The global hemp industry is expected to grow to $65 billion by 2030 and with the right approach and regulatory system New Zealand could enjoy a large piece of the pie.
With plant-derived medicines rapidly increasing in popularity internationally, hemp could be NZ’s next big export success story, but industry leaders say there is a stumbling block.
Addressing a B.linc innovation forum at Lincoln University, keynote speakers outlined the challenges curtailing progress in an industry, that fully enabled, could generate $2b in income for NZ while also creating thousands of jobs.
“The future of hemp sits with the NZ Government,” Brad Lake of Brothers Green said.
A former rural banker who worked with farmers in various farming systems throughout North Canterbury, Lake realised a need for a sustainable cropping and protein option which would offer diversity in markets and meet changing consumer demands.
“Hemp offered not only a sustainable cropping option but also the benefit of regenerating our soils and waterways underneath this crop.”
The answer was hemp protein and from there Brothers Green was born.
“The hemp food industry is in very early stages and in dire need of new regulation.”
The change of legislation to allow the industry to flourish sits squarely with the Ministry of Health (MOH), Lake said.
“If we can get it (hemp) out of MOH control and treat it like other crops such as wheat and barley, with the international demand for hemp products, it could become our fastest growing export industry.”
Lake urges clear separation between the varying growth processes of the plant either for a drug or for food.
There are three areas of the hemp plant where a grower could make money – the seed, the flower and the stalk, with each component serving a different market.
Hemp plants and marijuana plants are both the same species but legally hemp is defined as a cannabis plant than contains 0.35% or less Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), while cannabis marijuana is a cannabis plant containing more than 0.35% THC.
The difference in the plants is the way they are grown and the difference in their use, the way they are regulated.
“Separation is a big challenge for our industry at this stage.
“NZ is in an amazing space with red and white protein, it’s time we stopped floundering around about what we do and get into an amazing green space as well.
“We have multiple product industry options that can also improve soil, water quality, and help meet carbon reduction targets.
“We need to diversify and make it attractive for farmers to get into, we need a change in regulation.
“We need an industry body with structure and understanding giving clear guidelines to get growers out of the woodwork as it’s becoming increasingly important that we eat from the country we live in.” Lake said.
AgResearch scientist Peter Brorens has been following the development of the industrial hemp industry in Canterbury since the first growing trials in the early 2000s.
He focuses on whole plant utilisation, looking at the opportunities for both medicinal and industrial hemp to gain full value from the multi-use plant.
Brorens says the key focus is to get hemp on the radar as a major opportunity for NZ’s economy in terms of an agricultural crop.
The farming community is geared up for it with local specialist genetics and local certified seed teamed with innovative agriculture agribusiness and regional specialisation will identify NZ’s uniqueness in producing high value niche products.
“There are enough uses for hemp to make it interesting, enough to explore yet, and enough for a good future,” Brorens said.
Leading medical cannabis researcher Parmjit Randhawa of Lincoln University-based Greenlab says NZ can be a global leader in hemp and medicinal cannabis.
He says NZ’s challenge is the lack of research and development.
“Key players do not currently have any code of practice to consistently reproduce the targeted flower with a known medical potency.
“Most growers in the NZ space lack local research facilities and are dependent on overseas contract research.”
The nutraceuticals could blow the top of the industry but there is a lot to do, Randhawa said.
“Local plant-based research is vital to run a successful cannabis business as potential high end generating products are still in the research phase.
“Greenlab is only 14 months on the ground exploring genetics and this is our one time opportunity for NZ,” Randhawa said.