Hemp is expected to play a major role among Europe’s industrial crops in the near future, part of a broader global pivot toward renewable energy and alternative building construction materials. A new report from the European Commission’s Focus Group on Sustainable Industrial Crops in Europe spells out the long-term sustainability of many crops, but hemp claims a visible and multifaceted role in the conversation.
“The use of industrial crops as sources of raw materials for traditionally petroleum-based products, like polymers and solvents, will facilitate a shift to more sustainable consumption of resources,” according to the report.
In terms of the “most promising areas for industrial crops,” focus group respondents placed fibers (42%) and bioenergy (32%) at the top of the list. “Fiber crops for construction materials,” in particular, picked up a lot of interest from the group, which cited hemp, flax and kenaf as candidates for further development in Europe.
The report details how hemp plays a part in promoting good soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and water use efficiency in areas where it’s grown. The crop requires few inputs, generally, “minimizing some of the negative impacts of agricultural intensification on biodiversity and ecosystem services,” according to the focus group.
Well into the 121-page report, the authors provide a close-up case study on hemp: “The real benefit of industrial hemp is usability produce different products with one crop: food, feed, cosmetics, biocomposites, paper, textile, building material, energy and phytomedicine,” as the report states. “While seeds are particularly rich in high-quality proteins and have a unique essential fatty acid spectrum, flowers and leaves are rich in precious phytochemicals (cannabinoids, terpenes and polyphenols), promoting a healthy lifestyle.
“Hemp-based construction materials have an exceptional thermal performance which reduces energy consumption, while sequestering carbon. They include hempcrete (a hemp-lime composite walling and insulation material), as well as hemp wool and fibre-board insulation. In addition, hempcrete is nonflammable, resistant to mould and bacteria, naturally regulates humidity and has an exceptional thermal and acoustic performance.” (sic)
Toward the end of the report, the authors get into a few avenues for scaling up these industrial crops in the near future. Value chain structure, policy and regulatory instruments, private investment, market confidence, digitalization: These are all elements of the tangled web before farmers in Europe (and, inevitably, around the world). “One of the main barriers to the spread of multipurpose crops as viable business model is the lack of market confidence, which refrains investments and slows down innovation,” the authors write, centering the argument on a fulcrum of supply chain logistics and consumer demand. “This situation is greatly influenced by a deficit of information across the value chain regarding the possibilities offered by these crops, the technologies needed for harnessing their potential and the business contacts.”
In the U.S., to a lesser degree, the same conversations are playing out, almost as a chicken-or-egg quandary. What is needed to kickstart the development of fiber and grain market infrastructure in the hemp industry? Is it demand? Is it supply? Is it something more complicated and nuanced?
The answer to all of the above, according to the EC report, is: Yes.