Once-condemned hemp enjoys rebirth as all-purpose 'super plant'

Despite regulatory problems in the US, the hemp plant is flowering again in more enlightened parts of the world. Shane Starling assesses the opportunities for a whole new category of healthy lifestyle products.

Its advocates speak of it with all the fervour and reverence of religious zealots. It is, they beam, a plant so useful, so powerful, it could literally resolve many of the world?s problems in a crop rotation or two. Unfortunately, they contend, fear, politics and ignorance mean it is disregarded, even forbidden from being grown in some parts of the world. In those countries where it can be grown, public awareness is miniscule. Misunderstanding is more common. The advocates continue tearing their hair out.

The crop in question is Cannabis sativa L or hemp. Hemp forms the basis of many products—it has about 30,000 known applications from linen to paper to rope to building materials, bodycare, and, of course, food. This usage dates back thousands of years to a myriad of civilisations all over the world.

In many of them, hemp usage was widespread and well regarded. It was not until the last century, as many governments increased the number of narcotics they prohibited, that hemp developed the image problem it carries to this day—despite the psychoactive properties found in hemp flowers being bred out of today?s commercially grown crops. The narcotic link has been hard to shake.

The US condemned marijuana—another name for the psychoactive cannabis flowers and the term by which they referred to it—in 1937. Many contend the ban was motivated by the government?s desire to protect industries such as plastics, forestry and textiles whose products hemp competed with. Taxes were placed on hemp production that made it an unsustainable practice. Its usage declined markedly, and its positive benefits were soon forgotten.

By the 1950s, it was considered no different to its psychoactive cousin by drug enforcement authorities and production stopped completely. A similar situation occurred in other markets so that by the latter part of the 20th century, the plant first domesticated in China at least 5,000 years ago had all but become extinct as a valuable primary crop.

It is from this carnage that the hemp industry is attempting to rebuild.

New image for an old plant
Slowly, mainstream consumers are overcoming their ?cannaphobia? about what many botanists and other experts have called the ?super plant?. The mulberry family member is shedding its image problem as the effects of consumer, industry and legislative information campaigns are felt.

Arthur Hanks, executive director of the recently formed Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA), says his group has secured private source funding that has been matched by Canadian government money to boost PR activity.

?We are doing some trade shows, we launched a corporate website, we?ve produced some brochures, and employed a PR firm in the US. We are doing all we can to spread the word about hemp food. We?ve targeted trade in addition to specialty and mainstream media—maybe more so in Canada than in the US because everything starts in Canada in North America in this industry.?

Hemp production was legalised in Canada in 1998 and the country supplies the majority of the North American market.

Concurrently, legislative changes in other parts of the world are benefiting the industry. The European Union now permits hemp to be grown freely, and only Britain still requires a licence for hemp cultivation. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have come on board while China remains, by a long way, the world?s largest exporter and consumer of hemp, although some argue the quality of Chinese hemp is lower grade. (The US remains one of the few countries maintaining its ban despite more than 10 states pushing for legalisation. Indeed the Drug Enforcement Agency is seeking to have hemp foods banned but has not been able to convince the courts why such a ban is warranted.)

It?s a situation that has industry members looking optimistically to a bright future, especially those using hemp for food applications.

Hemp is born again
Although the industry remains small—cottage-size even—there is a sense among its members that the second coming for hemp is happening as we speak. And it?s not just the fact it is legal to grow again. Hemp is perfectly positioned to gain from the general momentum toward organic produce. Producers, green campaigners and venture capitalists are joining together to promote it as a panacea plant for many of industrial society?s environmental ails.

Imagine a crop more versatile than the soy bean, the cotton plant and the Douglas fir tree put together. There is such a crop: hemp.
As John W Roulac, founder of California-based hemp food business Nutiva and author of Hemp Horizons: The Comeback of the World?s Most Promising Plant, notes: ?The world is slowly moving toward a carbohydrate economy that relies on plant materials, and away from a petroleum economy. Hemp fits well into this resource shift, and can transform our over-reliance on petroleum-based products and services. Imagine a crop more versatile than the soy bean, the cotton plant and the Douglas fir tree put together, one whose products are interchangeable with those from timber or petroleum, one that grows like Jack?s beanstalk with minimal tending. There is such a crop: industrial hemp.?

One of hemp?s greatest attributes is its hardiness. It will grow, literally, anywhere, with minimal supervision and without the use of pesticides or herbicides. It needs minimum attention from the farmer, and leaves the fields where it is grown virtually weed-free for the next crop.

CHTA?s Hanks is being inundated with calls from farmers keen to learn more about hemp. ?I?m getting calls all the time from farmers asking how to grow it, how to get licensed, what?s the market??

Growing market for nutritious hemp products
UK-based MotherHemp has been growing and selling hemp food products since 1998 but it recognised from day one that its biggest challenge would be convincing a sceptical public to eat hemp. It has just been bought by a large food company and is about to turn its first profit.

MotherHemp knew it had a highly nutritious product on its hands, especially hemp seed oil, which clinical trials have shown is one of the most nutritious oils on the planet. One trial conducted in Finland found hemp seed oil relieved eczema and helped combat flu.

While hemp seed oil is relatively new to the modern Western palate, it has been used as an inexpensive substitute for butter in most eastern European countries, particularly Russia.

?Hemp-seed oil is an exceptional source of the essential fatty acids that we must obtain from our daily diet because, like vitamins, we can?t produce them on our own,? the author of the Finnish study, Dr Jayce Callaway, says. ?Judging from the fatty-acid profile of hemp seed oil, numerous anecdotal reports and the results of our clinical investigations, I?d have to conclude that this is probably the healthiest oil on the market.?

Somewhat ironic then, given the plant?s narcotic associations, that hemp seed oil may increase your long-term happiness with nutritionists recommending fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 (found in high quantities in fish and hemp-seed oil) to help combat clinical depression. It is also high in gamma linoleic acid. Hemp seeds contain about 35 per cent protein.

Of course, hemp can become much more than just oil. Other foods include bread, pasta, chips, burgers, beer, vodka, ice cream, protein powder, p?t?, waffles, granola and milk. MotherHemp produces bars, oils, ice cream and pasta for mainstream supermarkets as well as speciality health stores. It also manufactures hemp supplements for health stores and has gained the UK licence for a patented strain of hemp, Finola, with a higher concentration of gamma linoleic acids.

Despite all the optimism, Hanks urges caution. Demand is still miniscule, a situation that was made apparent a few years back when over-production left a glut of produce and many farmers wondering what all the fuss had been about. It?s why he urges caution to the increasing number of farmers and end-product manufacturers who want to cash in on what they see as a lucrative industry in the making. ?Caution is required,? he says. ?A lot of farmers don?t have experience marketing their own crops. They usually go through a marketing board. The industry will be a lot better off in five years. Right now it is still a small industry. In five years we will see a lot of growth. We are in a good position.

?We?ve gone through a lot of growing pains. We?ve matured to the point, via the establishment of trade associations, where people have moved beyond looking after their own self-interest and are now looking after the health of the whole sector.?

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