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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » September 30, 2011
Polska… tastes good!
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Crops with Potential: Flax and Hemp
September 30, 2011   
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By Marek Sawicki, PhD, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

Flax and hemp are among the crops that have been traditionally cultivated in Poland, although they have been somewhat forgotten these days. But this may well change thanks to research work being conducted at the Institute of Natural Fibers and Medicinal Plants.

At present, fiber flax and fiber hemp varieties are cultivated in Poland on 500 hectares and 307 hectares of land respectively. Both these plants are important renewable resources. They may substitute for coal, petroleum and natural gas. Besides, hemp absorbs more than 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare while growing in the field.

Research findings show that there is potential for using flax and hemp in sectors such as construction and medicine. These crops may become an additional source of income for farmers, especially those operating on a small scale.

Fiber plants may be used as a raw material for the production of textiles, paper, composite materials, medical and pharmaceutical products, food products and energy. As regards herbal plants, Poland is now Europe’s largest producer and conducts research into new ways of using them as dietary supplements and health products. Herbal crops cover 25,000-30,000 hectares in Poland, compared with around 25,000 hectares in France, 20,000 hectares in Spain, and 10,000 hectares in Germany.

Today flax and hemp are no longer used only for the production of clothes or natural cosmetics. Thanks to research work, herbal plants have found application in many industries, including energy, chemicals and building materials. Houses built with materials made of hemp hurds, as the woody inner core of the hemp stalk is called, have better thermal insulation than houses built of brick. Decorative and packaging materials made of natural plant materials may be composted and are safely broken down into compounds posing no hazard to the environment. Flax seeds are a valuable material for the production of pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements and cosmetics. Flax seed oil, also known as linseed oil, has anti-cancer properties.

The institute uses European Union funds to conduct numerous research projects. One of the two key projects is called Nanomitex. Functional Textile Nano- and Micromaterials. It is aimed at developing innovative, functional textile materials. The goal of the other project, called New Bioactive Food with Programmed Health Properties, aims to develop an innovative process for the production of a line of food products that would reduce the incidence of lifestyle diseases, including heart diseases, obesity, diabetes and anemia.

Flax and hemp are also a source of biomass for the production of renewable energy. The energy value of hemp hurds is 18.8 MJ/kg, with 18.3 MJ/kg for flax hurds, 18.7 MJ/kg for wheat straw, 17.9 MJ/kg for miscanthus, also known as elephant grass, and 17.0 MJ/kg for wood chips.

Flax and hemp growing offers new opportunities for both farmers and the economy as a whole as well as environmental benefits and an opportunity to produce high-quality food and a wide range of health products.

Flax and hemp testify to the development potential of Polish agriculture. The credit for this goes mainly to Polish farmers who know how to use both EU and domestic funds effectively. Polish farms are becoming increasingly specialized, modern and efficient. At the same time, they preserve the unique values of traditional rural areas.

The European Union is now entering the most difficult period of debate on the future shape of its Common Agricultural Policy after 2013. In mid-October, the European Commission is expected to submit a package of legislation to provide the basis for talks on a new agricultural policy. One of the fundamental starting points for the discussion is agreement by all the countries that direct payments based on historical criteria are no longer suitable and that they should be replaced by a mechanism relying on new, uniform and more transparent criteria. It should be stressed that no definitive decisions have yet been made in this area.

At a recent informal meeting of EU ministers for agriculture and fisheries, I proposed that discussion on the legislation be held in public. All interested parties—the European Commission, the European Parliament, experts and farming organizations—should be taking part. I believe that we will be able to rise above our national interests and work out together a modern and transparent post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy. Only then will European agriculture become competitive on the global market.
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