'SOMETIMES WE HAVE THE WIND AT OUR
AND SOMETIMES IN OUR FACES
Interview with Prof. Ryszard Kozlowski,
Director of the Institute of Natural Fibres (INF) in Poznan, Poland
How did your career develop?
I graduated in Applied Chemistry at the University of Poznan in 1961. Subsequently I went to INF, where I worked up to now with only short breaks. My Ph.D. work, from 1970 to 1972, was aimed at the biochemistry of retting of flax and hemp, and the effects of added nutrients, like urea, on the processes. As head of the INF department for waste and by-products, partly during a fellowship in Finland, I focused on the development of fire-, fungi- and water resistant particle board made from flax residues and hemp woody core. In 1987, I was promoted to be General Director of INF and in 1990 awarded the degree of Professor of Technical Science at Poznan University.
What are your international functions on the fibre
I am Coordinator of the FAO flax network. This network consists of five subgroups focusing on the subjects: breeding and agriculture; harvesting and processing; quality; non-textile applications and marketing. We try to connect people from all over the world working with flax, linseed and also hemp by organizing symposia and by publishing proceedings and a newsletter. The next general meeting is in 1996 in Rouen, France. Maybe we could arrange the one after that in the Netherlands in collaboration with IHA. Further, I am a country member of the council of the World Textile Institute in Manchester, UK.
When was INF established, what is its size and some
of its research interests?
The INF was founded under a different name in 1930 in Vilna, the present Vilnius, in Lithuania. After the war, the institute continued in Poznan. Besides flax and hemp, we do research on the protein fibres, silk and wool. At present, sixty-three employees work in seven laboratories, on seven experimental farms in different climatic regions and in an experimental retting mill. We have activities in the field of biotechnology, breeding, agronomy, spinning technology, environmental protection, marketing, technical information and normalization and standardization.
Due to strongly reduced funding levels by the government, we were also forced to start commercial activities to keep the INF running. That's why we have a marketing group of six persons to promote our products. We really need to earn money to invest in new equipment.
This year, we are testing an improved hemp harvester which was developed at the INF. We expect it to be better than the Russian machinery which is standard at the moment.
In the retting mill, we investigate alternatives to the traditional dew retting system, such as enzymatic degumming and mechanical green straw processing. An important project, ordered by the Polish government, is to find out if non-food crops like hemp and flax can be applied for the cleaning of soils contaminated with cadmium and copper. Up to 1000 ha of hemp is presently grown for this purpose in S.W. Poland (Silesia) in an area with copper mines.
Don't you only spread the pollution more diffusely
with such an approach?
No, the metals are specificly accumulated in the seed flour fraction. The cellulose of the stems can safely be used for pulping. The seed oil is also clean, it's mainly applied in paint production. The metals can be extracted by leaching the seed cake with hydrochloric or other acid solutions.
How is the situation of the Polish hemp industry?
Until the 1960s, there was quite a large Polish hemp industry, with four retting mills. Hemp fibres were mainly used for manufacturing ropes and fabrics for military use. Hemp was even of strategic importance. We had yearly 20,000 to 30,000 ha.growing. A factory had an annual production of 18000 m 3 of particle board, partly made from hemp woody core. Unfortunately, this factory was closed in 1975. After the changes in Russia, our export of military textiles completely collapsed. At present, there are two hemp processing factories left. They make fibre board and still some military fabrics (tents, shoes). Hemp is a marginal crop at the moment. Besides the area in polluted regions, there is another 2000 ha in S.E. Poland.
Are there, apart from the INF, other Polish
institutes or companies involved in any aspect of Cannabis research?
No, no, no. In some botanic gardens and at universities they may have some plants, but they have obtained the seeds from us and it's only for demonstration, not research.
What is the goal of present hemp breeding at the
INF? Can new cultivars be expected in the near future?
