It’s possible to make a milk substitute from oats and from many other plants. Today we learn about one plant you may not have thought of, and find out what else it can do for the planet.
Michael Kyriakou - Gaia’s Farming Company
Anthony: Well today I am talking to Michael Kyriakou, who is founder and CEO of Gaia’s Farming Company. There’s growing concern about global food supplies. Some say the soil is becoming impoverished and we only have sixty harvests left. Much more immediately, we see disruption to global grain supplies as a result of the Ukraine conflict and the prospect of even more hunger in Africa. Maybe globalisation is a bad idea for food security. Maybe each country should be growing more food at home. The key issues must be what we grow and how we grow it. Michael, a crop which you believe is unwisely neglected is Hemp. Tell us why it’s important.
Michael: Hi Anthony. I mean, you have to look at many variables within the Hemp ecosystem. At its core, I think you need to look at Sustainability measures of Hemp, both from phytoremediation and carbon sequestration. We know the problem with the planet right now is the carbon humans are emitting, as such, and we know that we are in a climate crisis. We have a plant that sequesters more carbon than trees do, yet we neglect it. We have a plant that adds more nutrients than it takes out, yet we neglect it. Hemp is a super plant. Hemp is clean-tech. We need to be utilising it and allowing farmers to be utilising it at a far easier way.
Anthony: So what you’re telling us it sequesters a very large proportion of carbon. You’re telling us it improves the soil, but the plant itself, what can we use that for?
Michael: It is the most sustainable plant known to civilisation that can be used. Every single part of the plant can be used. You have the seeds that, which we use for the milk as such. Hemp oil you’ve got the fibre and the protein, the flower. The value chain of the seed at every single stage. There is no wastage. You have the stalks, they can be used for paper, biopolymers, ropes. You have the leaves that can be used for medicine, minerals and obviously cannabinoids. You have the roots that are used for balms and the flower again for cannabinoids. It’s completely endless. When you plant Hemp, every single part can be used.
Anthony: When you say cannabinoids, you’re talking about pharmaceuticals rather than wacky baccy? I imagine.
Michael: Yes. I mean there are over 110 cannabinoids in Hemp variety. We talk about one of them, which is CBD. There is over 110. There’s a recent report, a scientifically peer reviewed report, which showed that CBD prevented Covid in a clinical trial. It’s just one other cannabinoid. Human beings all have endocannabinoid receptors, so our bodies want to receive these cannabinoids. Obviously there's, and people can do their own research, vast research in terms of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, that cannabinoids have helped with. That’s just one part of it.
Anthony: Where can we grow this plant? What sort of climate? I mean can you grow it in the UK or is it very specific to particular parts of the world?
Michael: You can practically grow it everywhere, but obviously you get different harvests depending on where you grow. So for example, in England you would typically get one harvest and let’s say in France, you can get typically two to three. There are reports of people being able to harvest up to three a year, but I think you have to work on a particular strain of Hemp, more for its speed in terms of its harvest than anything else. As we use the variety of the plant that grows more for the seeds, because that’s what we want, so it grows a lot slower. But yeah, it can grow anywhere really in the world.
Anthony: Right. Most food crops are annuals. In other words, they grow, they’re harvested, they’re rooted out and then more is planted for next year. Is Hemp an annual or is it a perennial? Will it grow back next year?
Michael: No, so it is annual so you do replant the following year. So around September time, farmers will be able to harvest. It completely depends on the farmer and what their appetite is and what they’re trying to achieve. There are some farmers that use it as a crop cycle, there are some farmers that use it to replenish the soil. So, again that’s another completely different topic about how we need to allow farmers easy access to Hemp, which at the moment is not easy.
Anthony: Why is it difficult? Are there restrictions in growing the plant?
Michael: Yes. You need a licence from the Home Office.
Anthony: Regardless of the type of Hemp?
Michael: I understand that there needs to be certain regulations within the Hemp ecosystem, because although Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that does not have THC in it, is still looks like cannabis. So, if you just allowed every farmer to grow their Hemp, then imagine a government trying to regulate if that’s Hemp or whether that’s Cannabis of the THC variety. So it needs to be regulation there, but at the same time they don’t make it any easier. People within the industry don’t believe that the Home Office should be regulating it and that it should be the Department of Environment. But, the regulations are that it can’t be near a school, can’t be near an airport, it can’t be near certain roads. There are some silly regulations. There are cases where, well I spoke to a farmer and he had some of his Hemp plants, a small amount, stolen by some village hooligans. They are going to try go home and do something with it, and not get very far because you can’t physically smoke Hemp. it would be no different than trying to smoke straw or trying to smoke grass. So they will have a nice little surprise. So there does need to be some element of control, which I completely understand, but allowing it to be easier to get there, because the way I see it and a lot of other people see it is that Hemp is a super power plant and it can do so much for both the economy and farmers and just agriculture in general. We can be leading and spearheading this, but the government feels very lacklustre. They know it’s there, it’s been legalised since 1993, but they don’t see it as that super plant because there are other necessities or let's say interests, whether that's ethical or not, that they put ahead of that. Hemp was the first plant known to be utilised as a textile. When the UK colonised the US, they had a tax that made the US colonies farm Hemp for the Navy of the UK. We used to have sails made out of Hemp.
