Italian farmers are in crisis as low prices of wheat, desiccated land and big companies importing grain take their toll. But some have found a solution: growing cannabis.

According to The Guardian, Hemp cultivation has been legal in Italy since 2016, and over the last few years the amount of land dedicated to the plant has increased from 400 hectares (1,000 acres) in 2013 to 4,000 hectares today.

 The law – which allows cultivation for non-pharmaceutical use of plants with up to 0.2% of the psychoactive compound THC.

Italians have taken advantage of the legal change to produce not only hemp ricotta and environmentally friendly bricks, but also hemp pasta and biscuits.

 “The boom in the production of hemp is an excellent example of the ability of agricultural firms to discover new frontiers,” said Roberto Moncalvo, the president of Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmers’ association. “We are in the middle of an opportunity for economic and employment growth.”

Beyond it is Salvo Scuderi, the president of the agricultural cooperative Colli Erei. The 41-year-old has just finished reaping part of his hemp harvest, which will be used to make pasta, oil and flour. This year, Scuderi and 20 other producers of Rete Canapa Sicilia, an association whose goal is to promote and market the use of hemp in the region, have together produced almost 150 tonnes.

 “Hemp saved our business,” he said. “This year we earned 10 times more than what we used to earn with wheat and it has enabled us to hire four workers.”

Wheat yields a profit of €250 (£220) per hectare in today’s market, while hemp can generate net earnings in excess of €2,500 per hectare, according to Rete Canapa Sicilia. And there are many Sicilian farmers who, in order to breathe new life into the dry land and to improve their financial situation have substituted wheat with hemp.

“Years of monocultural wheat cultivation are the problem,” said Dario Giambalvo, professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Palermo. “It has caused soil erosion, and is at risk of soon making the land infertile.”

According to data from Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics, land planted with durum wheat decreased by 7.4% in southern Italy last year, and by more than 9% in the north of the country. Overall production decreased by more than 4% during the last year.

This is why the move towards to hemp farming could help, say experts.

“The cultivation of hemp is a valid opportunity for a diversified farming which can be a good solution for the rebirth of abandoned and less fertile land,” said Giambalvo, “The ancient Romans taught us that diversifying crops can help make the land more fertile. I do not know if this will lead to the growth of the agricultural sector, certainly for Italy is a return to the origins.”

Up to the 1940s, Italy was the world’s largest producer of hemp after the Soviet Union. Back then in Italy, more 100,000 hectares were planted with hemp. After the war and the move towards synthetic fibres, the cultivation of hemp plummeted.

The downward trend continued as the campaign against illegal drug use was strengthened. In 1961 the Italian government signed the single convention on narcotic drugs. Despite the international treaty specifically excluding non-pharmaceutical hemp production from the regulations controlling cannabis, it led to further to decline in hemp cultivation in Italy.

“Hemp has been waiting 60 years to reclaim its rightful place,” said Scuderi. “And this could open the way for the legalisation of plant species with levels of psychoactive substances over 0.2% and to develop pharmaceutical experimentation.”

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