A little Italian town is making some big changes with hemp. Disgruntled dairy farmers turned to hemp in hopes that the herb will undo decades of severe environmental damage. And, boy, do they have a story to tell. Here’s how these Italian farmers are using hemp to detox soils and save the earth. One pasture at a time.
The town of Taranto
In the 1960s, the pastoral Italian town of Taranto changed. The town was once known for artisan cheeses, handmade in wood-fired terracotta ovens. Yet, those days have come and gone Independently owned farms were replaced by a steel mill. The Ilva steel plant opened in 1965 and expanded very quickly. At one point, Ilva produced one-third of Italy’s steel.
Italy holds a place in the top 15 steel producers in the world. Yet, while Ilva provides a boost for the Italian economy, Taranto residents experience a different side of the story. For the last 50 years, the mill has off gassed heavy metals into the air and soil surrounding the town. Now, farmers are unable to graze cattle within 12 miles of the mill due to contamination.
The extreme environmental destruction has led former dairy farmer, Vincenzo Fornaro, to take action. Fornaro began to feel the effects of the steel mill at an early age. When he was 20, he had a kidney removed. His mother died from a cancerous tumor. A study conducted found that 11,000 townspeople died due to severe toxic poisoning between 2005 and 2012.
So, Fornano had to do something. His battle weapon? Hemp.
We found ourselves at a crossroads, we had to decide whether to leave or to stay. We decided to stay to defend our land.
Hemp as environmental cleaner
What was once grazing land on the Fornaro family farm is now blanketed by fields of hemp. Unbeknownst to many, cannabis plants efficiently absorb large amounts of pollutants in soil. Heavy metals are absorbed and neutralized in the roots of hemp plants, removing them from the soil.
Without the plants, heavy metals are not effectively broken down in soil. Rather, they just sit there and contaminate food and water sources for a very long time.
Fornaro’s innovative restoration strategy isn’t new. Hemp plants were also used to clean up toxic radiation in Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Hemp’s power as an environmental cleaner is harnessed in a process called phytoremediation. Phytoremediation simply refers to the use of plants to clean up various soil and environmental contaminants.
A group of researchers from an organization called PHYTOTECH began studying hemp for this purpose in the 1990s. Slavik Dushenkov, one of the research team states:
Hemp is proving to be one of the best phyto-remediative plants we have been able to find.
Hemp is fast growing, making it a great choice in areas that need a quick environmental overhaul. Roots of this plant can also reach over 8-feet-long in the ground. It also seems to withstand a heavy metal load fairly well. Growth doesn’t seem to be stunted even in heavily polluted soils. This is very good news for the town of Taranto.
100 of Taranto’s farmers are now planting hemp.
We have to start giving back what we took from the environment and provide an alternative employment to our children. For now we use hemp only for industrial processing. I hope in the future we can use it also for nourishment. But what is certain is that we will surround the Ilva plant with hemp. – Fornaro
Italian farmers aim toward a hempy future
Phytoremediation is just one more benefit to add to a long list. The list already includes the plant’s use as fiber, fuel, fabric, and food. It is a safe, fast-growing way to quickly remove toxins which contaminate livestock and vital water sources. This is an amazing ability. With the power to undo decades of environmental damage, it’s unbelievable that the herb faces strict restrictions worldwide.
The more we learn about the plant, the closer we are toward a hemp-positive future. Soils all over the globe need a serious clean-up. Hemp is the plant for the job.
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