Hemp research and market development in Germany
A status report for 1994

Michael Karus1 and Gero Leson2

1. nova - Institute for Political and Ecological Innovation, Thielstrasse 35, 50354 Hürth/Cologne, Germany
2. nova - Institute for Political and Ecological Innovation, Santa Monica, USA

Historical overview

The cultivation and use of hemp in Germany has a long history (Körber-Grohne 1988). The earliest findings of hemp-based ropes and fabrics in Europe were made in the Stuttgart area and can be dated back to the pre-Roman period (800-400 BC). Fabrics were not yet made from processed hemp fibers, but from the bast stripped from the plant's stem. During the early Middle Ages, retting, a biological process for the separation of plant fibers which had been used for flax, was transferred to hemp. The nutritious hemp seeds have been used as a food staple since the Middle Ages and early descriptions of the plant's medical applications date back to the 16th century. To this day, traditional hemp dishes are prepared in some of the former German provinces, such as the Silesian hemp soup made from hemp seeds and millet (Pelz and Kretschmer 1977).

In the 14th century, the traditional Chinese art of making paper arrived in Germany via Italy. Exclusively used as raw material were rags from flax and hemp textiles. Wood based paper came into use only after mechanical and chemical pulping was developed in the mid eighteen hundreds in Germany and England, respectively. Because of the significantly lower costs of wood, often obtained by clear-cutting, flax and hemp as resources for the pulping industry were rapidly displaced.

Hemp experienced its heyday in Germany in the 17th century. Because of the high tensile strength of its fibers and their tolerance of moisture, essentially all sails, tows, nets, flags, and uniforms for the growing fleet of sailing ships were made from hemp. Within the boundaries of what later became Germany, hemp was grown on an area of approximately 150,000 hectares (ha).

The decline of hemp in Germany began in the 18th century, when technical improvements simplified the processing of cotton. This subsequently displaced flax and hemp from the textile market because their processing remained labor intensive. The concurrent decline in sailing caused the loss of yet another important market for hemp fibers.

Figure 1. Hectares of hemp grown in Germany from 1880 until the present day; DDR = German Democratic Republic (East Germany), BRD = Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

In the 19th century, jute and sisal, novel fiber plants from the colonies, were introduced to Germany. Jute in particular competed with hemp in its traditional domains at only half the price because of the pittance paid to workers in the colonies. At the same time, German hemp came under pressure from cheaper hemp imports from Russia. The already mentioned displacement by wood in the pulping sector resulted in the loss of yet another market for hemp fibers. Figure 1 demonstrates the steady decrease in acreage used for hemp cultivation in Germany during the 19th and 20th century, before it essentially ceased in 1915.

During the world wars

Hemp became a war profiteer during the two world wars. Cut off from its overseas supplies of cotton, jute, sisal and ramie, the German governments reconsidered hemp and supported improvements to cultivation, harvesting and processing technologies. For example, the development of the so-called cottonization process allowed production of a short-fiber, high-quality cotton substitute from hemp fiber. During the 1920s, the substitution of all cotton imports by cottonized domestic hemp was seriously discussed. It would have required an area of approximately one million hectares (Gminder 1924). While these considerations were driven mainly by a desire for self-sufficiency, they still demonstrate the potential which was attributed to hemp fiber. Towards the end of World War II, hemp was grown in Germany on about 21,000 ha, which supplied approximately 20% of the demand for hemp fiber. Most of the balance was imported from Italy.

Of high relevance today are the various fiber separation and processing technologies, which were intensively developed and tested in Germany after the turn of the century in order to expand the range of applications for hemp fiber and to lower production costs. A comprehensive summary of these developments can be found in the book Hemp and Hard Fiber by Herzog et al. (1927).

Post war developments

After World War II, the cultivation of hemp in Germany rapidly shrank to insignificant levels, mainly due to the competition from imported natural fibers and the newly developed synthetic fibers. In the former GDR (East Germany) the cultivation of hemp survived through the late 1960s. Despite the concurrent decline of German hemp research, researchers were able to breed several varieties which combined a high fiber yield with a low content of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient of hemp (Bredemann 1952, Bredemann et al. 1961). These varieties are now considered lost in Germany, but their existence elsewhere (e.g., Russian gene banks) is conceivable.

