Hemp – a nutritious crop that stores carbon
Nutritious, carbon-sequestering, and fast-growing – hemp is a plant with multiple benefits and it has the potential to be a part of the solution for sustainable agriculture. Today, Torsåker Farm hosts a small-scale cultivation and processing trial of EU-certified industrial hemp. The ambition is to answer the question: Can industrial hemp become a future product in the agricultural industry, and can infrastructure be created for refining and processing hemp fiber and hemp seed in Sweden?
Hemp is often associated with the production of illegal substances. Today, it is legal to grow industrial hemp in Sweden with a THC content lower than 0.3%.
Agriculture accounts for a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions and has a significant environmental impact, both in terms of which farming methods and which crops are used. Plant breeding has historically primarily focused on high yields, whereas less attention has been paid to characteristics making the plant resistant to pests such as weeds and fungi. Instead, pesticides are used to deal with these lacking traits, with negative consequences for biodiversity and the environment at large. Most crops also have small root systems with limited ability to store carbon and absorb nutrients, traits that are becoming increasingly important considering the climate crisis. Industrial hemp has the potential to be a part of the solution to these problems, but a lack of infrastructure and confusion about the crop’s use have so far hindered scaling up.
Did you know…
- Hemp seeds have a nutty flavor and are nutrient dense.
- Are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Are high in vitamins such as folate, thiamine, niacin, and vitamin B6.
- Are high in potassium, selenium, and magnesium.
- Are gluten-free and contain no other allergens.
Hemp cultivation can help solve many of the sustainability challenges facing agriculture today. Since the plant is fast-growing and has dense foliage, it is difficult for nearby weeds to grow and thrive, thus eliminating the use of pesticides. The hemp plant’s deep taproot helps improve the nutrient uptake from the soil and makes the crop resistant to both drought and water stress. Hemp also stores 10-15 times more carbon dioxide than cereals. Hemp has the potential to be used as a raw material in food, but it is also seen as an interesting material for the construction and textile sectors.
The aim of the project is to use hemp as a raw material in everything from food products to components in materials.
At Torsåker Farm, Axfoundation’s center for the sustainable food systems of the future, a small-scale cultivation test of EU-certified industrial hemp is being conducted. The hemp seed will be pressed, and the hemp seed press cake will be analyzed within the framework of the Vinnova-funded project Sustainable Hemp Innovations. This project aims to use different extraction methods to extract, purify and characterize the proteins in a cost-efficient way.
In the test kitchen at Torsåker Farm, Axfoundation, together with several actors, is investigating which foods hemp seed and hemp seed cake could be used for, and what the possibilities are for utilizing and upgrading these. The aim is to use hemp as a raw material in innovative, sustainable, flavorsome, and healthy food products.
The potential of hemp as a component in materials is also being investigated. The stems of the hemp plants from Torsåker Farm are used in tests at Borås Textile College to evaluate the conditions for using the crop’s fiber.
The cultivation area for hemp will be a part of the sample area at Torsåker Farm which is connected to the project Intensive Sampling Site in collaboration with the organization for Swedish carbon sequestration (Svensk Kolinlagring). The hemp will be established in the field area that represents maximum carbon storage.
With the hemp project, Axfoundation aims to promote the development of more crops that allow farmers to diversify and achieve favorable crop rotation, reduce pesticide use, and increase biodiversity.
6 benefits of the hemp crop
- Carbon sequestration: One hectare of hemp stores 10-15 tons of carbon dioxide per year, or about the same amount as a young forest. This can be compared with cereals, which store about 1 ton of carbon dioxide per hectare per year.
- Contributes to increased biodiversity: Hemp plants produce large amounts of pollen, which greatly benefits bees. The flowering period occurs at a time when other crops have low pollen production, making the plant a valuable addition in the crop rotation. The plant also provides shelter for birds as well as food for various animals in the form of hemp seed spills.
- No use of pesticides: Hemp has low susceptibility to pests as it has no natural enemies. Hemp plants grow fast, and they can block the sunlight with their dense foliage, making it difficult for weeds to grow near them. This means that in most cases the farmer does not need to use insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. However, fertilization is required for optimal growth.
- Breaks pest life cycles: Hemp used as an alternative crop can help break pest life cycles such as fungal diseases.
- Prevents soil erosion: The dense foliage of the hemp plant forms a natural ground cover that reduces water loss and protects against soil erosion. Hemp provides ground cover only three weeks after sprouting.
- Drought and water-stress tolerance: The taproot of the hemp plant improves nutrient uptake from the soil and makes the crop resistant to both water scarcity and flooding.
Challenges with hemp cultivation
- Confusions and attitudes: The hemp plant has long been linked to the production of marijuana and illegal substances. Between 1970-2003 there was a ban on growing hemp in Sweden. Today it is legal to grow industrial hemp with a THC content lower than 0.3%.
- Permit regulations: The cultivation of hemp is currently only permitted if the type of plant is listed by the Swedish Board of Agriculture (Jordbruksverket), is approved in the EU’s registered variety list, and has been approved in a submitted permit application.
- Lack of infrastructure: The infrastructure around hemp cultivation is undeveloped and there is a lack of in-depth knowledge regarding the required specific steps to refine and process hemp fiber as well as hemp seed from different variations. Today, hemp is only grown on about 220 hectares in Sweden (2021/2022), compared to winter wheat covering more than 460,000 hectares (2022).
The hemp seeds harvested from the test cultivation at Torsåker Farm will be included in the project Sustainable Hemp Innovations financed by Vinnova. Partners in the project are: Axfoundation, Edgy Veggie, Lund University, Mäteria Technologies, Solina Sweden, Svensk Hampaindustri. Project manager is Mäteria Technologies. Project leader is Clara Norell at Svensk Hampaindustri.
The hemp stems from the test cultivation will be used within the Vinnova financed project Bio-based residual streams with potential in the technical textile industry at University of Borås. Project leader is Nawar Kadi and project partners are Science Park Borås, OrganoClick, Svensk hampaindustri ,House of Hemp, Ekolution, Borgstena, Svenska naturtak, Sporda.
Projects within Future Food
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