Could Norfolk become the UK cannabis capital?
PUBLISHED: 10:20 21 February 2020 | UPDATED: 14:41 21 February 2020
Cannabis is a controversial crop with an increasingly-lucrative world market. Norfolk is already a leading producer of medicinal cannabis – and now the county’s farmers are exploring the potential opportunities from non-psychoactive industrial hemp as well. Chris Hill and Caroline Culot report.
Norfolk farmers are exploring the potential benefits of growing cannabis - a crop more lucrative per gram than strawberries, and a plant with many more uses than the drug that made it infamous.
Growers from the region were among those who travelled to London for the launch of Crop17, a new venture led by property agency Savills in tandem with leading strategists and glasshouse builders to help businesses capitalise on the "enormous growth potential" of the UK's medicinal cannabis market.
The worldwide legal cannabis industry generated revenues in the region of £11.5bn in 2019 - expected to grow to around £35bn by 2024. Savills says the total number of medical cannabis prescriptions issued in the UK could surge from a few hundred to more than 185,000 by the end of 2023 if the country follows a similar path to Australia, whose medical cannabis programme has grown rapidly since the government relaxed restrictions in 2018.
But despite the massive market opportunities for growing high-grade medicinal cannabis in climate-controlled glasshouses, the huge investment required has left some Norfolk farmers thinking lower-grade industrial hemp could be more of a viable option - if the right markets could be found for its many products.
The versatile hemp plant is estimated to have up to 50,000 uses, ranging from cooking oil, dietary supplements and biofuels from the seeds and textiles, insulation boards and even car bodywork panels from the stem, whose fibre is stronger and longer-lasting than cotton.
One of the farmers at Savills' London conference was John Barrett, a director of farming company Sentry Norfolk, who is preparing to plant the firm's first hemp crop this spring. He needed to secure a government licence to grow his planned 130 acres, which will be audited to ensure the plants contain no more than the legal limit of 0.2pc of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the psychoactive substance which creates a "high" for recreational drug users.
"I think the crop has great potential," he said. "We are looking to harvest the straw and the seeds, which can be used as an alternative oil for cooking or as a healthy food supplement.
"As the climate changes we need to find crops that are more suitable. We have got light land and droughty soils that struggle to give us good yields and so we wanted to look for an alternative crop that is more suitable for growing on those soils. Hemp has a very good tap root and thrives in hot weather.
"The plant absorbs a lot of carbon and it grows very quickly so it uses no pesticides as the huge canopy absorbs all the sunlight before anything else can grow beneath it.
"The issue is harvesting the crop, because you cannot do it with conventional machinery on a farm. It has got to be specialist machinery.
"We are only allowed to grow varieties with less than 0.2pc THC so you would not get 'high' on it. The RPA (Rural Payments Agency) will be doing routine checks on the field to make sure we are only growing what we're allowed to."
Medicinal cannabis is being grown in west Norfolk at British Sugar's factory in Wissington - the biggest legal cannabis farm of its kind in the country - where recycled heat and carbon dioxide from sugar beet processing is pumped into a glasshouse to aid the growth of the plants. The goal is to produce the non-psychoactive cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD), which is used by a pharmaceutical company to make cannabis-based medicines to help patients diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy.
Another farmer who attended the London conference said the availability of an existing source of carbon dioxide and heat is a major advantage in growing high-grade medical cannabis - otherwise the investment required would put it beyond many farm businesses.
Kit Papworth, director of farm contractor LF Papworth, based at Felmingham, near North Walsham, said: "My take-home message from the meeting was that it is very expensive and to grow the high-grade CBD oil you need glasshouses and a source of heat and CO2. The people who were involved in the meeting said you really need that advantage to begin with.
"Only 25pc of people in the room were farmers, but a lot were city financiers and institutions who really want to get involved with this. There were pretty serious players in the room, with hedge funds or private equity, and they can see a double-digit return on their money. The huge profits are going to be made in CBD, but it needs that level of investment. It is a big market for them, but I am not certain there is a market for my business from high-grade cannabis.
"I think hemp is the best option long term. It is a really good plant for capturing carbon and it can be turned into lots of products, like renewable body panels for cars. It is a fantastic product if you get everything right and everyone buys into it - but you have got to have the market for it."
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