The final blow to the cultivation of fiber hemp in West Germany was dealt by the 1982 amendments to the federal narcotics act (BtMG) which outlawed the cultivation of hemp, regardless of its THC content. Exemptions may only be granted for scientific purposes or in the case of public interest. To this day, these amendments effectively ban the commercial cultivation of hemp in Germany. In 1981, they also forced the last West German hemp farmer, Martin Butter, to give up his production (Karus et al. 1994). At the time, he employed 15 persons involved in the cultivation of hemp on 150 ha of land. Fibers were sold to manufacturers of ropes, textiles and cigarette paper. The woody core (shives or hurds) of the stems was used locally to produce building materials, such as particle board and pellets for thermal insulation. The leaves were used as litter in stables. Instead of taking his case to the European Court (the European Community had already permitted the cultivation of low-THC varieties at that time) Butter accepted a DM 800,000 settlement from the German government.

Subsequently, agricultural research on hemp essentially ceased. One of the few exceptions is the work of Prof. Megnet who investigated, in the early 1980s, whether hemp could be grown on soils contaminated with heavy metals. Initial results indicated that the fibers remain virtually free of heavy metals. However, Megnet soon had to abandon his work because of governmental requirements he could not comply with.

When renewable bioresources, such as flax, were rediscovered in Germany in the 1980s, hemp was simply ignored. The knowledge of its potential uses had largely been lost within just a few decades. Younger agricultural scientists and engineers knew hemp merely as an exotic drug plant, not as a traditional, domestic fiber resource.

At this point, only one agricultural use of hemp in Germany has been exempted from this general prohibition: as a pollen insulator in the commercial breeding of beets. No other plant forms such impermeable hedges and minimizes undesirable outside pollination.

Current research

In the early 1990s, even this remaining application came under attack from a Bavarian politician. In this context, the late Prof. Dambroth at the Agricultural Research Laboratory (FAL) in Braunschweig was asked to investigate the variability in the THC content of low- THC varieties and the development of the THC content during the plant's growth period. Hemp has been grown at the FAL for research purposes since 1992. Dambroth added to this program the investigation of the impact of chemical (nitrogen) fertilizer and plant density on fiber quality, and fiber and seed yield. Delayed by his death in 1993, the results are now scheduled for publication in early 1995. Preliminary findings indicate hemp's comparatively low nitrogen demand and the high fiber yield of the Hungarian Kompolt variety.

Rediscovery of the "new " bioresource, hemp

The rediscovery of hemp in Germany as a promising, ecologically benign resource was largely triggered by the publication of The Rediscovery of the Resource Hemp Cannabis Marihuana in September 1993 (Herer, Bröckers, KATALYSE 1993). The book became an immediate bestseller. It contains, in addition to the German translation of Jack Herer's popular book The Emperor Wears no Clothes, a historical review of the use of hemp in Europe by Mathias Bröckers and a current scientific evaluation of the industrial crop hemp by the KATALYSE Institute, Cologne (Karus et al. 1993, 1994a).

The book was well received by the German media and general public and caused a downright hemp "avalanche". Following a decade-long period of neglect, numerous dissertations covering a broad range of subjects in the areas of cultivation, processing and use of hemp are now under way or have already been published. At the same time, numerous domestic firms are developing technologies and product lines based on imported hemp. A number of professionally manufactured products entered the market in 1994 with good initial success. Total sales in 1994 of these products are estimated at DM 20-40 million, up from essentially zero in 1993. Much of the enthusiasm of these firms is due to hemp's positive marketing image. It results from the ecological advantages of the bioresource hemp, as well as from its modern, fresh image caused by the association with its sister plant, marihuana.

