One day, hemp will be big. Really big. Its fibre makes an excellent replacement for fibreglass in car manufacture, building insulation and bonded reinforced plastics. It can even be used for brake pads.
Its woody core, or shiv, is well established as horse bedding, but it is finding a more lucrative use as the key ingredient in a novel, thermally-efficient building system. On top of this, the crop needs few inputs, adding to its green credentials. Indeed, it has been hailed by some commentators as the crop that holds the key to a greener future.
However, the world is not ready yet for hemp on a large scale, says Mike Duckett, director of Hemp Technology, the UK’s largest hemp processor based in Halesworth.
“Hemp has a great future, but the real breakthrough will come when the price of oil rises to a level that makes the fibre widely attractive as a replacement to man-made alternatives. That could be in a couple of years or perhaps 10 years – no-one knows.
“The market is growing at about 15% a year – not as fast as people were predicting. But it takes time for industries to accept new materials,” says Mr Duckett. “And while everyone wants to be green, it also has to stack up economically. However, the market is now growing through market pull and that has to be better than trying to drive it from the supply side.”
He expects to process about 6,000t of straw this year from his 30 growers through the firm’s £4m processing facility, producing about 1,500t of fibre and 3,000t of shiv. At current market growth, tonnage and grower base could double over the next 5 years.
Another market gaining ground is hemp oil for human consumption, produced from dual-purpose (seed and fibre) varieties. Most is contracted to Devon-based Braham & Murray, which markets it as Good Oil, a low-saturated fat alternative to olive oil. Hemp seed is also included in a range of other goods e.g. as specialist high-protein products.