming https://hemp-copenhagen.com/images/Hemp-cph-Carbon-sink.pdf

(3) Source: British Hemp Alliance UK Hemp Manifesto
https://britishhempalliance.co.uk/manifesto/

(4) Source: Gov.UK 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/936567/10_POINT_PLAN_BOOKLET.pdf

(5) Source: Hemp Industry Daily
https://hempindustrydaily.com/france-italy-netherlands-lead-europe-for-hemp-land-use-industry-group-says/

(6) Source: Larson, K The German Hemp Market – Hemp Makes a Comeback in Germany https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/Report/DownloadReportByFileName?fileName=The%20German%20Hemp%20Market%20-%20Hemp%20Makes%20a%20Comeback%20in%20Germany_Berlin_Germany_02-10-2020