In January 1994, "Die Hanfgesellschaft" (The Hemp Society) was founded in Berlin as an association of hemp protagonists in the areas of agriculture, processing, industry and marketing. Its goal is to promote the reintegration of hemp into the economic cycle by creating a network of major players, providing public education and supporting specific projects. The society's most visible venture is the "Hanfhaus" (Hemp House) chain. In addition to its Berlin headquarters, it operates retail outlets in six major German cities which market, under considerable attention by the media, a wide range of hemp-based products.

This rapid development in the areas of research, development and marketing had to manage essentially without public funding. The federal agencies in charge, the Ministry of Agriculture (BML) and the Agency for Renewable Bioresources (FNR) are not willing to fund hemp projects for the time being. Their main objections are that the cultivation of hemp is still illegal in Germany and that they do not want to sponsor a plant which would compete with flax, the promotion of which has received DM 60 million of public funding to date, without the hoped-for breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the general ban on the cultivation of hemp and its main supporter, the newly created federal drug administration, Bundesinstitut fŸr Arzneimittel und Medizin-produkte (BAM), have come under intense public criticism. The debate centers around the question of whether even low-THC varieties may somehow be used for the production of marihuana and can therefore not be tolerated. In this context, the validity of the EU-wide accepted limit of 0.3% THC content in the upper one third of the leaves is questioned by BAM. A publication which demonstrates the irrelevance of the arguments used by the supporters of the ban is being prepared by the nova-Institute. Results from another recent study (Karus et al., 1994b) also suggest that low-THC varieties cannot be misused as a drug and that the EU limit of 0.3% is sufficient.

Prior to presenting potential solutions for this somewhat muddled situation, the major ongoing R&D activities in Germany in the various sectors will be summarized in the following.

Cultivation tests

In addition to the already mentioned tests at the FAL Braunschweig, several cultivation tests have been approved in 1994 by the authorities as scientifically useful, and are now being carried out at various universities. Worth mentioning are tests at the Humboldt University, Berlin aimed at the cultivation of low-THC varieties, and an investigation of the suitability of hemp as boiler fuel at the Gesamthochschule Kassel.

Harvesting and fiber separation

Innovative harvesting and fiber separation processes for flax plants have been researched and developed on a laboratory scale in Germany for the last decade. Various public and private institutions were involved in this program, supported by considerable amounts of public funding (approximately DM 60 million). The primary goal of this program is the development of ecologically benign processes which produce fiber material with high yields and standardized quality, particularly for industrial fiber use, at a competitive price. A detailed understanding of the product characteristics demanded by industry, and the identification and quantification of their respective fiber parameters are essential for the achievement of this goal. This approach was based on the desire to eliminate the dependence of flax sales on short-lived trends in textile fashion and to create stable markets in the industrial sector. Studies carried out under this program suggest that market potentials for short flax fibers exist, particularly as substitute for glass and mineral fibers and in the production of press-molded parts.

Various fiber separation processes, based on the use of steam explosion, detergents, or ultrasound have now been developed on the laboratory scale. While the quality of the produced fibers has been met with keen interest from industry, these technologies still lack demonstration on the pilot and production scales. Most advanced at this point are purely mechanical methods which combine harvest and separation. They provide a limited range of product qualities or serve as preprocessing step for the already mentioned biochemical or physical processes.

Despite this favorable starting position, the implementation of innovative flax technologies has been slowed down considerably due to the virtual elimination of public funding.

These initial results from the R&D program for flax are highly relevant for the use of hemp as well. For a fraction of the funds spent to date on flax, the results could also be applied to the use of hemp fiber. These favorable starting conditions raise the hope that hemp, with its players being fresh and not yet involved in quarrels, and its modern marketing image, may bring about the breakthrough for both domestic fiber resources, flax and hemp. Consequently, major players in the flax domain, most notably the Institute for Applied Research (IAF) at the Fachhochschule Reutlingen, have begun in 1994 to apply these newly developed technologies to hemp. This includes a detailed analysis of the fiber's characteristics. However, to get off the ground at a pace that could satisfy the rapidly growing demand, demonstration projects are essential. Obtaining adequate public or private funding of such projects is difficult as a result of the recent funding priorities in post-reunification Germany. The implementation of a modern facility for the separation and processing of hemp and flax fibers should be the natural focus of these efforts.

