News & Events

Funding for ÉIREhemp

Published: Friday, 11 March, 2022

‘ÉIREhemp: an all-island approach to sustainable high-value functional polysaccharides from low-value agricultural hemp waste products’ has been awarded funding in the recently announced North-South research awards. The project will be led by Dr Susanne Schilling (UCD School of Biology & Environmental Science) in collaboration with Professor Brian Green (School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast).

Susanne Schilling

ÉIREhemp aims to integrate hemp research in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland via an interdisciplinary project combining plant science, biochemistry, and -omics approaches to investigate sustainable high-value functional polysaccharides from low-value agricultural hemp waste products generated during fibre and seed production in hemp. Beyond that, ÉIREhemp will bring together stakeholders and policymakers to foster the establishment of hemp as a high-value crop in Ireland’s future agriculture in an all-island approach.

The North-South research programme is a collaborative scheme funded through the government’s Shared Island Fund, co-ordinated by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on behalf of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It aims to stimulate collaboration between academics and institutions in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. 62 collaborative research projects were funded under the first call, announced on 2 March by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

ÉIREhemp is funded within the bilateral researcher-researcher strand of the North-South Programme. This strand supports individual researchers based in an Irish higher education institution to collaborate with a researcher in a HEI in Northern Ireland on an identified research project. UCD’s Dr Rainer Melzer will also be part of the project team.

Hemp plants and researchers

Hemp refers to the fibrous varieties of Cannabis sativa and is a fascinating crop with many potential applications.  It has been an area of interest at the Earth Institute for a number of years. Dr Schilling and Dr Melzer are part of our Strategic Priority project HempHub, funded in 2019. HempHub is a cross-disciplinary group of researchers at UCD and beyond that jointly focuses on investigating the environmental, genetic, pharmacological and engineering properties of hemp as well as the societal implications of its use.

The ÉIREhemp project will explore currently underutilised and undervalued aspects of the hemp plant. Hemp is a multipurpose high-value crop with a continuously growing market, supplying medicinal products from its flowers, clothing from its fibre, and food alternatives from its seeds. It also has huge carbon sequestration potential. ÉIREhemp proposes that hemp could be a key crop in achieving a balanced and sustainable green agriculture on the Island of Ireland.

Currently, not all parts of the hemp plant are used or understood. The team already have some compelling evidence that the soluble fibres present in hemp roots (and other parts of the plant) have strong health-promoting activities. For example, the fibre extracted from hemp could be used to improve the gut microbiome, immune status, and general human health. Upcycling of these hemp by-products could lead to the development of sustainable high-value materials.

“I am very excited to start the project with Prof Green. The project gives us the unique opportunity to connect our research in plants with an application focussed biochemical analysis. Also, we are aiming to interconnect not only research but also teaching and outreach activities, which I am looking forward to.” says Dr Schilling.

The UCD lab will screen a library of hemp lines to determine which are optimal for farmers to maximise their return on investment, then characterize growth conditions to understand how soluble fibre production can be maximised. QUB will extract fibres from plant samples and perform detailed testing to identify optimal varieties and cultivation conditions. Collaboratively the team will investigate the sustainable production of ingredients to be used in future animal and consumer products. As well as this scientific collaboration, ÉIREhemp will contribute towards a shared Island through teaching exchanges well as North-South hemp stakeholder meetings with hemp farmers, industry, and policymakers.