Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Perhaps the earliest mention of hemp in the UK is a note about Cambri Formosa, a princess who taught women to sow and weave hemp in 373 BC. Since then hemp has been a consistent thread, running through Roman times, the Middle Ages, and quite prominently from the Elizabethan era until the mid-nineteenth century. As material for sails and cordage, it was guarded; wars were made over it, and pre-emptive strikes were staged on potential enemies to keep them from obtaining any.
There is record of it having been grown in every county in England and Ireland; Scotland and Wales grew hemp as well. To this day place names with both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon derivation reflect the fact that hemp was a part of the agriculture and industry of these isles.
Despite its great importance, there were reasons for buying it from Russia. Maritime shipping costs were cheaper than overland shipping, and Russian were more experienced at the retting and final processing. Arguments in Parliament in favour of advancing the British hemp industry were made, most notably by Lord Somerville in the early 18th century, and bounties were granted at various times for hemp cultivation.
Ultimately, sailing vessels gave way to steam ships and the navy no longer needed as much hemp. Rope today is usually made from Manila hemp (Musa textilis), a plant quite unrelated to true hemp (Cannabis sativa).
In the US, certain forces went to insane lengths to outlaw hemp, starting with a prohibitive tax against it in 1937. The industry was there revived in 1942, with the government encouraging its production in a film titled Hemp for Victory. After the war ended, the hemp industry was again targeted by laws prohibiting its growth. Today, such prohibition is at the heart of a bitter dispute between legitimate farmers and lawmakers serving the interests of multinational companies. To add salt to the wound, Canada has tens of thousands of acres profitably under cultivation and sells hemp seed to the their southern neighbours.
The seed is a part of the plant that has also been used for ages, but recently has caused a stir in the world of nutrition as it contains Omega 3, 6 and 9 oils along with protein and vitamin E. The Omega 3 oil that it contains has been proven to be of use in helping hyperactive children to concentrate. Often this is sourced from fish oil, but this is unsuitable for vegetarians and may in many cases contain nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury, PCBs and other harmful substances.
The oil is relatively easy to obtain, it is about 30% of the seed and can be pressed out after drying. Other parts of the plant that are of economic interest in the UK and Ireland are the outer bast fibres and the inner hurds. The former can be used for textiles, they are what were used for ropes. Growing the height of the plant, they can obtain up to 20 feet or more, though the usual height for fibre hemp plants is 8-10 feet.
These fibres are seperated from the inner hurds by retting, of which process there are many varieties. One way to preform this job is simply to dew ret, which is how most of these fibres are seperated today. They do not this way attain the quality needed for textiles, but are quite useful in paper production, especially for fine papers such as cigarette paper, banknotes, Bible paper and facial tissues. Studies are being undertaken by BioRegional with a view towards perfecting the retting process in the UK so that better quality fibre can be produced domestically, a move which would provide jobs and alleviate environmental problems worldwide.
Hemp has been used for paper for some 2,000 years, wood pulp is a new idea that has been causing economic and environmental chaos. Presently most writing paper in the UK is shipped in from southeast Asia, incurring transport costs and adding to the loss of forests. A hemp paper industry in Ireland or the UK would provide jobs and lessen the damage to the environment; it would also produce stronger paper, as the hemp papers, being long, interlock in the pulping and form a more lasting paper.
Much research has been done to promote the use of hurds for paper as well, notably a number of trials conducted in the 1910s by the US government (a number of these are posted from time to time on this site, use the word search to access). The hurds are 35-70% cellulose, which is the compound from which paper is produced, whereas the bast fibres are 70-77% cellulose, thus preferable. However, the significance of the fact that hurds can be used is undeniable. Formerly, they were left to rot as farm waste, but if put to use, with thousands of pounds per acre produced in a season, the economic reality is not hard to see.
In addition to being put to use in paper, hurds can be converted easily to ethanol, going from one carbohyadrate to another. This is perhaps the #1 reason for hemp production. As the price of petrol increases, much due to political unrest in the Middle East, it is an astute move to produce a domestic source of energy. The rise in the price of a litre cost the Tory governemnt their lead in the 1970s, and a similar scenario could well exist today.
Sadly, whilst all these reasons give cause to develop the hemp industry in the UK and Ireland, in both countries politicians and journalists drag their feet, giving rise to speculation that there are foreign forces and large corporate interests undermining the government. Whatever the reasons, be there a conspiracy or not, it is imperative for any nation to develop its own industry and keep people employed. Failure to do so, whether through collusion or ineptitude, can greatly damage national interests.
Against this troubling pattern of inaction on the part of politicians and journalists, the latter who have been often content to write innaccurate articles on the issue, without putting effort in research, there exists a strong movement to bring awareness to the public. Bobby Pugh in the UK started Mother Hemp and The Hemp Shop in the early '90s, which in turn spurred on a whole generation of activism. In Ireland Jim McDonald initiated a similar move, opening The Hemp Store in Dublin. Now there are dozens of hemp shops in the British Isles and acreage is over ten thousand. A recently started organisation, the British Isles Hemp and Natural Fibres Industries Association, promotes the industry and the related industries of bamboo and nettles, both of which can be used to create textiles and coarser fibres.
At present this organisation and its congeners are pressing MPs, including the Environment Ministers, to take action. Details of their action, or inaction, will be posted periodically on this site.
Parties interested in reviving a UK and Irish hemp industy are encouraged to get in touch with Kenyon Gibson at cotingas@hotmail.com

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