Cash, cars, and construction: European hemp in 2013

 

By Jonathan C.

 

The history

 

From being the wrapping paper French queens were buried in, to feeding the hungry and the poor in Medieval England, through its use in soups and pies, to becoming the sails that Christopher Columbus used to traverse the Atlantic Ocean, hemp has had the fortuity of gracing the halls of kings and queens while filling the bellies of their workers. Hemp has long been a vital crop, but the contemporary hemp market is quite different than the hemp market of yore. The major hemp producers and the products they produce, and even the ethics involved, have evolved with their countries’ cultures.

 

The 20th century saw a global change in the perception of hemp production as countries outlawed its growth and use. Until the ‘90s it was a mostly dead industry. However, between 1992 and 1996, most European Union member states legalised the cultivation of industrial hemp; Lithuania was the last to do so this year. 1992 saw the first legal hemp harvest in England for 70 years, and the mid-1990s saw the return of hemp as a fashionable product among eco-businesses around Europe, especially in countries like Germany. EU law, similar to supranational federal law in the US, states that to grow hemp industrially, it must contain less than 0.3 percent THC to ensure that continuous smoking of the plant would result in nothing more than a bad cough and a severe headache, and that the crop is used solely for industrial purposes.

 

Fast forward to 2013, and the hemp industry is in a relatively stable condition. Europe produces between 10,000 and 15,000 hectares (ha) of hemp each year — 10,000 hectares equals about 24,710 acres — primarily in the middle and northern regions as the climate is preferable. On average, somewhere between 6 to 7 tons of hemp straw is yielded from 1 hectare of land. While this is commendable, this output still doesn’t reach the level of the historic big-boy producer of hemp — China, which produces around 23,000 ha of hemp a year…but don’t mind them, they’ve been doing it for over 5,000 years.

 

While many companies dealing in hemp turn to China for their product, many companies prefer to use European hemp. Especially among the more eco-friendly companies, European hemp is seen to be more desirable, due to Europe using fewer chemicals to bleach the product. Also, the fact that workers at European farms are ensured better standards of work, better wages and all the nice things that come with working in a non-communist country, is a plus.

 

While Europe as a whole is governed by EU-wide regulations regarding the cultivation of hemp, each of the 27 EU countries needs to be looked at individually to fully understand their contemporary relationship with growing hemp. Each country has its own unique history with this plant, and each country now displays it in accordance to how much hemp it produces.

 

The producers

 

Europe’s top hemp producer is, by a large margin, France. Producing around 6,000 ha, on average, every year, it accounts for around half of all hemp produced in Europe. At its peak in the mid-1800s, France produced more than 100,000 ha of hemp every year. This was used to produce linen, fabric, twine, rope, cordage and oil. However, between the dwindling use of sailboats, the rise of synthetic fibre and cotton, and the relatively high labour required for hemp fibre separation, hemp production declined steadily in France until it was producing a mere 700 hectares in 1960.

 

While most hemp is produced in the central-west regions of France, like La Sarthe and La Loire, hemp can be found holding its leafy head high all over the hexagonal country — Levi Strauss even created his first pair of jeans using hemp imported from southeastern Nîmes, with the word denim coming from ‘de Nîmes’.

 

Germany was, traditionally, also a big producer. As quite an eco-friendly country, hemp was a fashionable product, both in clothing and in food. However, as hemp-friendly as Germany is, it is more bioenergy- and biofuel-friendly — by 2011 subsidization of these two key green industries in Germany had forced practically all German hemp producers to move to France, contributing to France’s large production level. However, there is still a relatively large hemp market in Germany.

 

The United Kingdom has a decent level of production, producing around 1,500 ha year. Hemp production is subsidized in the UK, and companies like Hemcore are really pushing hemp as a usable substance in various industries. England especially has had a favourable relationship with hemp: King Henry VIII had passed an Act of Parliament in 1533 which fined farmers who did not grow the crop in England, similar to what happened in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.

 

Hemp cultivation has long been part of the culture in Romania. It brought the community together in group work, and laid the foundations for many modern traditions. Up until 1990, around 40,000 ha were produced yearly. A collapse of technical processing plants forced production to a mere 1,000 ha in 2002, mainly cultivated in the western part of the country. However, there are still working processing units, so it remains one of the larger producers.

 

Hungary and Poland contribute less than one percent of total hemp production, and suffer from a similar fate to Romania — they are struggling to amass a decent amount of processing plants. While they would look to produce more hemp, they do not have the means.

 

The produce

 

Pulp and paper: 55%

Insulation material: 26%

Biocomposites: 15%

Various industries: 4%

 

Once the hemp straw is harvested, it is divided up into different market uses. About 96 percent of all processed fibre goes towards three main industries:

 

Pulp and paper takes up the lion’s share at 55 percent. This is because this is where most of the hemp goes — toward printing cash, bibles, technical filters and cigarette papers. This is mainly taken up by cigarette papers — remember, we burn those things away every single day, unlike cash or bible papers — but the market doesn’t seem to be expanding, and the hemp in use could always be replaced by wood pulp, so it is relatively insecure. If hemp had been used to print the Euro when it came into use in 2002 instead of US cotton pulp, hemp could have seen an increase in demand, but, sadly, the world isn’t a good enough place to let us buy our groceries on weed paper. The French are the typical main producers of pulp and paper.

 

Just over a quarter of all hemp fibre goes towards insulation material, such as bedding, fleeces, and in construction. It is a good competitor in the natural fibre market, but is rather expensive when it comes to insulation. While it is a superior product to wool or glass as an insulator, it is up to four times as expensive. Great Britain is a large producer in this area.

