Two Co. Cork secondary school students have won a national environmental award for their project that aims to promote the benefits of growing hemp.

Siblings Cian Walsh, a transition year student and Caoimhe Walsh, a second year student at St. Brogan’s College, Bandon have won the ECO-Innovation Award at the ECO-UNESCO Young Environmentalist Awards final with their project ‘Hemp for a Sustainable Future’.

ECO-UNESCO’s Young Environmentalist Awards is an all-Ireland awards programme that recognises and rewards young people who raise environmental awareness and improve the environment.

The students’ project aims to promote the social, economic and environmental benefits of growing hemp and how the crop can promote sustainable farming in Ireland.

Hemp is an extremely versatile crop and has over 50,000 different potential product applications, the winning students explain.

Hemp a sustainable alternative land use

“100% of the hemp crop can be processed into many different eco-friendly products; some examples include hemp insulation, hempcrete [an eco-friendly alternative to concrete], textiles and hemp bioplastic,” Cian said.

The siblings are advocating for the development of industrial hemp processing facilities, to give a sustainable alternative land use to farmers, while also providing much-needed employment in rural Ireland.

Caoimhe said: “We believe that farmers are being put under ever-increasing pressure to deliver climate action without being given any viable alternatives to their current farming methods.

“We are passionate about the environment, so we have always been interested in investigating ways that we can mitigate climate change, whilst supporting our economy and local jobs.”

Cian added that it is “vital to ensure that when we are looking for alternative farming methods that we consider the impact, positive or negative, any climate action proposals could have on the rural economy”.

“Ensuring the protection of the jobs of Irish farmers should be a top priority of our public representatives when considering such proposals.

“From an economic perspective, data shows that through government investment in the hemp industry, hemp has the potential to create 82,000 jobs over eight years.”

Commitment in Programme for Government

Their project began in 2019 when Cian took part in the RTÉ Youth Assembly on Climate and received the opportunity to present in the Dáil on his proposal surrounding the development of industrial hemp processing facilities in Ireland.

Since then, the students have conducted greater research while also promoting their project by conducting surveys, hosting hemp information meetings and engaging with public representatives.

In the 2020 Programme for Government, the government committed to exploring the potential for growing fibre crops such as hemp.

According to the pair, with cellulose content of hemp fibre reaching 70%, it can also be used to make paper, furniture and pellets substituting wood, meaning that preservation of forests and their habitats can be accelerated by cutting less woodland.

“This would lend itself to the establishment of permanent native forests. In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] warned that climate change could become irreversible by 2030,” they explained.

Hemp project also a BT Young Scientist award-winner

Caoimhe added: “With hemp’s ability to capture on average 8.9t of CO2/ac, hemp is more efficient at carbon sequestration than trees.

“The crop is unmatched as a means of sequestering carbon dioxide and binding it permanently in the materials it is manufactured into.”

Cian concluded: “We hope that Ireland will be able to satisfy its climate action and rural development plans through the creation of Ireland’s ‘hempire’.”

This is certainly not the first success for this project; with Cian being chosen as the winner of the Teagasc award at this year’s BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE).

The Teagasc award is presented to the project that “best demonstrates a thorough understanding of the science of agricultural or food production, or the use of science to improve technologies available to agricultural or food production”.

Since 1999, ECO-UNESCO has run the Youth Environmental Awards programme to honour the work of young people to protect, conserve and enhance the environment through local environmental projects, making a difference to their lives and the lives of others both locally and globally.

Over 49,000 young people have taken part in the programme since it began.