Ever since the institute was established, hemp breeding has never been interrupted, although we have had pressure to abandon this work entirely. I remember a congress in the 1960s where representatives of the industry said that there was no longer need for hemp with a fine textile quality. They wanted high yielding crops with coarse fibres for rope and technical fabrics. We changed our breeding completely to this direction, which resulted in the present two monoecious cultivars, Bialobrzeskie and Beniko. Current breeding is aimed at fine textile quality again, in combination with an acceptable productivity and a very low THC content. Within two or three years, we expect to release a new textile cultivar which is partly based on a Silezian landrace. For better textile quality, however, cultivation methods should also be altered, using higher plant densities and less fertilizer.
At the last World Textile Congress in Yokohama, there was an idea presented to modify the biosynthesis of cellulose in order to improve its molecular structure for textile application. Our biotechnology group is interested in such ideas.
Are you already working on it?
We have plans.
Are old Polish hemp landraces preserved? Is
there a Cannabis germplasm collection in Poland?
Unfortunately, our old local hemp strains are not preserved in any genebank. There is only a breeding collection maintained at the INF.
Is the history of the Polish hemp industry archived
or documented in a museum?
There is not a special museum dedicated to hemp, but the agricultural museum in Poznan exhibits some hemp related objects.
How is the legal situation with regard to Cannabis in
One needs a permit, a special agreement with the government, to grow it.
Is there significant production and trade of Cannabis drugs
No, there's little interest in these matters.
How do you regard the future of the INF and the
Polish hemp industry?
I expect that the present difficult period, which is due to reduced funding by the government, will last for at least ten more years. Sometimes we have the wind at our backs, and sometimes in our faces. Still, I belong to the optimists. A personal experience: when I started working at the INF in 1961, my boss sent me to a village to harvest hemp and flax, and collect raw materials for particle board experiments. I was used to workiing in clean laboratories, and now I found myself in dirt and dust. That time was also the beginning of nylon-era. Everybody wanted synthetic polymers instead of plant fibres. Even farmers preferred polypropylene above hemp rope. I remember from a visit to the library that Svenska Dagbladen reported: 'last retting mill is closing in Sweden'. Nails in my coffin, as it were. I was then convinced that natural fibres had no future, that I was employed at the wrong place and that I had to escape as soon as possible. Still, I am here and I see a future for our hemp industry. I expect that after 2000, the worlds' forests will be better protected and that hemp, or crops like kenaf and Miscanthus, will become important alternative sources of cellulose. At our high latitude (52_ to 60_) the yield potential of hemp, being up to 17 tonnes of dry mass consisting of 35% high quality fibre, exceeds that of any tree species. Especially since the Frankfurt hemp symposium, we get frequent requests from abroad for hemp seed for sowing and for fine fabrics. At present only China and Rumania can meet such demands. But these countries still use warm water retting. Although this method gives fibres of high and stable quality, it is very expensive and polluting. Per tonne of fibre, one needs ca. 50 tonnes of water for retting and washing. I tend to optimism for the future of textile hemp in Poland, provided that we develop finer cutivars than the current ones, and introduce more advanced techniques for fibre extraction.
How do you consider recent innovations for fibre
extraction, for example, steam explosion?
We are testing fibres extracted by a newly developed machine of the Claes company (Germany) for simulta-neous harvesting and fibre extraction in the field. I see, however, problems with quality and costs. After the steam explosion of flax, the fibre doesn't look like flax anymore. Due to such treatment, the product looses its authentic character.
Is the INF interested in international cooperation
Yes, certainly we are. But although a lot of people show commercial interest in hemp, they generally do not want to support the necessary research work, and that is what we need first. Most peoples' largest concern is how to earn money with hemp, they do not seem to realize that they first have to put money into it. We have agreed to export ca 20 tonnes of hemp sowing material this year to Canada and Australia. We are however always somewhat afraid that the seed will be used not only for cultivation but also for multiplication and further breeding. Further, we sell hemp products to Germany.
We have had a long and regular exchange of researchers with the Ukrainian Research Institute of Bast Crops in Glukhov. In collaboration with the Institut Lna, Torzhok, Russia, we try to accelerate hemp breeding through the implementation of biotechnological techniques.
Is there anything else that you would like to
I hope that the IHA will develop into a prosperous organization and that its activities will help to promote fibre hemp. And the IHA should join the FAO fibre crops network!