Industrial hemp gaining traction

In This Section

April 2014 

Industrial hemp is one step closer to returning to US farms, thanks to the 959-page farm bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in early February 2014. With the help of several legislators from tobacco-growing states that are much in need of an alternative crop, the final bill included an amendment that relaxes the longstanding restriction on growing the nonintoxicating varieties of Cannabis sativa L. for research purposes.

"We're definitely turning a corner in the United States,” said David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps (Escondido, California), which uses hemp oil sourced from Canada in its personal care products. “Hempseed foods have been the historical market driver for hemp in the United States,” he added, “but in Europe it’s been more on the fiber/composite/construction side. With a fully legal and reliable regulatory environment, we expect to see significant investments in infrastructure that will enable both the fiber and seed of the hemp plant to be farmed and processed profitably in North America.”

Bronner’s vision of a full-fledged US hemp industry may be optimistic. That is because the farm bill amendment stipulates that industrial hemp can at this point only be grown by state agriculture departments, colleges, or universities in states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law. According to Vote Hemp, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, 32 states have introduced pro-hemp legislation and 20 have passed pro-hemp legislation. However, only 10 states—California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia—have defined industrial hemp as being distinct from psychoactive varieties of cannabis (marijuana) and have removed barriers to its production.

Commercial farming of industrial hemp has been outlawed in the United States since passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. That legislation made no distinction between industrial hemp, which contains less than 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive agent in marijuana), and Cannabis sativa grown for recreational use, which contains anywhere from 2% to more than 20% THC.

Hemp is a particularly versatile and robust plant. It is naturally resistant to pests, grows quickly—maturing in three to four months—and uses less water than many other crops. Hemp produces as much as 250% more fiber than cotton, according to numerous sources; fiber from the stalks is durable and absorbent. The fiber has multiple uses, ranging from clothing to paper to building materials. The oil finds its way into both food and personal care products; various companies are pursuing its use as a biofuel.

Global Production

Industrial hemp was reportedly grown on 200,000 acres (about 81,000 hectares) worldwide in 2011, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service. “Upward trends in global hempseed production roughly track similar upward trends in US imports of hempseed and oil, mostly for use in hemp-based foods, supplements, and body care products,” the CRS report noted.

About 30 countries in Europe, Asia, and North and South America currently permit the production of industrial hemp, CRS said, with China among the largest producing and exporting countries of hemp textiles and related products. Production in the European Union is centered in France, the United Kingdom, Romania, and Hungary. Other European countries reporting hemp production include Russia, Ukraine, and Switzerland. Elsewhere, active production and/or consumer markets may be found in Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Korea, Egypt, Chile, and Thailand. Canada, which began issuing licenses for research plots in 1994 and for commercial production in 1998, is now a major supplier to the United States.

Hempseed oil used to be the primary product of the oilseed crush, according to Bronner, but hemp protein powder has long since become the primary product. “However, both are in scarce supply because demand has risen so rapidly that recruiting enough farmers to produce hempseed has been the limiting factor,” said Bronner. “Thus, even Canadian-based hempseed processors are pushing for US legalization of hemp farming so that they can get more supply.”

Nutritional Aspects of Hempseed Oil

Maria Angeles Fernández-Arche and colleagues at Spain’s University of Seville note that hempseed oil has high levels of vitamins A, C, and E as well as β-carotene, and it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and fiber (see Table 1).

Table 1

The researchers conducted a detailed analysis of hempseed oil samples provided by Botanica Nutrients in Seville (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1021/jf404278q, 2014). They found it has a variety of substances such as sterols, aliphatic alcohols, and α-linolenic acid, which research suggests promote good health. “. . . The most interesting compounds were β-sitosterol, campesterol, phytol, cycloartenol, and γ-tocopherol,” they write.

Another recent study, this one led by Ian Graham of Great Britain’s University of York, reports the development of a new strain of hemp with “dramatically increased” amounts of oleic acid. Graham and his team used fast-track molecular plant breeding to select plants lacking the enzyme involved in synthesizing polyunsaturated fatty acids. The study appeared in Plant Biotechnology Journal (http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/pbi.12167, 2014).

 The new high-oleic hemp line produces almost 80% oleic acid, as compared with traditional varieties with less than 10%. The researchers have completed a small field trial and more trials will be completed in Europe throughout 2014, according to www.foodnavigator.com.

“All hempseed derivatives (nut, protein powder, oil) are on a very nice growth trajectory,” said Bronner. “As the stigma around cannabis generally recedes, and the [awareness grows] . . . that hempseed is no more a drug than poppy seed, the incredible nutritional qualities of hempseed [will] dominate market and consumer interest.”

Cannabis testing

Industrial hemp is not the only variety of Cannabis sativa L. in the news. As more countries and regional entities such as US states approve the use of medical cannabis, or medical marijuana, the issue of laboratory testing and methods of analysis becomes more critical. Next month, Inform will present a review of cannabis testing by Heather Despres, who is lab director at CannLabs, Inc. in Denver, Colorado, USA.