JAMIE Bartley first discovered the wonders of the hemp plant while investigating its potential to assist brownfield remediation in construction.
Since then he has been on an eye-opening journey which has now reached the point where he believes the plant’s time has come.
“I realised that this is an amazing crop – that is what hemp is, an agricultural crop – and one with so much potential. I could see a real aligning of the stars across a whole range of industries.
“Micro-plastic pollution counter-acted by biodegradable hemp plastics, environmentally-friendly insulation and the potential for decarbonisation across many industrial sectors.
“Governments are realising that they have to do things differently, so I think it’s the right time for hemp. Now is the time for hemp to shine.”
In 2019, Jamie founded the Unyte Group with two business partners; its divisions covering energy, waste, investment, cultivation and medical uses.
All of this emanates from the field and Unyte Hemp is now the UK’s largest player holding licences for 1,700 acres – almost as much as the rest of the UK combined.
As BusinessCann revealed earlier this week the Unyte Group is to looking to spend £30m building the UK’s largest hemp processing facility in Leicestershire, designed to make low-carbon products for transport and construction.
Interlude: A Little Bit Of Hemp History
The hemp crop was common feature of the UK landscape for centuries but was banished to an agricultural backwater by the war on cannabis in the early part of the last century.
However, things are now changing with the global de-stigmatising of the cannabis plant well underway and and a booming global market for CBD products.
In fact Levi jeans, recently expanded their range of hemp products with its Stay Loose range and other brands are looking to hemp, which requires less than half the water of cotton.
A recent report the National Farming Union encouraged British farmers to plant hemp. Entitled; ‘Achieving Net Zero: Farming’s 2040 Goal’ it says the hemp shiv is an ideal material for the construction sector.
UK Licensing Regime
There is now an increasing interest in UK growing with recent figures showing, in the last decade, 205 licences were issued for industrial hemp cultivation with 56 of these currently active.
Jamie said there was ‘no hassle’ securing the licences – it was completed within eight weeks – and since then he says has helped 15 to 20 others with the process.
With little information available on the best plants to use in the UK Jamie started with five different cultivars on 240 acres. Using drones and sensors to monitor performance and collate data.
He said: “We wanted to ensure we had a full understanding of the plants, so we tracked yields for the straw fibre and shiv content and how that varied at different densities, equally the seeds and the cannabinoid quantities for all of the different cultivars.
“We worked with nine different universities looking at different end uses and tried to build models that would work commercially, but would also have the biggest disruptive influence in decarbonising different sectors.
“We have focused on energy, transportation and construction materials, for now, as they are the most energy-intensive sectors in the UK and the ones where our technology can be most disruptive.
“In the UK market, there is a push to retro-fit 24 million homes that will require insulation of some type. At the moment that is mainly rock wool, this is mined using massive plant and equipment, heated to 1,200 degrees, fibrillated into fibres and formed into insulation that goes into landfill at the end of its lifecycle.
“However, we can make a natural hemp insulation which is thermodynamically superior, which is naturally antimicrobial, passively cleans the air you breathe, is carbon negative and, at the end of its life, can be composted or put it into an anaerobic digestion facility for more energy.”
Covid-19 and Hemp-Based Ethanol
The advent of Covid-19 has also seen Unyte change its model slightly, added Jamie.
“With the demand for ethanol hand sanitisers rising during Covid-19 this has opened up a further potential market for Unyte. France and Germany provide most of the UK’s ethanol from grain, with a 42% yield, while the yield is 76 % from a hemp shiv.
“So we can have a far higher yield, from a sustainable crop and we’re not importing 716 million litres of ethanol year, further reducing emission from transportation.”
Efforts to green the transport sector will also open up opportunities for green hydrogen and bio ethanol, all extracted from the hemp plant.
A further benefit of having a hemp crop for farmers are its phytoremediation qualities with a follow-on spring barley crop recently yielding an additional 20%.
Working For The United Nations
It is not just in the UK that Jamie is spreading the hemp message has he has been asked to help one of the most undeveloped nations in the world.
In Malawi, in sub-saharan Africa, the Government is encouraging a shift from the use of virgin timber for fuel and cooking.
He said: “The solution is hemp. They want exportable products, that will be CBD, they hand-pick tea, so picking hemp flowers and leaves can align with that.
“They can take the hemp straw and turn it into hemp charcoal as a far more sustainable source of fuel.”
This project has caught the attention of many other countries, and also the United Nations.
Jamie continued: “The UN want me to write an article on how hemp can be a solution for refugee camps around the world. The seeds are a nutritional food, the cannabinoids are good for health and well-being and the straw can be used for heating and cooking.”
UK Famers Must Destroy Hemp Flowers and Leaves
A running sore for the growing army of UK hemp farmers are the strict rules which prevent the use of the flowers and leaves, consequently all UK CBD oils have to be imported from jurisdictions with less punitive restrictions.
Guy Coxall, Chairman of UK advocates HempTank estimates a hectare of hemp for CBD production is worth over £100,000 – and even the stalk alone is worth double the value of a hectare of good quality corn.
And, there is growing speculation that changes in the UK’s approach to hemp may be afoot, and this may include the removal of the restrictions on the use of leaves and flowers.
Drug reform advocates Volteface recently launched its Pleasant Lands campaign which lobbies for the lifting of these restrictions.
Liz McCulloch, Director of Policy at Volteface, said: “The UK cannot unleash the potential of its domestic hemp industry until farmers are allowed to harvest the flowers and leaves of their crops. This removal of this restriction would provide a much needed boost for rural economies and nurture a truly sustainable agriculture.”
Distaff Seed Limit Changes Needed
In order for the UK hemp industry to flourish Jamie supports the the lifting of upper limit of THC content of growing seeds from a maximum 0.2% to 1% – as in Switzerland.
“The traditional UK hemp seeds would have around 6% THC, that is what grows best in this country,” he adds.
THC limits were placed on industrial hemp in Europe in 1984. From then until 1987, the maximum limit was set at 0.5%, and subsequently reduced to 0.3%, as in the the USA.
However, the reductions didn’t end there. In 1999, the limit in Europe was lowered again from 0.3 to 0.2% THC to ‘discourage supplying the cannabis market’.
Even a change back to 0.3% would significantly boost CBD content, explained Mr Coxall.
A 0.2% upper limit produces mostly monoecious plants – containing both sexes – with a great deal of energy going into producing seeds instead of cannabinoids.
“However the increase to 0.3% brings opportunities to breed dioecious, or female plants with much higher levels of CBD. And, this will be good news for the farmer, because the more cannabinoids, especially CBD, the greater the value of their crop,” he said.
A Passion For Hemp
Unyte currently has two leased sites under cultivation in the east Midlands whilst also having a database of 250 farmers offering to grow hemp for the processing facility project.
Jamie plays host to many wannabe hemp farmers with one recent visitor travelling from Northern Scotland where the crop will flourish despite the latitude.
Jamie has travelled a long way since his dreams of a professional rugby career were cut short by a teenage shoulder injury.
But, he has every much passion for hemp as he did for his sport back in his youth.
“This really is a special plant. Our aim is to maximise the value of each part and develop sustainable future markets.
“We know the multiple technologies we need to synergise this development, and we are now starting out on our journey,” he added.