Growing Hemp In The UK
Under Henry VIII’s rule, growing hemp in the UK was compulsory. Farmers could pay their taxes in hemp and be fined if they didn’t dedicate part of their land to growing hemp.
Cotton did not grow in the UK and the British Empire had not expanded yet to provide Britain with enough cotton. Therefore, hemp was treasured for its versatility and widely used for sails, nets, textiles, fabrics, fibres, and rope.
Fast-forward to our times and hemp’s place in the British agricultural landscape has changed dramatically. During the 20th century, growing hemp in the UK was banned due to its closeness to marijuana: governments became hesitant to allow hemp production, even though industrial hemp was different from marijuana.
It was only in 1993 that Britain legalised the cultivation of hemp as an industrial crop. Since then, hemp can be legally grown in the UK, although strict restrictions and rules apply.
Can hemp be grown in the UK?
Given that 16th-century farmers had little trouble growing hemp, it’s no surprise that growing hemp in the UK is remarkably easy. As a plant, hemp is remarkably hardy and easy to grow. It is a strong crop that requires little care and suffers from few diseases.
How can I grow hemp in the UK?
Hemp is an annual plant that reaches from 4 to 15 feet in height. In the northern hemisphere, hemp is planted between March and May and reaches maturity by the end of summer, some three to four months after planting.
All parts of hemp can be used, including the flowers, seeds, leaves, and stalks. Except for the traditional uses of making fibres, textiles, and ropes, hemp is nowadays used for paper, bioplastics, biofuels, cosmetics, and even in the construction industry.
What are the benefits of growing hemp for a farmer?
Hemp is a fast-growing plant that requires little care. Due to its quick growth, it captures carbon dioxide, making it a potential ally in our fight against climate change.
Furthermore, hemp is a bio-remediation crop. This means that it cleans the soil from harmful pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals while improving its structure.
Aside from its ability to clean up soils, hemp’s roots sequester and recover nutrients from the soil before they are washed away from groundwater. Hence, hemp can help restore the soil’s microbiome and other necessary bacteria. That’s why farmers often plant hemp between crops to improve their soils and replenish them with nutrients.
Hemp also requires few pesticides and herbicides, which makes it a relatively cheap and environmentally-friendly crop to grow.
What are the legal requirements for growing hemp in the UK?
While far more permissive than the previous legislation, current law has placed significant restrictions on growing hemp in the UK.
Getting a licence from the Home Office
First of all, amateur growers or non-farmers may not grow hemp in their garden. Hemp may only be grown by licenced farmers.
Before planting hemp, farmers need to have a commercial enterprise and obtain a licence from the Home Office.
The application is available online and farmers need to supply specific information regarding their future hemp endeavour. Specifically, they need to supply their personal information and contact details as well as their plot, field location, acreage, grid reference, and the particular growing location of hemp within the plot. They also need to state the type of seeds they will be planting, their strain’s THC content—which has to be under 0.2%—and verification that it is an approved seed type.
Until December 31st, 2020, the EU provided a list of approved industrial hemp seeds. From January 1st, 2021, this regulation may need to change.
“Licences for outdoor cultivation of industrial hemp for use of the non-controlled parts of the plant only are typically issued with a validity of three growing seasons,” as the Home Office’s factsheet explains.
Farmers also need to produce a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, which can be obtained online as well. The DBS check makes sure you don’t have a criminal past or any record.
Only once the licence has been obtained can a farmer start growing hemp in the UK. Starting hemp cultivation before getting a licence is illegal and could lead to a conviction.
Farmers who rent their land
If the farmer is renting the land, the licence must be issued in the name of the grower rather than the owner of the land.
Compliance visit from the Home Office
Hemp farmers may get a compliance visit from the Home Office. This happens to approximately 10% of hemp farmers. The purpose of the compliance visit is for the Home Office to verify that your hemp crop was planted legally and that the location is clearly stated in the licence.
How much does the hemp licence cost?
If you are a first-time hemp grower, you will be asked to pay a licence fee of £580 (as of 2020; fees may change in the future). Renewal of a hemp licence costs £326. However, if a compliance visit by the Home Office is required, the renewal fee jumps to £1,371.
The costs of a hemp licence are easily accessible on the Home Office website.
What other guidelines should hemp farmers follow?
Aside from obtaining a hemp licence from the Home Office, hemp farmers need to inform the local police they will be planting hemp in their farming plot.
Hemp farmers are strongly advised to refrain from planting hemp in areas that are in close vicinity to schools or other sensitive public areas.
Any changes to the crop location must be notified to the Home Office.
What can hemp farmers do with their hemp crop?
Once the farmers have obtained the relevant licences and planted their industrial hemp, they will get their crop by the end of summer.
Current British law allows hemp farmers to harvest the seeds and stalks of the hemp but throw away the flowers. The flowers must be destroyed on-site and may not leave the farmer’s land.
As a result, British farmers are eschewing the most lucrative side of hemp cultivation.
CBD is produced from hemp flowers and leaves
CBD is solely produced from hemp flowers and leaves. That’s where one finds cannabidiol and other cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes.
Seeds and stalks contain very little, if any, CBD. They are typically used for textiles, construction, insulation, rope, the cosmetics industry, paper, and biofuels.
The UK CBD manufacturing industry imports all the CBD it needs from Europe and the US, even though hemp can and is grown in the UK. Also, hemp flowers and leaves have far greater profit margins compared to seeds and stalks.
An outdated law
British hemp farmers are asking for a change of the current law, so that they may compete with hemp farmers across the world on equal terms. They rightly point out that legal restrictions are discouraging farmers from planting industrial hemp at a time when CBD consumption is increasing and is bound to expand even further in the coming years.
If the regulations were changed, there could be a domestic hemp industry that would support farmers, CBD manufacturers, and the CBD industry at large.
Local agriculture would change and farmers might choose to switch from traditional crops to hemp farming. CBD manufacturers would find local producers instead of purchasing CBD from abroad and a domestic CBD industry could emerge, making Britain a leader in this agricultural sector.
There have been increasing demands for the law to change, however it remains to be seen whether these demands will be met.
There is a centuries-long tradition of growing hemp in the UK, as the climate and land are supportive of hemp cultivation.
However, there are several legal hurdles that make hemp-farming expensive and complicated. Prospective hemp farmers must obtain a special licence from the Home Office and are asked to follow several legal obligations.
The most troublesome obstacle in domestic hemp farming is the legal obligation to discard all hemp flowers and leaves after harvest. Hemp farmers may only sell or use hemp stalks and seeds, even though the most profitable parts of hemp are the leaves and flowers that contain the lucrative cannabidiol (CBD).
It is hoped that the hemp agricultural landscape will change in the near future, as more and more farmers and industry leaders are asking for a change of the law. The CBD market is growing rapidly and Britain should establish itself as a powerful industrial hemp producer.