Ijust sitting in my kitchen to try my first sip of a milk that is vegan, fixes carbon and increases biodiversity. Dairy products have a high carbon footprint. Soy is associated with deforestation and almonds with high water consumption. But how does the new kid on the scene – hempseed milk – fare in terms of taste?
An Innovative Farmers project coordinated by the Soil Association is exploring how industrial hemp production could support the transition to a low-carbon economy. Working with scientists from Cranfield University and the British Hemp Alliance, the research will quantify the environmental benefits of growing hemp. In farm trials launched last month, five farmers are helping to study this plant’s ability to fix or store carbon, improve soil health and increase biodiversity.
“Hemp could be a very valuable tool, but the UK is currently behind the curve internationally and there is a definite lack of data,” said Nathaniel Loxley, Innovative Farmers project coordinator and co-founder of the British Hemp Alliance.
In theory, hemp has many potential benefits as a useful crop from an ecological point of view. No pesticide chemicals or lots of watering are required, and hemp roots grow up to 10 feet deep, so they could help improve soil structure and nutrient levels, potentially leading to higher yields from subsequent crops.
A conversation on an East Yorkshire hemp farm. Photo: Joanne Crawford / Innovative Farmers
“From a nutritional point of view, hemp seed milk meets all the criteria. It’s low in saturated fats, has no sugar or cholesterol, is high in polyunsaturated fats, and is a really powerful source of omega-3s, ”says Ben Cooper, Brand Manager at Good Hemp. Cooper explains that whole hemp seed hearts are made into a cream “with a bit of magic,” and not into an oil, as is the case with other plant-based dairy products, to make this milk.
Good Hemp is the UK’s first and largest hemp milk producer, but with only 20 UK farmers currently licensed to grow hemp, it currently sources most of its seeds from Europe and Canada. “We would like to get all of our seeds from the UK. It is our ambition that farmers grow hemp again as a useful crop, either commercially or as a crop rotation. “
But before it can establish itself as a vegan dairy product, negative prejudices must be broken. “People think of marijuana, but it’s like comparing a tiger to a domestic cat. They come from the same family but from different plants, ”says Cooper. Hemp does not contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance found in cannabis, but it is still classified as a controlled drug in the UK, so farmers must apply for a license from the Home Office before growing it.
However, hemp is nothing new. It has been used to make ropes, nets and sails since the 16th century. Today a building material called hemp concrete, animal bedding and fire briquettes, textiles and paper are made from it. Some varieties are best for fiber, while others are best for seeds.
Loxley, who grows organic hemp in Sussex, is delighted with the scope of this farmer-led effort. “We hope that by better understanding the benefits of hemp and gathering evidence, we can pave the way for more UK breeders.”
For Dr. Lynda Deeks, soil scientist at Cranfield University, this experiment is just the beginning of the journey. She recently trained the five farmers to assess soil health, see how easily it degrades, how ventilated it is, how many different earthworms there are – the more the better – and whether it smells sweet, a sign that it is he is balanced. They also measure how quickly water penetrates the soil and count the birds, butterflies and insects that are present on the crop throughout the season.
Dr. Lynda Deeks in a hemp field. Photo: Joanne Crawford / Innovative Farmers
Deeks will evaluate the data over the next two years. “Hemp could help store carbon and improve habitat, which supports soil biodiversity and aboveground biodiversity. Agriculture is all about future security, and if this culture improves soil health and supports drainage capacity, it could support landscapes in a changing climate as we get more extreme humidity and drought. “
Once farmers can deliver in bulk, demand could skyrocket. A large oilseed press company has already shown an interest in using hemp seeds and, in the long term, there is ample scope for hemp seed milk production to play a bigger role in the transition to a more regenerative landscape. Loxley adds, “Hemp could be a real catalyst for change.”
And the taste? I take a sip and roll it around my mouth; The taste is light and nutty, not too sweet with a hint of sesame or maybe pine nuts. It’s thinner than semi-skimmed. It took me a while to get used to oat milk so it tastes a bit strange the first time I try it, but it’s definitely something I could get used to.