Competition - Lobbying
Michael: But, in the 1930’s with the birth of agroforestry and the birth of plastics they saw this as a threat. In the US they basically pinpointed Cannabis and Hemp as one and lobbied in government. I won’t mention names, but it was a certain corporation who were the biggest forestry owners in America, and he was very influential in politics, and the company is still around to this day, and got it banned. It was only legalised in the US state-wide in 2018 under the farm act. But here it has been legalised since 1993, and it has just been plodding along, and unfortunately people see Hemp as that whole hippy movement and you see a ‘Hemp power’ or Hemp bag or Hemp sandals and its associated with the hippy festival. Well no, this is where we come along and other people come along and try bring it in to the modern day with innovation and re-educate people. People still ask us today if you can get high from it, and we are like ‘No’.
Anthony: Right, well you’re actually producing a milk substitute from the seeds, aren’t you?
Michael: Yes, that's correct.
Anthony: Tell us a bit about that.
Michael: So yeah, it is a very fascinating world, you can produce a lot from the seeds. Through aquafracsation you can get a milk from the seed, it’s distilled with water. It’s very similar to milk in colour and texture, with a nutty taste and yeah it is just amazing. We can replace the dairy industry for vegans and people that don’t want to drink dairy milk like myself. The benefit is that it is high in Omega-3 and Omega-6, so it's amazing.
Anthony: The key question is of course; how does it compare on cost with dairy milk?
Michael: Yeah, so with the rise of dairy milk it’s not too dissimilar to be honest with you. I mean, we sell our product between £1.80 and £2 a unit, so a litre. So, people are used to premiums for a plant-based milk. In America you are looking at like $5 for a plant-based milk, so I think the UK is quite ahead of its time in terms of pricing.
Anthony: Are you currently producing at scale? Can I find it in my local supermarket?
Delis and Farm Shops
Michael: Not your local supermarket, but you will find it in your local delis or farm shops, etc. We are in talks with a few major supermarkets, but the thing is we launched in January of this year and it’s just about getting out there and getting feedback to see what people think. We mix ours with oats to give it a more all rounded taste, because we appreciate that Hemp is a very distinctive taste. We know that it is the best product possible to have, but we were like how do we make it more commercially viable, so we added oats, which people are very used to now.
Anthony: Right. Do you have a website? Do you show on your website where your product can be bought?
Michael: Yes, you can go to our website which is gaiasfarming.co, and there you can see our website and even more information about Hemp.
Anthony: Okay, so we will put that link on the sustainable futures report website, so people can follow that. Okay, so you can make milk or a milk substitute. Is the foliage useful for forage for livestock?
Michael: So yeah. So if you look at the whole supply chain of the food system. So for example, for us, when we have the whole Hemp seed, what we typically do is clean it and then grade it. The lower quality grade seeds, aka the smaller seeds, that can be used for livestock and for feed. Typically most farmers or equestrian sites will use it for a premium protein source. So there is that side, so when we go through its processing, we basically crush it to take away the shell, so its hold and then what’s left behind is in essence the shell and the seed. That in itself can be milled down even lower to make hemp flour, which is a very good gluten free flour. We can also use it to by not milling it and sell that in itself for fish feeding and for horses. You also have the stalk which can be used for animal bedding, which is much better than typical straw. It’s more expensive but it lasts between two to four times longer, it's anti-mycobacterial so when an animal urinates on it, it will not smell, which is incredible. In this day and age, your listeners will understand that with this cost of living increasing, how do you incentivise a farmer to go and spend more on his or her straw just because of these properties, and there are many farmers that will, but when it’s more expensive people are conscious of the price.
Anthony: The other problem of course is incentivising farmers to actually produce the Hemp, given that there are all these restrictions you’ve described. Do you find difficulty in actually getting the raw materials you need to produce your products?
