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Hemp and sustainability: what are we talking about?

Article-Hemp and sustainability: what are we talking about?

Hemp and sustainability what are we talking about.jpg
Considering the economic, social, and environmental aspects of hemp.

When talking about hemp, the buzzword so far has been ‘CBD’. But the more markets get acquainted with hemp and its many different uses (going well beyond flowers extracts), another aspect of this plant gains ground and catches the interest of journalists, consumers, and regulators alike: its sustainability.

The term has been widely hackneyed and is still an ineffable concept for most of us. What makes it particularly difficult to grasp and to translate in real life policies is probably the fact that it can be considered as the most flagrant example of how reality is an emerging concept: it makes sense only if seen as a whole, as a sum of its individual components, which do not make sense if considered separately. In other words, something (a plant, a product, a society) is truly sustainable if economic, social, and environmental aspects are contemplated in the equation. And there would be no such thing as economic sustainability if social and environmental considerations are left out. Hemp is a very good example of this concept.

Let’s start from the economic side of things and see how that is intimately connected with the other two: hemp is a profitable crop. If farmed in rotation and exploited in all its parts (from the flower to the fibre), it contributes to diversifying the farmers’ income and multiplying its output markets (by virtue of its manyfold uses of every part of the plant). It is also—and undeniably—a very trendy product, with a high marketing value in today’s consumers markets.

Hemp lends itself to local processing, hence contributing to creating shared value in the local community. The seeds, flowers and fibre must be processed within a given radius from the parcel, for logistics and economic viability reasons. It is also the easiest fibre crop to grow on the EU continent and it adapts perfectly to most climates. The availability aspect is key in a time where companies are re-localising their production and global value chains are more and more threatened by disruptive events.

Hemp can be a powerful carbon storage sink. It grows fast and tall, meaning that it yields a lot of biomass (read: carbon). If integrated in the different products where it can be of use (I.e., composites, biobased plastics, construction materials, textile applications, paper, packaging, etc.), it can dramatically reduce the embodied emissions of these products and even further reduce operational emissions generated in their use. This is especially true in the case for insulation and construction materials.

But the positive externalities on the ecosystem do not end here. The crop is perfect for organic farming. In optimal conditions it requires very little water or is completely rainfed, it works perfectly with slurry fertilization and, for now, has few pathogens. Land use is not an issue either: fibre and shivs (for non-food products) can be harvested with the seeds (for food and feed) or flowers (for food, wellbeing and cosmetics).

Following this reasoning, hemp cannot be considered per se as sustainable, as its sustainability depends on the combination of the business model followed by the company, the implication of the community of people involved (farmers, processors, traders, and consumers), and the ecological footprint of every step of its value chain.

Failing to consider even one of these, means missing the chance to exploit what could be considered the plant with the highest sustainability potential.

Interested in learning more about hemp? Check out our podcast episode ‘Talking about hemp with EIHA’.


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Francesco Mirizzi
Senior Policy Advisor of the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA)