HEMP has the potential to make Scotland's agricultural sector carbon neutral, a new report has found.

Industrial hemp is a type of cannabis plant and was once widely grown in Scotland, with its cultivation dating back more than 6000 years.

The plant aids in offsetting carbon by acting as a natural carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air as it grows.

According to one researcher at Cambridge University, a hectare of hemp can absorb between 8 – 15 tonnes of CO2 (compared to the 2 – 6 tonnes absorbed by forests).

The plant can also be used in building materials, as biofuel, textile fabric and even as an alternative to plastic. It is also a naturally protein-rich food source, as well as being high in fibre and micronutrients.

The report is a collaboration involving the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), partnering with the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) and the Scottish Hemp Association (SHA).

It analysed the supply chain for hempseed and fibre in Scotland using data collected from farmers predominantly in the north east of Scotland as well as the Borders.

At present the supply chain for Scottish-grown hemp is underdeveloped with no well-established market routes for farmers.

The supply chain is also exposed to many threats limiting its development, including low profitability, lack of technical support, weather limitations, lack of financial assistance, and stringent legislation.

Joint report author Dr Wisdom Dogbe of the Rowett Institute said: “The information gathered was used to carry out a full assessment of the challenges and opportunities faced by the hemp sector.

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“We know that world production of industrial hemp has been on the decline since the 1960s due to an unfavourable political climate regarding the cultivation and use of the crop as well as legislation. However, the hemp plant has the potential to be a cost-effective, carbon neutral, and environmentally friendly crop for farmers."

He added: “The UK is among the top five countries launching hemp-based products in the world. The majority of the products launched are in the category of snacks, nutritional drinks and beverages, health care, breakfast cereals, and baked goods.

“The top five facts associated with hemp-based products are that it has low, no, or reduced allergens, is vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian and can be grown organically. It truly has the potential to be a cost-effective product bringing both health and environmental benefits.”

Joint report author Dr Cesar Revoredo-Giha of SRUC added: “Our research has provided strong advice on necessary steps to take to progress the Scottish hemp sector. These include, in the short-term, strategies that can be adopted by stakeholders such as using hemp as carbon credits crop as well as the provision of educational/technical support to hemp growers.

"Medium-term strategies involve relaxing the regulation of hemp and establishing a strong hemp processing sector.

"Long-term strategies to revamp the hemp sector include establishing strong vertical and horizontal linkages, a seed production centre and a well-co-ordinated hemp association.”

Personal Chair Professor Wendy Russell of the Rowett Institute, who has worked with farmers to support hemp production in Scotland and developed the project with partners, added: “We have already demonstrated the health benefits of this important environmental crop and will continue to support our farmers and processing sector on this exciting journey.

“Hemp oil, which has an optimal ratio of omega fatty acids, has already been produced in Scotland, but this report also demonstrates the wider societal and economic potential of hemp production in Scotland."

Funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services through a Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI)-Gateway fellowship, the study also looked at HMRC trade data as well as Mintel’s Global New Product Development Data.

The trade data shows that the UK is a net importer of hempseed and hemp fibre.