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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Industrial Hemp Harvest in Deutschland

Air Date: Week of

Newly legalized, textile mills are processing the country's first modern harvest of industrial hemp. Michael Lawton reports from Germany on the new varieties of the crop, which cannot be made into marijuana, and the forecast for the multi-purpose crop's financial success.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Germany, textile mills are busy processing the country's first modern harvest of industrial hemp. Last year government officials finally gave their blessing to the crop after advocates reassured them that new agricultural varieties cannot be turned into the illegal drug marijuana. German farmers are now hoping they can renew interest in the tough fiber, which long ago was the material of choice for making sails for ships, rope, even the original Levi jeans worn by gold prospectors. But while hemp appears to be thriving in German soils, questions remain about just how lucrative this crop will be. Correspondent Michael Lawton traveled to the German countryside in search of some answers, and here's his report.

(A cow lows; a dog barks)

LAWTON: Bernt Schmidt farms 135 acres near Bonn. In the cow shed he forks out the grass for his herd of dairy cows, but dairy farmers are going through a tough time, and so Bernt Schmidts is looking for other sources of income. That's why last year he planted one and a half acres of hemp as an experiment. Up on the hill, he shows me the results of the harvest.

(Footfalls on soil)

SCHMIDT: [Speaks in German]

LAWTON: It's been out here drying since the fall, he tells me, and the big bales now look like straw. The fibers will eventually be turned into everything from clothes to building materials. Back at the farmhouse he explains why he decided to take advantage of the legalization to grow hemp.

SCHMIDT [Speaks in German]
TRANSLATOR: In Germany, we're in the difficult position that we have to look for new sources of income. And because I'm interested in ecology, and I was looking for a plant which might be some kind of renewable resource, I ended up with hemp.

LAWTON: In fact, a hemp industry may once long ago have flourished in this area, although there's no firm proof of it. Schmidts's village is actually called Hemp or Hanf in German. It's no surprise that TV crews turned up to watch Germany's first modern hemp crop being planted in the village of Hemp. There's been a lot of public interest in the crop, partly because of its links with marijuana. Hans Bert Hansman of the Association of Hemp Farmers in the region says there's still a certain suspicion about hemp and growers must help educate the public.

HANSMAN: In Germany there's really a lot of fear against drug hemp. For the introduction of fiber hemp, it is necessary to have it first a strategy against this fear in the society, and we have to inform what is going on, what we can do out of hemp. And that the new hemp is no hemp which can be smoked.

LAWTON: Indeed, if someone did stick a real marijuana plant in the middle of an industrial hemp field, it would lose its narcotic effect because the pollination would be all wrong. But it doesn't stop people from trying. Some farmers even found trespassers in their fields rolling their own in a vain attempt to get high. There's little chance of that. One study found you'd need to smoke 80 industrial hemp cigarettes in 10 minutes to get the same effect as from one joint. But another reason for the public interest is hemp's ecological advantages. Hemp production requires no herbicides, because it grows so fast the weeds don't have a chance. It doesn't need pesticides because it gives off its own pest inhibitor. Gera Lezon is a specialist on the German hemp industry with the Nova Institute, a private environmental research organization, and he says hemp certainly has the environmental advantages claimed for it. But he warns there may be pitfalls in how the fiber is processed.

LEZON: For instance, if you want to compare hemp to cotton, what we find is that much of the energy in producing textiles actually is consumed in the downstream processes, i.e., pre-spinning, spinning, and weaving. So there the crucial question is, will hemp be processed as energy efficiently as cotton is? And is hemp fiber going to, or hemp jeans, are they going to live as long as the cotton jean does?

(A truck unloads)

LAWTON: This is one place where you can buy hemp jeans, at Dusseldorf's Hemp House. It's part of a successful franchise chain with 18 stores around the country. Here you can buy not just hemp clothing but hemp shoes, hemp paper, hemp oil, hemp cosmetics, hemp seeds for eating, hemp washing powder, even hemp beer. It provides a steady living for the owner, Daniel Kruzer, who says his customers aren't just an average cross-section of society.

KRUZER: The people who come to the Hemp House are ecological on another level. They think that there has to be a change in thinking and in global thinking. They want to do their part to change something.

LAWTON: But none of the products here are made of hemp which has been grown in Germany, which is not surprising since the crop is so new there's scarcely yet been time for it to enter the retail market. Most hemp comes from Eastern Europe and China. But Daniel Kruzer wants to see German hemp in his shop as soon as possible. He says it doesn't matter to his business, but it matters to the environment.

KRUZER: What is our idea is that the hemp grows here and then gets fabricated on German ground, and you've got the inner market circle of a production.

LAWTON: But hemp is still mainly a niche product. The real breakthrough, say the experts, won't come until big industry starts using it to replace other natural and synthetic fibers in such things as building materials or automobile dashboards. German hemp growers hope their product will be more attractive to industry than what's already on the market with a higher quality. But Gera Lazon of the Nova Institute says that industry is still waiting for developments.

LAZON: A nice example is Mercedes Benz, who has experimented with natural fibers to use in cars for a number of years now. And they have shown an interest in hemp, but their statement is, well, as long as -- as soon as you can provide us large enough quantities at a very high quality and a very low price that beats import fibers from other countries, we're certainly going to be glad to purchase hemp. But that's a situation to get into first.

LAWTON: It's a chicken and egg, and the egg may well only be hatched if someone warms the nest with money. So far, hemp has had a certain subsidy from the European Union, but farmers would be unwise to rely on that continuing forever. Gera Lazon says without the right financial framework, it may be impossible to give hemp the boost it needs to enter the market in a big way.

LAZON: I really think which way it's going to fall is going to depend so much on how the tax system, particularly in Western Europe, is going to shape up. Whether there will be penalties for the emission of greenhouse gases in the future or not. But I would say that both of those areas, textile and industrial applications, in particular the use of the fiber for structural purposes, have a potential future.

SCHMIDTS: [Speaks in German]

LAWTON: Berndt Schmidts isn't quite sure. Back at the farm he shows me his photograph album with the record of his first year's hemp crop.

SCHMIDTS: [Speaks in German]

LAWTON: He says he was himself surprised at how big the plants turned out to be. While he didn't make a profit on the harvest this year, he did at least cover his costs. He says he'll try another small field next year. For the moment he still regards it as an experiment. Meanwhile, several other European countries, including England, have also started on the industrial hemp business. But as for the German crop, it did prove one thing: hemp can be grown successfully here and it is an environmentally sound crop. The next step is to see who wants it. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in the village of Hanf in Germany.



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