Michael: There certainly are farmers that are committed. I think the point is that there are most farmers that will have a great crop, so there is a lot of supply there. But with hemp farmers typically they are just hemp farmers and they might have a great crop which might be something, and they might have a break crop whether it is oats or wheat, but if we allow farmers to use hemp as a break crop then obviously the price will get cheaper. But in terms of what is available, there are plenty of farmers in the UK and there are farmers in France. France has the most hemp farmers in Europe, with 70% of hemp comes from France. But they are focused more on the agricultural sector, so animal feed and animal bedding. France and China are the only places in the world who haven’t banned hemp. China is very focused on construction and medicine, and then you have the Canadians who are focused on construction, with hempcrete - a more sustainable version of concrete.
Anthony: Yes, I’ve heard of that now you mention it. It is lightweight as well, isn’t it?
Michael: It is lightweight and it sequesters carbon still when it is in the home, which is incredible. Obviously, you are using a natural by-product from mother earth, as opposed to chemicals found in concrete. It is fireproof, it isn’t structural but obviously you can build around that.
Anthony: Right so there are lots of possibilities, but from what you’re saying it is a bit in limbo at the moment. With little government in promoting it.
Michael: Yes and no, the more company that come about, like us, and spearhead hemp, then they will take notice. And obviously with the popularity with CBD, there is interest.
Anthony: Just explain CBD quickly.
Michael: It is cannabinoid within hemp plants, it is basically like the alternative to THC which people smoke, or consume. So, it is the complete opposite, it is more of a relaxant, and when I say relaxant, it isn’t as if you fall asleep, you can have it in drop, balm form. In Europe it is still seen as skincare, which is kind of weird, whereas in the UK, we have actually licensed it in the Noble Food Act. The government have basically said we accept it as a food product, we don’t have enough research on it so you have to have a licence to produce CBD. But there are some legality that are still baffling. So, let's give you an example, the farmer has 1 acre of land, and the farmer wants to grow hemp on it. He can sell the stalks for textiles, sell the seed to us for our milk or for hemp oil. He is going to make, say £20,000 on that.
Burn the Flowers
If he were to use the flower, to make CBD, he would make £120,000 but the Home Office make all hemp farmers burn the hemp flowers, but guess what the government allows us to do? They allow us to import CBD from Europe. So, we can support French farmers, Latvian or Polish farmers to grow their hemp and their flowers. But yet British hemp farmers literally have to burn their flowers, that is what the license regulation says. It is because the government has said “we don’t know much about it; we are not going to let you do anything with it”. I suppose the argument is, well what if a farmer does grow a THC variety and then he sells it. But this is a half empty mentality, and it is honestly baffling and there are lots of people within the system, whether that is the British Hemp Alliance who are trying to push that agenda forward to allow that. Because you know if a farmer can make 80% more on his crop, then he is going to benefit long term. But now the farmers have to apply for a licence. For the first year it is £500. They can’t have a criminal record, then as I said earlier, they can’t be near a school or have road access, and there are a few other legalities. And then they get the licence and then they are under review, and then the following years they have to pay two, three hundred pounds. And yeah, one of the criteria is they have to burn the flower. It is crazy, it is almost when you look at it from the outset, it is like what the hell, that is why there is a big push to take this from the Home Office to the Department of Environment, where there will definitely be a different approach to this.
Anthony: So there is a lot of work to be done.
Anthony: It reminds me of a programme I did a while ago, about insects for insect flour and that industry seems to have fallen into legal limbo for the moment, again mainly I think because the government is not interested or doesn’t understand it. So well all we can do is push. I wish you success and I hope that you will be able to overcome this and go from strength to strength.
Michael: Thank you
Anthony: And I am looking forward to finding a local supplier and trying it out, I have to say I’m not a vegan but I am open to trying new experiences
Michael: I will send you some
Anthony: Well that is very good of you Michael, thank you very much for talking to us at Sustainable Futures Report.
Michael: Thank you very much Anthony.
Michael Kyriakou - and Michael did in fact send me some samples. The milk substitute has a very mild taste and reminds me of raw runner beans. Goes perfectly well on my muesli. In tea it changes the taste slightly and does not lighten the colour as much as cow’s milk does, but it’s perfectly palatable. My wife didn’t notice any difference when I put it in her coffee. We both found the chocolate drink perfectly pleasant. I tried mine with whisky in, to make a Bailey’s substitute.
Find out more about it at gaiasfarming.co
That’s it for this week. For various personal reasons, too complex to go into here, there will be no Sustainable Futures Report on Friday. On Wednesday of next week we’ll be looking at another way of securing an ethical supply chain.
Thanks for listening. If you are, thanks for being a patron.
Oh, and have you noticed any difference in sound quality? I’ll explain more next time.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next week.