Hemp cultivation for non-pharmaceutical could help revert desiccation of farm land
Italian farmers are in crisis as low prices of wheat, desiccated land and big companies importing grain take their toll. But some have found a solution: growing cannabis.
Hemp cultivation has been legal in Italy since 2016, and over the last few years the amount of land dedicated to the plant has increased from 400 hectares (1,000 acres) in 2013 to 4,000 hectares today.
The law – which allows cultivation for non-pharmaceutical use of plants with up to 0.2% of the psychoactive compound – was introduced with the intention of increasing the development of industrial hemp production. Italians have taken advantage of the legal change to produce not only hemp ricotta and environmentally friendly bricks, but also hemp pasta and biscuits.
“The boom in the production of hemp is an excellent example of the ability of agricultural firms to discover new frontiers,” said Roberto Moncalvo, the president of Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmers’ association. “We are in the middle of an opportunity for economic and employment growth.”
This solution to the crisis affecting Italian farmers can be seen in a small green oasis set in the arid interior of Sicily. Among the clay fields and sheaves of abandoned grain, a sign depicting a seven-point leaf hangs from a gate.
Beyond it is Salvo Scuderi, the president of the agricultural cooperative Colli Erei. The 41-year-old has just finished reaping part of his hemp harvest, which will be used to make pasta, oil and flour. This year, Scuderi and 20 other producers of Rete Canapa Sicilia, an association whose goal is to promote and market the use of hemp in the region, have together produced almost 150 tonnes.
“Hemp saved our business,” he said. “This year we earned 10 times more than what we used to earn with wheat and it has enabled us to hire four workers.”
Wheat yields a profit of €250 (£220) per hectare in today’s market, while hemp can generate net earnings in excess of €2,500 per hectare, according to Rete Canapa Sicilia. And there are many Sicilian farmers who, in order to breathe new life into the dry land and to improve their financial situation have substituted wheat with hemp.
In the countryside around Catenanuova, temperatures can reach the mid-40s in the summer. It is where the Italian car manufacturer Fiat used to test its prototypes under high temperatures, scorching weather would force trains to stopbecause of expanding rails. But it is not the heat alone that has caused the desiccation of the land.
Agricultural experts say years of ‘monocultural wheat cultivation’ in parts of Italy has caused soil erosion and risks making the land infertile. “Years of monocultural wheat cultivation are the problem,” said Dario Giambalvo, professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Palermo. “It has caused soil erosion, and is at risk of soon making the land infertile.”
According to data from Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics, land planted with durum wheat decreased by 7.4% in southern Italy last year, and by more than 9% in the north of the country. Overall production decreased by more than 4% during the last year.
This is why the move towards to hemp farming could help, say experts.
“The cultivation of hemp is a valid opportunity for a diversified farming which can be a good solution for the rebirth of abandoned and less fertile land,” said Giambalvo, “The ancient Romans taught us that diversifying crops can help make the land more fertile. I do not know if this will lead to the growth of the agricultural sector, certainly for Italy is a return to the origins.”
Up to the 1940s, Italy was the world’s largest producer of hemp after the Soviet Union. Back then in Italy, more 100,000 hectares were planted with hemp. After the war and the move towards synthetic fibres, the cultivation of hemp plummeted. The downward trend continued as the campaign against illegal drug use was strengthened. In 1961 the Italian government signed the single convention on narcotic drugs. Despite the international treaty specifically excluding non-pharmaceutical hemp production from the regulations controlling cannabis, it led to further to decline in hemp cultivation in Italy.
This could open the way for the legalisation of plant species with levels of psychoactive substances over 0.2%
“Hemp has been waiting 60 years to reclaim its rightful place,” said Scuderi. “And this could open the way for the legalisation of plant species with levels of psychoactive substances over 0.2% and to develop pharmaceutical experimentation.”
The 2016 law does not prohibit the commercialisation of hemp flowers, a gap that allowed market for the sale of light cannabis to blossom, with more than 500 stores in Italy. The flowers, sealed in bags or jars with names such as Gorilla Blue, Amnesia and Raging Bull, can be collected and used for tisanes or as scents for wardrobes. But the majority of customers simply crumble them, roll them and smoke them. The effects are not as pronounced as most cultivated strains of cannabis, which typically have THC levels of 15-25%, but do offer an immediate sense of relaxation.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Italy ranks third in Europe for consumption of cannabis.
On his company’s jars of hemp flowers, Scuderi has placed a label: “pizzo-free”. “It means the product is made without giving a cent to the mafia,” he said. “We launched a clear message: producing cannabis doesn’t mean just regenerating the land; it is also a way to weaken the mafia, which for decades has continued uninhibited in its quest to control the criminal business of drugs trafficking, and to give back to the farmers what the bosses had taken away from them.”