Pulp and paper

In 1993, Schneidersöhne, Germany's largest paper manufacturer, introduced its first hemp-based paper products, and presently markets a complete line of hemp paper. The collection includes basic paper for the production of books, as well as four different varieties of graphical papers under the names Sativaprint (stationery) and Luxosativa (art paper). The papers are based on mixtures of bleached hemp pulp and de-inked recycled paper, most commonly 50/50 blends. Since the fall of 1994, paper based on 100% hemp pulp is also available. Sales of 500 (metric) tons are anticipated for 1994, corresponding to revenues of DM 4-5.5 million.

The hemp pulp is provided by the Spanish firm Celesa, currently the sole supplier in Western Europe. The comparatively high prices for hemp pulp, approximately DM 4,000/ton, are due in part to its monopoly position. However, ongoing developments in the pulp supply will soon break this monopoly, resulting in lower prices and improving the cost competitiveness of hemp pulp.

A remodeled pulp mill is scheduled for startup near Dresden in early 1995. It will be capable of producing 6,000 tons per year of pulp based on hemp, flax and linseed. Both unbleached and hydrogen peroxide bleached pulp will be offered. Hemp tow, initially imported from Eastern Europe, will be the raw material for the hemp pulp. Prior to pulping it will be cut to a fiber length of 2-6 millimeters. Schneidersšhne will not remain the sole buyer of hemp pulp produced in Germany. Several German firms are also interested in the use of hemp pulp for manufacturing technical and household filters. Their main motivation is the development of product lines which provide ecological benefits compared to wood pulp based products. For example, hemp-based filter papers are more resistant to moisture and can meet quality requirements without the addition of synthetic resins. The first of these products will likely be introduced in early 1995.

The major German producer of cigarette paper, EFKA-Werke, introduced 100% hemp based paper for the first time in the summer of 1994. These Cañuma hemp papers were introduced successfully by a smart marketing campaign. The paper is manufactured in France where all of the hemp pulp produced is converted domestically to paper.


The market for hemp-based textiles has grown much faster than was expected based on the results from previous studies. Since early 1994, the Hemp House chain has successfully marketed various kinds of hemp textiles, such as denim-type jackets and pants. The textiles are predominantly manufactured in Hungary. Over the last several months, ecologically minded textile companies have shown an increased interest in the bioresource hemp. It can be expected that fabrics and garments, some of them probably produced in Germany, will soon be available on the market, sold not only by outlets specializing in hemp products but also by ecologically oriented mail-order businesses and boutiques.

Apparently, the German market is particularly open for natural hemp fiber because the ecological aspects are taken more seriously in the textile sector there, and because natural fiber-based textiles, well suited for a strict eco-labeling, are rare and expensive. The positive marketing image of hemp will further contribute to the development of markets which are not as accessible to flax.

A frequently heard argument is that hemp fiber is not well suited for the production of soft and easy-care textiles, which provide the familiar cotton comfort. However, initial tests in the textile industry have shown that certain environmentally friendly, predominantly mechanical processes allow improvements in the everyday-wear characteristics of hemp textiles. Additional processes are currently being developed. The already mentioned use of cottonized short fibers, instead of the traditional long fiber, will create further opportunities for hemp, once the process is established on the full-scale level. This may allow hemp to make inroads into the market now held by cotton-based textiles in the not too distant future.

Building materials

Following publication of the "Hanf" book in Germany, the already strong domestic ecologically-oriented building movement developed a high level of interest in the use of hemp shives as a material for construction. Most popular to date has been the French product ISOCHANVRE which is used as a building and thermal insulation material. In 1994, ISOCHANVRE was first used in Germany, in combination with lime, as an insulating plaster in the remodeling of older buildings. A German company has been using hemp shives for the construction of floors since 1957. Current efforts to use shives in the production of ecological particle boards and building blocks are also promising.

