The 1990’s protest slogan “Hemp can save the world” still echoes in the 21st century. Eventhough industrial Hemp is still illegal in many countries, true believers have been advocating the bright future for this diverse plant, also known as Cannabis for a very long time. And with good results: As a health food, hemp has become increasingly popular.
Countries such as Canada, China and Romania have been increasing the crop and exports of Hemp. The increased demand for health food has stimulated the trade of shelled Hemp seed, Hemp protein powder and Hemp oil as well as finished and ready-to-eat food products, using these derivatives as ingredients. The use of Hemp oil in the manufacturing of body care products has also increased. The bright future of Hemp exists in the environmental merit. Hemp is sold alongside organic cotton for clothes and is becoming popular, as environmental awareness becomes more prevalent.
Hemp Plastic is a new technology based on 20-100% Hemp fibre-based plastics that can be moulded or injection moulded. The use of fibre-reinforced composites and other natural plastics are expected to become more popular as oil prices rise and the world becomes more environmentally aware. If The Netherlands want to be part of this future, the question rises; how is it going to reintroduce this once typically Dutch industry in The Netherlands?
Dr. Marcel Toonen has worked on improvement of industrial crops at Plant Research International (University of Wageningen) since 1998. The work covers a broad spectrum of research themes which include a Hemp breeding programme, molecular improvement of fibre quality and chain project to develop new fibre-based products. The university focuses mainly on the use of Hemp for the textile industry and food industry. It does so by trying to develop special genetics to reduce costs on harvesting and processing the plant. This is done through extensive research into the cell and stem bindings of the Hemp plant. The idea is if the fibre would be less strong to begin with, the production process should be much more affordable.
One of the projects they are currently working on is called ‘Chamaeleon’, a variety created especially for the textile industry. When this variety will be fully up to the expectations of the University, they will investigate whether it is a financially viable crop.
"The Strongest Fiber Known To Man!"
The Hemp crop does not need any pesticides, nor does it need fertilizers. Better yet, Hemp can be used to revitalize ‘dead land’ by leaving the bottom of the Hemp stalk on the land as fertilizer during harvest.
In the south of Holland there is currently even research after filtering groundwater by cultivating Hemp in specific areas and in 1998, Phytotech, along with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine's Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp, Cannabis sp., for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site.
”Cultivation of ‘industrial’ plants is still relatively expensive in Western Europe.” Dr Toonen says “It has to compete with hemp production in other continents and with other fibre plants on the world market. Industrial Hemp in the Netherlands and other EU countries is possible, but then there has to be more demand from European companies.”
Ben Dronkers and Hempflax
One man, who has been trying to get the Netherlands involved with industrial Hemp, is the founder of the Hemp & Marijuana Museum in Amsterdam, Ben Dronkers. But it was not the price of production that made the effort extra difficult. Ben Dronkers, founder of Netherlands’ only Hemp producing company, ‘Hempflax’, started in the early nineties. After learning about the possibilities of industrial Hemp and the Dutch history of Hemp growing and processing, it was Dronkers who reintroduced industrial hemp in the Netherlands.
For a crop that had not been produced for 50 years fundamental adaptations to harvesting and processing machines were required. Like any plant, hemp has specific needs as to planting and harvesting, but the equipment available at the time could not meet these needs. Much time was spent on research and development to adapt the equipment to the highly specific requirements of the tough, fibrous stalks of the hemp plant. In the period from 1994 till 2001 Hempflax reinvented the harvesting and processing methods for industrial Hemp. At the kick off of the enterprise there were no harvesting machines or bale presses able to handle “the strongest fibre known to man”. Specialized Hemp harvesters were designed, developed and patented. The future seemed bright until the Justice Department in Groningen demanded a jail sentence of fifteen months against Dronkers. Next to detention, the department ordered a fine of 100,000 Euros.
The business of Dronkers furnishes seed at field builders for the breeding of Hemp. During an inspection of the General Inspection Service (AID) found that a group of farmers used other seeds then mentioned on the official papers. Dronkers recognized the mistake and claimed an administrative chaos of the young and unique company was the cause of this. Even though the seeds used where also just industrial hemp seeds, about twenty farmers missed out on Dutch-European subsidy, and were fined thousands of Euros.
Dronkers says there was never any intention and according to him the affair was blown up tremendously by the Justice Department because it involves hemp. Dronkers compensated the farmers as much as possible from his own pocket.
Now, before the hemp industry in Holland actually started, it seems Dronkers is already thinking about leaving the country. “It is not me that is on trial, it is the hemp plant”, he says, “I am tired of the fighting” Dronkers: “Because of this treatment by the Justice Department, many farmers in Groningen and Drenthe lost their confidence in me. “It is a terrible pity that hemp, a beautiful product, is killed off this way.”
Looking at the future, Marcel Toonen says: “At the moment, much Hemp still comes from Romania and China, where production is cheaper. The focus lies now on North and Eastern Europe for production.”
And so the future for Hemp in Holland remains under the surface, and, for now, prices seem too high for significant consumer use.
- Hemp is the oldest cultivated fiber plant in the world.
- Hemp produces 10 times more methanol than corn and is one of the earth's best biomass resource.
- One acre of Hemp can yield as much usable fiber as four acres of trees, or two acres of cotton.
- Hemp can be grown naturally. 50% of the world's pesticides are used to grow cotton.
- Industrial Hemp is not Marijuana. If you smoke it, you simply get a headache.