 

A growing market in biocomposites may provide the greatest potential; with only 15 percent of total fibre going towards it, it is a surprisingly stable market for a raw agricultural material, including natural fibre. Major companies like the German BMW and Mercedes-Benz utilize the strength, lightness and resistance of hemp for car interiors, including door panels and dashboards. Hemp is also competitively priced in this high-end market. Hemp is also being pushed here in high-performance consumer goods like chairs, furniture, and even yachts due to the advancing technology used to process it.

 

The other 4 percent goes toward various industries. These include technical textiles and cress-growing fleece, a form of mulch used to help grow vegetation in adverse climates.

 

By-products

 

Two byproducts of growing hemp fibre are hemp shivs and seeds. Shivs, or hemp hurds, are the remains of the stems and stalk after the fibers have been extracted. For each kilo of hemp fibre produced, 1.7 kg of shivs are also produced, which is quite a lot of hemp hurds. This mainly goes toward high-performance animal bedding for horses and chickens — it is excellent at absorbing moisture, and degrades into just as excellent compost. It can also be used in combination with lime in private-home construction, as is the case in some houses in England, Ireland, and France, and an eco-friendly Marks and Spencer store.

 

Whereas nearly all of the hemp grown in Canada goes toward seed production, in Europe seeds are mainly a by-product. European demand for hemp seed, a great protein source, is about 12,200 tons a year, which is covered by Europe and China in equal amounts. From this, only about 575 tons become human food, which, when compared to Europe’s average protein intake, accounts for less than 1 percent of all protein consumption. Considering that Europe is one of the largest producers of hemp in the world, you’d assume they’d eat more of their own produce, but one can only assume they are too caught up trying to create yachts from weed fibres.

 

Year 2010:  77,316 tons of Hemp straw were harvested and processed into:

 

  • 26,000 tons of fibre
  • 44,320 tons of  shivs
  • 11,622 tons of dust (20% pelletized for incineration, 80% other uses)

 

The price for hemp fibre, as of 2013, was about 50 eurocent/kilogram (66 cents) for the pulp and paper industry, to 75 c/kg (99 cents) for the biocomposite and insulation industries; the pulp and paper industry uses more shivs, hence the price drop.

 

The companies

 

There are about 20 companies that process hemp in the EU; but these are not the guys that create your euro-luxury hemp bath towel, or your organic hemp soap bar. This is done by ganjapreneurs who take the raw hemp material and create their own products. Klaus Wallner is one of those ganjapreneurs. Having gained a BSc in Economics from London School of Economics, and an MA and PhD in Economics from Columbia University, he, along with Touch Jamikom, founded and run Rawganique, a global family business dedicated to providing organic and sweatshop-free clothing, bedding, accessories, ropes, bath and shower items, and much more.

 

“We started in 2000, in Denman Island, BC, Canada. Initially we wanted to merely provide information to promote the widespread use of organic European hemp and other pure, natural fibers like linen and cotton. But then it turned out that quality products, made to the highest purity standards in sweatshop-free and fair trade places, were not available. So we started manufacturing them, to be able to offer choices that we could recommend to even the most chemically sensitive and environmentally aware people. We don’t source our hemp from China — it all comes from Europe, mainly Romania.”

Even though China and Europe are the major producers, the US is still the largest market for hemp products. As Klaus points out, “it is illegal to grow hemp without a license in North America; but it is perfectly okay to buy, sell, and wear hemp products.” While it’s arguably a good thing that it is legal to wear hemp, this shows the imbalance in the global economy when it comes to hemp products — its main competitor, cotton, has many advantages, not least being absolutely legal to grow everywhere, and this leads to an unequal playing field.

 

“Because cotton is so heavily subsidized in production, hemp, without such subsidies, is not competitive on price. Plus, hemp cannot be grown commercially in the US, which creates additional scale and price disadvantages. As long as public policies drastically favor cotton, hemp will remain a niche industry, serving those chemically sensitive and ecologically mindful people who will not settle for anything less than the very highest standards of purity.”

 

With family businesses, traditional cultures, and massive car producers pushing for larger industrial use of hemp in all its myriad forms, Europe may yet see a burgeoning hemp industry. As long as the US criminalizes anyone growing hemp for industrial use, Europe will capitalize on any market it can. A track record of high-quality and eco-friendliness, backed with a culture that respects hemp as a material, ensures that Europe will continue to provide the land space and the production means that it can toward cultivating this Cannabis sativa subspecies for the highest quality eco-friendly hypo-allergenic underwear —  which, incidentally, is Rawganique’s most popular product — amongst the bible paper, car interiors, building materials, and horse bedding.

 

Resources

 

The European Hemp Industry: http://www.eiha.org/attach/8/13-03%20European%20Hemp%20Industry.pdf

 

Information on Hemp Textiles in Britain: http://www.ukcia.org/industrial/hemptextilesinbritain.php

 

French Hemp Program: http://eap.mcgill.ca/MagRack/SF/Fall%2094%20K.htm

 

Industrial Hemp around the World: http://www.hemp-technologies.com/page33/page33.html

 

Industrial Hemp Profile: http://www.agmrc.org/commodities__products/fiber/industrial-hemp-profile/

 

Hemp in Romania: http://www.ienica.net/italyseminar/posters/fibres/tabaratext.pdf

 

Benefits of Industrial Hemp: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/05/29/industrial-hemp-a-win-win-for-the-economy-and-the-environment/2/

 

Rawganique’s Website: http://www.rawganique.com/

 

RECOURCES FOR MEDIA

 

http://www.limetechnology.co.uk/projects/project17.htm# — Hemp in building the eco-friendly Marks and Spencer.

 

http://www.hempline.com/applications/composites/ — Biocomposites

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