In the time before plastic permeated every part of our lives, hemp was a valuable, sustainable, versatile plant that was cultivated without the hugely negative associations that have been fashioned around it over the last 100 years. A plant that can become food, medicine, textiles, shoes, rope, animal feed/bedding, building material, paper, insulation, bioplastic and biofuel, that can be grown quickly, without the need for huge volumes of water, pesticides or herbicides, should be grabbing the attention of anyone who is engaged in climate activism.
Last month I had the pleasure of visiting Jonathan Spencer in his Hexham based shop, Northumbrian Hemp, to chat about the challenges of bringing hemp to the High Street. The shop stands in the Meal Market area of Hexham, a bustling market town in Northumberland, in the North East of England. It’s a small shop, but packed full of carefully chosen stock that instantly informs customers of the true versatility of hemp. From tea to t-shirts and bags to building materials, every part of the shop has a connection to hemp – even the till counter has been made from hempcrete.
Established in late 2019, Northumbrian Hemp is a small business with big plans to bring hemp to a new audience, alongside a deeper understanding for all that this misunderstood plant is capable of. I asked Jonathan why he chose to set up his business in Hexham, and what the response from the local community had been.
“I chose Hexham firstly because we have just moved to the area and [it] seemed like a good place to start,” he told me. “I wanted to be located close to a big agricultural industry with the aim to show traditional farmers that hemp can be a profitable addition to their farming schedule. Another factor for the choice of location is to meet like minded forward thinking eco conscious people within the community.”
As any small business owner will tell you, having a community of supportive folk behind you can make or break, especially in the early days.
“The response from the local community has been overwhelmingly positive,” Jonathan explained. “Feedback from customers has been great and support from other local businesses has also been encouraging. Farmers however seem to be very traditional and it has been a difficult task to convince them of the benefits of growing hemp for the environment and for their wallet! I really wanted the farming community around Hexham to embrace the idea,” he continued, “but it seems that it’s a very conservative industry and we’ll have to show some regional success before any real advancement in this area. We have had interest from farms in the Morpeth area of Northumberland and are pursuing this. Hopefully once we have some successful harvests under our belt the farmers of Hexham will begin to take notice.”
Once you start to read about hemp, and discover it’s history, it becomes an undeniable truth that it is one of the most environmentally sustainable crops known to humankind. I first came across hemp cloth when I was researching for a No Serial Number Magazine article about Allan Brown, who processes nettles for textiles. As I began to learn more about the plants that can be grown for fibre, I interviewed Zoe Burt, the driving force behind the Seeds of fashion project, where flax was grown in smallholdings and school plots across London to create a garment grown from seed within an urban environment. Unfortunately, getting a licence to grow hemp for a similar project could be costly and difficult. Whilst it is legal to cultivate hemp in the UK, the conditions and fees set by the UK government make it near impossible for small scale projects to take off.
Bringing a new understanding of hemp and all its possibilities, and challenging the misinformation that overshadows it, is a huge first step to changing the midset of those who could turn this ancient plant into a planet saving industry. For Jonathan, the main priority of his business is to push hemp as a solution to many of the ecological issues we face as a human race on a finite planet, and to bring a new awareness of the plant and its capabilities. “We have been made very aware of the ecological problems and challenges we face,” he tells me, “now is the time to look for real solutions and the humble hemp plant can be utilized in lots of ways to provide these solutions.”
“Hemp can be used as a plastic substitute which is 100% degradable.
Hemp can be used as an alternative to current high polluting building techniques, hempcrete which is a mixture of hemp, lime and water, is the only potentially carbon negative building material available. Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs has witnessed thousands of builds and he is quoted saying in regards to hempcrete “I struggle to find a better building material”
The fashion industry alone is responsible for something like 40% of all pesticide use. Switching to using hemp in favor of cotton can drastically reduce this as hemp cultivation requires no pesticides or herbicides. Hemp also requires much less water than cotton.
Hemp can provide an alternative to petroleum and diesel in the form of bio ethanol. Not many people are aware of this but in the 1930s Henry Ford produces a car which had a body built from hemp and actually ran on hemp based fuel. So we aren’t necessarily talking about new technologies!
As a food source hemp is truly worthy of superfood status, it is one of the only foods which contain all of the essential amino acids our bodies need to be healthy.
Hemps rapid growth makes it one of the fastest CO2 to carbon converters, one hectare of industrial hemp can absorb 15 tonnes of CO2 in comparison 1 hectare of traditional agriculture emits 3 tons of CO2.” Jonathan Spencer, February 2020.
It feels like a no-brainer really, doesn’t it? As a crop that has been used in our history extensively for all the things we need to live comfortably, it is only in the last 100 years we have seen it outlawed. Pushed aside for all the industries that have brought our planet to its knees. Jonathan feels the same, telling me, “Hemp is one of the oldest known agricultural crops, first sown 8000 years ago and has been used extensively by humans up until the 1930s when the “war on drugs” outlawed its cultivation. So to put it in perspective it’s only the last 100 years which this miraculous plant hasn’t been used, although the negative stigma of cannabis is fading it still surprises me how many people are unaware of the historical usage and it’s immense benefits, still believing the propaganda from the earlier part of the century. In the 100 years hemp has been outlawed big industry has literally destroyed our climate, I believe that if hemp and other less impactful materials had been utilized in this time we could have mitigated the current ecological crisis. Hopefully people will embrace this plant and it’s multitude of uses once again and by doing this at least slow down if not reverse the damaging effects of climate change.”
If the truth is that hemp can provide alternatives to all the major polluting industries like fashion, transport, agriculture – why are we not challenging the governments who withhold the keys to it’s use? Giving up plastic on a mass scale only becomes a realistic, viable solution when there is something else to take it’s place.There is no doubt in my mind that hemp really does bring hope. I’m really excited by the potential that hemp can offer to all the industries that we rely on, but which are devastating our planet, and I’m proud to see Northumbrian Hemp take a bold stand in bringing a new climate conversation to the North East.