Michael Karus

Michael Karus is co-founder of the nova-Institute, based in Hürth, Germany. This e-mail interview was conducted by Hayo van der Werf from Colmar, France in November 1998.

What is your academic background and how did your career develop?

        I studied physics at the University of Köln (Cologne). While in school, I was actively involved in curricular and extra-curricular educational projects related to ecology and science. After graduating with a Diplom (masters degree) in physics in 1983, I free-lanced as staff scientist for several firms, including the KATALYSE-Umweltinstitut and Flachglas Solar Technology. My focus was the area of "Renewable Energy Sources", such as solar and wind. These activities continued during my 6-year tenure as system manager with the German subsidiary of the US-firm Tektronix. In 1992, I joined the KATALYSE-Institut as their department manager for "Resources". In 1994, I co-found-ed the "nova - Institute for political and ecological innovation" and continue to be one of their managing directors.

How did you get interested in hemp?

        While working at KATALYSE, I was contacted by Mathias Bröckers, now one of the managing directors at the HanfHaus GmbH in Berlin. He had just discovered the book by Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and was looking for scientific verification of the proclaimed benefits of the "miracle plant" hemp. Thus, KATALYSE conducted the first scientific study on industrial hemp in Germany in over 30 years. The study became part of the German edition of Herer’s book, together with a chapter by Mathias Bröckers.
     While we were not able to confirm all of Herer’s claims, I became fascinated by hemp. Part of my motivation for co-founding the nova- Institute in 1994 was to intensify and professionalize my work on the reintroduction of hemp as an industrial crop.

What is the current situation of hemp growing and processing in Germany? What are your perspectives for 1999?

        The German hemp industry is developing quite positively. Cultivation area has increased from 2,812 ha in 1997 to 3,575 ha in 1998. Three fiber processing plants have come on-line in the last two years. Additional facilities will go into operation in 1999, including the VER-NA-RO plant in Gardelegen, that will be the most modern hemp facility in Europe.

What is the main obstacle to further expansion of hemp in Germany?

        The slow development of markets for technical hemp fiber products and the lack of several key technologies for the production of value-added products, such as open-end spinnable fiber for commodity textiles. Crucial for the short-term prospects of the German hemp industry is demand by the automotive industry. Hemp is already being used in fiber reinforced composites in several German car models. It is expected that this demand will sharply increase in 1999.

How do you think EU policy will develop with respect to hemp?

        In 1998, the debate over hemp in Brussels has been rationalized considerably. Late this year, the EU commission conducted extensive data gathering in the areas of hemp farming, primary and secondary processing. There had been no reliable statistics on the use of industrial hemp in Europe. This will now change.
     For the future, I expect a policy of moderate, but steady reductions in the EU subsidy for hemp, combined with additional requirements to document that the hemp fibers are actually processed. This makes sense if subsidy fraud is to be prevented and it does not pose an insurmountable problem to the hemp industry. However, there are also other individual regulations which must be modified since they cause unintentional damage. An example is the requirement that hemp stalks cannot be harvested until at least 50% of the seeds are mature.

What is the average yield for hemp fiber and seed crops?

        Typical dry stalk yields in Germany range from 6-9 metric tons per hectare, typical bast fiber yields are 1.5 t/ha. Yields were lower in 1998 due to heavy rains during the main harvesting period in September. Seed yields vary considerably. In Northern locations, some varieties may not complete seed maturation. In good locations, seed yields of more than 1 t/ha are achieved. There is considerable potential for optimization with respect to adapted varieties and harvesting techniques.

What is currently the maximum threshold for THC content of hemp cultivars in Germany?

        0.3% weight percent in the upper one third of the plant, according to EU guidelines.

How many researchers are currently conducting hemp studies at the nova - Institute?

        Of the ten nova staff members, five currently work primarily on hemp. In addition, we have established close working relationships with a number of scientists outside the institute.

What are current research topics at your institute and how is research funded?

        Nova is a private, project-funded institute, not a public research institution. Our revenues come from re-search and consulting projects for public sector and industrial clients, and from our publications. We are currently focusing on two major projects, both supported by the EU. The project "MarketInnovation Hemp", funded by the EU’s ADAPT program, is targeting small and medium size enterprises in order to qualify them for the use of hemp fibers in their production processes. In addition to technical aspects, the project also addresses the typical know-how barriers: "markets, economy and marketing". The FIBRE-Institute in Bremen is our technical partner on the project, which has been well-received by industry. The most recent symposium "Technical Hemp Fibers from Germany" in December 1998 was attended by 65 firms.
     The second EU project is our feasibility study for hemp, flax and rape for the Spree-Neiße District in Southeast Brandenburg. The study will be completed in January 1999 and recommends potential product lines on which investment activities should focus.

Which reports has nova - Institute published?

        Since 1994, we have conducted numerous studies, too many to list here. After all, we earn much of our money with these studies. Our most extensive and important study to-date has been the Hemp Product Line Project (HPLP) which continues to be a fundamental source of information for anyone professionally involved with the science and economy of hemp. Many of its predictions about the technical, economic and environ-mental feasibility of products from hemp fiber and seeds remain valid. Because of its size, a translation into English was not feasible. However, a summary of the study’s findings were presented in JIHA Vol. 4 No.1, June 1997.

You are a collaborating author of two recently published reports (Ed. note: see pps. 96-106 of this issue.) on the THC content of oil and foods from hempseeds and the lack of potential for using industrial hemp as a drug. Do you feel that these publications will resolve the issues?

        We wanted to provide international discussions about THC limits in foods with a factual basis, since discussions in the past were largely dominated by emotional and irrelevant arguments. The study has been made available to policy makers in Bonn, Brussels, Washington D.C. and Canberra. It is expected that our work will generate considerable attention and support the process of setting safe and reasonable THC limits for foods.

Does the nova-Institute plan to publish any reports about the medical potential of Cannabis?

        Dr. med. Franjo Grothenhermen, one of nova’s staff scientists, is also one of the leading German researchers in the area of "medical Cannabis". He has conducted and published several studies on the subject, partly with nova, partly with the ACM (Arbeitskreis Cannabis als Medizin), a non-profit organization headed by Dr. Grothenhermen and focusing on the compilation and critical review of scientific information about medical Cannabis and the experiences of patients.

Do you collaborate with other research institutes? If so, which?

        Our work involves numerous collaborations. In addition to research and consulting, nova focuses on the management of interdisciplinary projects with other partners. Frequent partners have been the fiber institute FIBRE in Bremen and the Bergische Universität, Wuppertal, Germany. We also maintain close cooperation with Leson Environmental Consulting, Berkeley, California and PlantVision, Copenhagen.

What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the development of hemp production?

        As already mentioned, I consider the completion of the HPLP our single most important contribution. Using the motto "The path is the goal", I consider my tenacity another main contribution. Despite often adverse conditions, I have been researching and consulting on hemp for more than five years, with the most important projects always yet to come. Nova sees itself as the provider of information and cooperative services to the hemp industry, with the market introduction of hemp products as the ultimate goal of our work.

If funded, what line of hemp research would you personally find the most interesting to pursue?

        There isn’t "the" most interesting topic. We are working along the entire value-added-chain for hemp and in each area there are interesting issues we would like to work on. Currently, I am particularly excited about the implementation of our new commercial "MarketInnovation Hemp - Internet Service Center". It is centered around our extensive company data base which will allow hemp firms to establish contact with other companies along the value chain.
     I would also like to contribute to the successful market introduction of the novel bio-polymer ZELFO from Austria.