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Hemp licensing changes announced in boost to farming, UK economy and fight against climate change

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Changes to industrial hemp licensing have been announced by the UK government this week, aiming to help farmers realise the business opportunity offered by the legal cultivation of the crop, in what is being seen as a boost for farmers, the UK economy and our fight against climate change.

Hemp is a variety of cannabis containing less than 0.2% THC, with applications in a number of sectors, including construction, food and textiles. The crop is fast growing, adaptable to soil and climatic conditions, and is undemanding on resources such as artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

According to scientific research hemp has the potential to dramatically improve the rate at which carbon is being removed from the atmosphere, with a hectare of the crop being able to absorb between 8-15 tonnes of CO2 per cultivation. By comparison forests typically capture 2 to 6 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year dependent on factors such as the number of years of growth, the climatic region and the type of trees.

To ensure it’s grown for legal purposes only, farmers who wish to grow hemp must have a licence. Under the planned changes, due to come into effect for the 2025 growing season, licence holders will be able to grow it anywhere on their farm and the maximum period for a licence will be extended from three to six years, subject to compliance with the terms of the licence. An option to apply for a licence with a deferred start date by up to one year has also been added.

Furthermore the government has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to provide advice on whether the THC permissible in industrial hemp varieties could be safely raised to 0.3%, while underlining that the changes will not affect the robust laws in place regarding the control of cannabis, a class B controlled drug. As the UK summers get hotter and wetter it is becoming increasingly difficult for growers to keep the THC levels below 0.2%. This change would ensure that farmers will not have to destroy their crops due to higher summer temperatures.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer said:

“Industrial hemp has huge potential across the UK to unlock new revenue streams, expand our bioeconomy without permanently removing land from food production, and bring wider environmental benefits.

“The licensing changes announced today recognise industrial hemp as a field-grown agricultural crop and will enable more farmers to add hemp to their crop rotations, sequester carbon, and sell their harvest to the textile and construction industries.”

The changes have been labelled by the British Hemp Alliance (BHA) as a “game changer” for farmers wishing to include hemp as part of a rotational crop cycle, increasing the opportunities available to them, the bioeconomy and our Environment. The BHA’s Managing Director Rebekah Sharman said:

“The BHA is delighted that the Home Office and Defra are recognising the potential of this important crop for the environment and to create sustainable products, including construction, energy and food. By removing some of the regulation that has been holding back the UK hemp industry, it can now become a more competitive force in this space.

“We hope the ACMD will also acknowledge the potential economic and environmental benefits of the hemp industry by raising the THC levels to 0.3%, so that we are in line with the both USA and Europe.”

The number of hemp licences has grown from six in 2013 to 136 in 2023. A first-time licence costs £580. Licences are issued for three growing seasons. Repeat growers currently pay £326 for a licence, less than £109 per year. Further information, including details of the application process, can be found on the government’s website

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