In the long-term, the use of hemp fiber may become more important for the building industry. Potential products include light-weight construction boards, fiber-cement boards and fiber-reinforced plaster. Earlier this year, a German firm introduced flax fiber-based insulating mats which substitute for rock wool mats and provide the same level of thermal insulation. The company is also developing hemp tow based mats but will suspend their release until domestic hemp is available, since they deem the necessary long-distance transport of the tow ecologically unacceptable.

Hemp oil

The characteristics and potential uses of hemp seed oil are the subject of several ongoing studies in academia and industry. Initial results show that hemp oil is one of the most valuable vegetable oils, both for food and technical applications. The research focuses on various aspects which had been investigated previously for oil seeds other than hemp. This includes, for example, the composition of the fatty acid spectrum of hemp oil from various sources, shifts in this spectrum during plant growth, the biodegradability of hemp oil based detergents, and taste and durability of hemp oil.

It can be expected that the application for registration of hemp oil as an edible oil will be initiated in early 1995. In 1994, an Austrian firm surprised the public with the presentation of a complete line of hemp oil-based personal care products, such as soap, shampoo, bubble bath etc. A German firm recently introduced a hemp oil perfume which is based on a 19th century recipe.

Medical uses

The potential medical applications of hemp, or rather cannabinoids, have been under a taboo in Germany for a long time and cannabinoid research is virtually non-existent. This situation is now changing, due in part to the translation of the well-known book "Marihuana - the forbidden medicine" by Grinspoon and Bakalar (1993), which was complemented by a review of the results from recent medical research and a summary of the legal and medical situation in Germany (Grotenhermen and Karus 1994). This and a concurrent modification of the federal narcotics act (BtMG) which simplified clinical tests with delta-9-THC are likely to result in an increase in the research of cannabinoids in the near future.


At this point, it can only be speculated how the current German prohibition on the cultivation of low-THC hemp will eventually be overcome. Ongoing legal activities include a law suit filed by the agricultural association GAIA against BAM with a Berlin court. The subject is permission to cultivate hemp on a 110 ha plot near Berlin. While filing a suit with the European Court is another promising strategy, this route has not been taken because of the costs and time involved. Administratively the easiest way to eliminate the prohibition is a modification of the BtMG to EU guidelines as part of its routine adjustment, a process which is carried out almost annually without much publicity. The fact that a majority of political players in the agricultural and environmental arenas, such as the German Association of Farmers, have already come out in support of the re-admission of hemp for cultivation suggests that such a change will probably occur once the cultivation and use of fiber hemp become more established in other European countries.

Until such time, it is advisable to press forward with the development of hemp technologies and products and to benefit from the current favorable technological and marketing conditions in Germany. Such a strategy would allow hemp to be processed by modern and ecologically sound technologies and turned into innovative products as soon as the prohibition on cultivation is ended. This would effectively close the value-adding chain between cultivation and marketable product. Thus, the primary tasks ahead are to overcome the existing lack of funding for hemp R&D through the use of scientifically founded arguments, and then to integrate the numerous ongoing activities, undertaken with much enthusiasm and little financial support, into professionally coordinated, interdisciplinary projects.

The first steps in this direction are currently being taken. Only a few examples can be mentioned here. The Hanfgesellschaft is currently in the planning stages for a large scale German-Polish hemp cultivation and processing project. Co-funding from the EU's Eastern Europe Incentive program will be applied for. The nova-Institute, Cologne, is coordinating the planning for a major technology project which would focus on research, development and pilot-scale implementation of innovative, ecological product lines based on hemp. Finally, the BIOROHSTOFF HANF (Bioresource Hemp) trade fair and conference will be held in March 1995 in Frankfurt. BIOROHSTOFF HANF combines the first international product and technology exhibit with the first technological-scientific symposium on the subject of hemp as a bioresource. Scientists, farmers, and developers and vendors of technology and products from around the world will present the status of their research, concepts and products. For more information on this event refer to the announcement on page 64.


Male Cannabis. Illustration taken from: N. Ceapoiu, 1958. Cînepa. Studiu Monografic. Academia Republicii Populare Romîne, Institutul de Cercetari Agronomice, Editura Academiei Republii Populare Rom"ne, Bucuresti, 734 p.