Hemp: A ‘promise of renewal’ for rural development in Europe

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INTERVIEW: Francesco Mirizzi this month was appointed Senior Policy Advisor at the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) after having worked for two years in Copa-Cogeca, the biggest farmers organization in the European Union. He is an EU and international lobbying expert with experience both in the private and public sectors (Pernod Ricard SA, Puglia Regional administration), and has experience in the hemp, cotton, flax, wine, spirits, hops, olives and olive oil industries. Mirizzi has covered policy areas such as rural development and international bilateral relations, and acquired knowledge on the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association enlargement during a traineeship at the European Commission.

HempToday: What promise does hemp hold for rural development in the EU? In which countries or regions does it hold the most promise?

FM: It is essentially a promise of renewal. Agriculture nowadays dramatically needs the workforce and the right mentality to adapt to a fast-changing world. Hemp stakeholders have the right profile to start a most needed revolution of the farming sector, especially those who have been around for the past decades fighting relentlessly for a better reputation for  hemp.

The most promising countries, in my opinion, are France, because of its status as a historic producer; Italy, particularly for food preparations, the clout of the “Made in Italy” brand, and the experience of food processors; the Baltic countries, where a spike in hemp farming was observed in the last years; and finally Poland and Romania, where the popular culture of hemp is still strong.

HT: What are the key things EIHA would like to see in the upcoming reforms to the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

FM: First of all, we expect that the European Parliament to confirm in plenary session the proposed increase of the maximum allowed THC rate to 0.3%. This would allow the sector to align with international standards, and start breeding new and more adapted varieties.

Furthermore, we will follow closely the rules for implementing “sectoral aids,” as from the entry into force of the new CAP reform, Member States will have the possibility to dedicate part of the CAP money from the direct payments budget to fostering the hemp sector. 

In addition, we ask for hemp to be recognized as a high carbon storage crop, therefore subject to easier requirements in terms of greening or top-up payments.

Finally, we ask the legislators to allow the registration of designation of origins and geographical indications in the hemp sector.

HT: Critics say that supports under CAP are unbalanced in favor of big farms. Do you expect any significant changes in the upcoming CAP reform that will address this unbalance, generally? After all, most hemp farms are relatively small.

FM: The question of economic sustainability of the farming model is at the core of the discussions. Considering  recent global developments, I believe that the cards will be reshuffled soon and a bolder approach will be taken by legislators, in favor of cooperatives and small farmers.

This said, we need to acknowledge the general support of the Commission and the Parliament for SMEs (even if for some too little has been done). The new Commission proposal, for example, suggests to limit the financial aid to €60,000 per farm, therefore avoiding giving too much to the big players. Furthermore, even in the current CAP, there is a specific fund for small farmers.

However, very little can be done if the Member States don’t vote on a consistent and adequate budget for the CAP. 

HT: How does the EU agriculture subsidy program work for hemp farmers in practice?

FM: The detailed rules will be established later and mostly at the national level. Types of interventions that will be possible to finance are among others: investments in tangible and intangible assets, setting up of mutual funds, promotion activities, organic production, etc. Similar measures are already in place for the wine and fruits and vegetables sectors, among others.

These subsidies are not automatic though. Member States need to be convinced to allocate them in the coming year. Therefore, an engagement of EIHA members and the whole hemp community is crucial for ensuring that the hemp sector will be supported by CAP funds in the future. 

So far we understand that France was the first country to flag the idea to include hemp in their future CAP strategy. We trust that more Member States will do the same.

HT: Who are the most important constituency groups inside the EU that we need to reach regarding hemp issues?

FM: The first target of our communication and advocacy is Members of the Parliament and the officials working at the European Commission. Oddly enough, most of them don’t have a clear idea of the wonders hemp can do on the field and as a transformed product. We’ll focus on multiplying learning occasions for Brussels’ stakeholders.

EIHA will put a lot of effort into highlighting the use of hemp in textiles and as construction material. If we focus on CBD exclusively, we’ll fail to show the broader utility of this incredible crop.

HT: How does hemp’s position in EU policy compare with the more long-standing sectors in which you have worked? How would you assess the overall standing of hemp as a crop in EU programs and institutions? Where do we need change & improvement?

FM: We need a lot of change, unfortunately. Hemp cannot be compared to any other crop in the framework of EU policies. The negative image it had throughout the past decades effectively contributed to its oblivion  except for a few (confusing!) rules on THC content. Everything needs to be built from scratch, unlike other agri commodities, which are all highly regulated by a multitude of rules.

It will be EIHA’s task to steer the structuring of a true EU-wide hemp products market with clear and common rules.

HT: How important is EIHA’s interface with international institutions? What are those key relationships, and what are the common goals?

FM: UN and WHO are the main institutions where the main knot needs to be untied. Therefore, EIHA will of course engage with these two institutions, even more vigorously than in the past. The long-awaited change in the drug scheduling system is still one of our top priorities, and the biggest hindrance to the global development of the sector. 

HT: Give us a snapshot of how effective EU policy making works.

FM: Contrary to what many people think, EU policy making is very much inclusive and transparent: all stakeholders have equal access to EU institutions. From my experience, the most effective stakeholders are the most innovative ones capable of providing constructive proposals, regardless of the size. So I guess that we are in a good position so far.

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