Developing hemp as an industrial crop
Hemp is an incredibly versatile crop with a variety of applications in many industries.
Hemp is an incredibly versatile crop with a variety of applications in many industries. It offers environmental benefits as a fast growing ‘break’ crop that improves soil health, and is highly efficient at capturing carbon.Researchers at the University of York and Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC) are working with industry to develop a strong portfolio of hemp research and development.
However, for hemp to become a successful, widely-used industrial crop, there are still barriers to overcome. Hemp seed oil is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids which become unstable during food processing and cooking and it is not currently a major UK crop, despite offering a wealth of environmental and economic opportunities.
Research at York, led by Professor Ian Graham, FRS has focused on two different approaches to overcoming these obstacles and developing hemp as an industrial crop.
The first is to create a new variety of hemp that contains oil which is more stable.
This new variety of hemp, developed without using GMO technology, is the first to be registered on the basis of altered seed oil content, and has much to offer the food industry and sustainable agriculture.
Researchers discovered the genes responsible for production of the different types of fatty acids in hemp seed oil. They then activated a key gene that resulted in hemp seed oil containing 75 per cent oleic acid, creating a more stable hemp seed oil with a longer shelf-life.
Secondly, the HEMP-30 project seeks to understand and resolve the barriers to industrial scale-up of hemp growing for the UK. This will lead to new opportunities for farmers, while supporting the development of high value, skilled jobs and providing low carbon industrial products.
A new variety of hemp has been registered in the UK. Its seed oil is seven times more stable than conventional hemp seed oil at 4°C, and five times more stable at 20°C. This product is undergoing commercial evaluation for food applications by a North American company with a view to commercially licensing the US and Canadian patent. The US patent is to be licensed to a North American company and a partnership agreement is being agreed with a UK seed company.
Industrial hemp is a low maintenance crop that is very attractive as a rotation crop for oilseed production in the UK and other countries in Northern latitudes. The results of the HEMP-30 project input into the UK Government’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme and could see hemp established as a major UK crop.
Ultimately, HEMP-30 aims to increase the amount of industrial hemp grown in the UK 100-fold to 80,000 hectares, establishing hemp as a major UK crop, used in a range of applications in food, fuel, construction and pharmaceuticals.
Professor Graham’s interests include how plants make and break down metabolites, how these processes are controlled and how they impact on plant growth. Professor Graham is academic lead for the BioYorkshire project.
Dr Ross has over 20 years university R&D laboratory and management experience working primarily on the development of novel plant varieties including a wide range of fibre, oilseed and medicinal plant species using fast-track breeding methods. He is director of the Biorenewables Development Centre.
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