Optimising Hemp for Irish Agriculture and Bioactives

Hemp is rapidly gaining popularity as a new crop with the area on which hemp is grown in Ireland steadily increasing during the past years. Hemp is a multipurpose crop that can be used for high-value applications such as medicinal purposes, clothing, and novel food alternatives, for biofuel, and as a wood alternative in construction. Importantly, hemp has substantial carbon sequestration potential, rivaling that of forests. Hemp is therefore a key crop in achieving a sustainable society, economy, and agriculture in Ireland.

However, not all parts of the hemp plant are currently used, in particular parts of the stem, the leaves, and the roots, usually low-commodity by-products. We already have some compelling evidence that the soluble fibres present in hemp roots (and other parts of the plant) have strong health-promoting activities. For example, the fibre extracted from hemp could be used to improve the gut microbiome, immune status, and general human health. Hence, upcycling of hemp by-products could lead to the development of sustainable high-value products, ensuring the use of all parts of the plant further enhancing its sustainability.

In this new North-South collaboration the lab in Ireland will screen a library of hemp lines to determine which are optimal for farmers to maximise their return on investment. We will further characterize growth conditions to understand how soluble fibre production can be maximised. The partner in Northern Ireland will extract fibres from plant samples and perform detailed testing
to identify optimal varieties and cultivation conditions. Overall, this joint project will investigate the sustainable production of ingredients to be used in future animal and consumer products. Further, this project aims to contribute towards a shared Island by the exchange in teaching activities as well as North-South hemp stakeholder meetings, bringing together hemp farmers,
industry, and policymakers.