Feb 18, 2019 2:39 PM

Can hemp decontaminate soil? Here's how italian farmers planted cannabis to save their land

Farmers in the Taranto region of Italy, once known for its cheeses, have resorted to planting a variety of cannabis on their land in order to clean up toxic industrial by-products that have contaminated their land.

Vincenzo Fornaro told CBS News that for “generations,” his family produced meat and ricotta on a farm that once had over 600 sheep.

But in 2008, the Italian government discovered dioxin, a toxic chemical, in Fornaro’s lambs; Fornaro and his brother Vittorio were forced to cull, and the entire herd was slaughtered.

The contaminants, as it turns out, were from a 15 million square-metre steel plant – Europe’s largest – located just a mile up the road. The toxicity of the carcinogenic compound and the farm’s close proximity to the plant means that the Fornaros were told they would never keep grazing animals on their land again.

So Vicenzo decided to get experimental.

Fornaro planted industrial hemp – a type of cannabis containing very little THC – on his land in an attempt to leach the steel mill’s contaminants from the heavily-polluted soil. The plant’s rapidly-growing root system stashes or alters toxic elements into a substance that is harmless to humans.

Called phytoremediation, the process is known to be highly effective and cost-efficient, and was used at Chernobyl post-disaster to remove cesium, radioactive strontium and various heavy metals from the soil. Other plants that have been used successfully in the process include sunflowers, Indian mustard, White Willow and Poplar trees.

Now farmers across the Taranto and Puglia regions, and anywhere within a 20km radius of the steel plant, are sowing fields of cannabis in an attempt to detoxify the earth and recoup the value of their land.

Although an effective method of decontaminating the soil, the crop cannot be sold or consumed – and it could be years until Taranto residents can once again farm their lands.

Earlier this month, the steel mill was condemned as causing illnesses such as cancer and death by the European Court of Human Rights.

“The persistence of a situation of environmental pollution endangered the health of the applicants and, more generally, that of the entire population living in the areas at risk,” said the Court.

Cleanup is not due to be completed until at least 2023.

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