Growing cannabis provides an opportunity for farmers to make money as direct support is withdrawn, but Government regulations must change first, says Dr Colin Morgan from agricultural consultancy ADAS.
Last month, an investigation by the BBC into CBD oil – the cannabis oil which is currently sold over the counter on UK high streets for its claimed health benefits – found some of the products in our shops can contain four times the legal limit of THC.
THC is the psychoactive chemical which is found in medicinal cannabis oil and the cannabis sold illegally as a drug.
But there should be less than 0.2 per cent of it in CBD oil.
Part of the problem with the current regulations is all the CBD oil sold in the UK – where it’s increasingly taken by people for anything from sciatica to pain from wearing high heels – is imported from abroad, mainly from Lithuania and Poland and increasingly from Africa, as the US is fast pricing itself out of this market.
Meanwhile, many British farmers believe there is a real opportunity for them to grow the legal varieties of cannabis – those containing less than 0.2 per cent of THC – as a lucrative cash crop post-Brexit.
Current Home Office rules don’t permit farmers to use the flowers from the non-psychoactive strains of cannabis to make CBD oil, meaning it has to be manufactured abroad and imported.
The stalks and seeds of the cannabis which is legally grown in the UK are currently used to manufacture a range of products for which there is growing demand, particularly vegan foods made from hemp powder and oil, and single-use plastics, but British farmers are having to destroy the flowers from these crops.
In July this year, Oxfordshire-based Hempen, one of the UK’s largest legal cannabis farms, destroyed crops worth £200,000 after it lost its licence to harvest flowers to make CBD oil, and later its licence to grow the crop at all.
Hempen’s fate was a result of the Home’s Office’s decision to ban British farmers from using the flowers in addition to the stalks and seeds of cannabis.
This decision has had two consequences.
The first is that all our CBD oil is imported from abroad, and the result can be the lower quality of less well-regulated products, as revealed by the BBC investigation.
The second consequence has been to discourage British farmers from growing cannabis as a crop.
Without being able to sell to the burgeoning CBD oil market, farmers have been struggling to make cannabis commercial, as it only becomes fully economically viable when both flowers and stalks can be utilised.
This is a missed opportunity, because there currently exists a real opportunity for legal cannabis products to become a sustainable national industry, particularly in the east of England.
Such a crop could provide a real adrenalin shot to UK agriculture as it copes with post-Brexit withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The Home Office’s reasons for refusing licences for the use of cannabis flowers are understandable, and stem from the fact that the flowers contain small amounts of the psychoactive substance THC, in addition to CBD.
But the varieties of cannabis flowers farmers are growing in the UK under industrial hemp licences are arguably far better regulated than the varieties used to make the CBD products exported from abroad.
Last month, Jersey became the first place in Britain’s territories to grant a licence for farmers to harvest hemp flowers for cannabis oil.
Jersey, having a separate jurisdiction, can resolve to do this unilaterally. We could do the same after Brexit, when our cannabis strategy would be entirely our choice.
The current controversy over the safety of CBD oil could provide an opportunity to overcome the commercial barrier to legal cannabis farming in the UK.
If farmers got together to collaborate in developing product management strategies which could reassure the Home Office the crop would be grown sensibly and CBD oil would be produced safely, and if the FSA looked at tighter regulations on CBD imports from abroad, the UK could become self-sustaining in cannabis production.
By controlling the entire cannabis value chain in the UK, in a regulated market, Britain could do a great job of producing a high-quality product.
If we grow cannabis here in the UK, we can also control the crops through a regulatory regime which is self-financing, and that will incorporate the manufacture of CBD oil from the flowers.
But this will only be fully commercial if the farming industry works closely with Government to develop a value chain from sourcing to selling across the UK, which has transparent controls and a fully traceable supply chain – otherwise known as a seed to shelf strategy.
If these changes happened, cannabis really could be the crop of the future, because it is used to make many things for which demand is rising.
It’s a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastic.
Hemp seed oil is an ingredient which is in demand for vegan foods, and the stalks can be used to make textiles, including clothes, which are a locally sourced alternative to cotton.
You can even build houses from them.
But many farmers fear if the Government does not move soon to allow British farmers to use cannabis flowers, and to address the sale of substandard CBD oil from abroad, it may find in three years’ time it has missed the boat because African cannabis has become so plentiful and cheap that there’s no longer much demand for British CBD.
Cannabis has been successfully farmed in the UK since the tenth century, particularly in coastal regions.
Hemp ropes were fundamental to the success of the British navy, and so in demand that King Henry VIII forced landowners to grow hemp.
The plant is hardy and easy to cultivate, it’s production is environmentally beneficial because it doesn’t need much fertilisation or crop controls, and it is – for the time being at least – relatively pest-resistant, so doesn’t need pesticides or herbicides.
An added bonus for farmers is it’s good for the soil because it has alleged phytoremediation properties.
With collaboration between Government and farmers, we can start to imagine a future in which we’re consuming cold-pressed hemp seed oil and hemp seed-based dairy alternative drinks, living in hemp buildings, using CBD for its potential health benefits and wearing British organic hemp clothing.