(Published in the Sunday Times, 19/10/14)
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a marauding mob scour the city for the Emperor’s assassins. They chance upon Cinna the Poet, namesake of one the conspirators. On being asked his name, fatally he replies ‘Cinna’ at which point the First Citizen cries ‘tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator’.
Understandably vexed Cinna wails: ‘I am Cinna the poet; I am Cinna the poet’. One of the mob responds: ‘It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.’ And that was the end of the unforunate Cinna the poet.
What could we have learned about this indignant chap if the mob had not descended? Perhaps, through his presumably mellifluous verse we would have gained great insight into human nature. Poor Cinna the poet’s crime was to have the wrong name, and he winds up in historical limbo in a box marked ‘fictional potential’.
Alas a similar fate seems to have befallen hemp a crop variety with unrivalled versatility. A guilty name has brought undeserved suspicion. Hemp’s failing is that it comes from the Cannabis family, varieties of which are strongly associated with loafer students and malcontent adolescents.
Innocent Hemp with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels insufficient to get any kind of Rasta party started was caught in the hysteria against reefer madness. Farmers are effectively prohibited from growing it in the United States, and a certain taboo might exist here too. Our UK neighbours are not so wary: commercial growing began in earnest in the 1990s, and one farm in Northern Ireland has grown it since the seventeenth century.
This wonder crop offers an incredible array of uses: serving as a nutritious foodstuff, a fibre for rope, clothing and other materials; a building material that produces concrete-like blocks; an alternative to petroleum-based plastics (BMW among others are now using it in their cars). It can also be made into paper: ironically, the US declaration of independence was signed on it. Its US opponents should put that in their pipes and smoke it, so to speak.
The nutritional potential of hemp is impressive as it contains a full profile of the essential amino acids. It can also be rendered into a milk, prepared as a tea and its flour can be used in baking – one of the contestants on last year’s the Great British Bake Off used it in a cake mixture. Hemp oil is renowned for its healthy properties, containing 80% essential fatty acids – vital to our health – only a small proportion of which is saturated fat.
The last Teagasc study into Hemp conducted in 2007 concentrated on the oil and the fibre, but not the seed. According to their findings one acre of hemp yields an average of 700 pounds of grain, which can be pressed into 50 gallons of oil and 530 pounds of meal. That same acre will also produce an average of 5,300 of straw which can be transformed into about 1,300 pounds of fibre.
Despite Ireland having a climate suited (and set to become more so with climate change) to the production of this crop none is grown on an industrial scale. The main problem for potential Irish hemp farmers is the absence of a processing plant to dehull the seed in order to get at the inner kernel.
One food producer Deidre Collins of M. D. Dee’s Wholefoods indicated that she is paying €8000 a ton to a German company for hulled organic hempseed. She would be delighted to support local farmers and provide local employment but there is no option of doing so as things stand. Naturally any extra transport costs have to be born by consumers of her healthy meat-free sausages and other plant-based products.
The absence of Irish hemp is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Irish agriculture which is dangerously reliant on external subsidies that reinforce an environmentally egregious and unsustainable system of food production which keep the cost of healthy plant food for human consumption at unnecessarily high prices.
It strikes me that one solution to the impasse would be to adopt the approach of the French agronomist Parmentier who was responsible for making the humble potato acceptable to his suspicious countrymen and women.
As a prisoner of war of the Prussians in the 1760s he subsisted happily on a diet of potatoes for some time. On being released he was determined to make them acceptable in his native land. His first task was to end the prohibition on cultivation as their consumption had been associated with leprosy. The Paris Faculty of Medicine finally declared them edible in 1772.
Next he began a marketing drive that would impress any contemporary practitioner. First he used product placement to associate them with the rich and famous, his masterstroke however was to have armed guards surround fields of ripe hemp just outside Paris. But the guards were ordered to accept even the slightest bribe to leave their posts. Soon potatoes were all the rage. French cuisine would not be the same without them.
It would seem that hemp needs a similar makeover allowing Irish farmers, food producers and manufactures to avail of this wonder crop, and thereby rescue it from the anonymous fate of Cinna the poet.