Food made from hemp has great potential for Australia’s economy, according to the Complementary Healthcare Council, which is urging the country’s regulators to recognise the plant as a legitimate source of food.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand has recommended that low THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive constituent) hemp should be approved as a food following an application by the hemp industry. This application set out to meet global standards in Europe and North America that already have thriving industrial hemp businesses.
However, while final government decision is still pending, the CHC is optimistic that the application will be approved by the Council of Australian Governments later this year.
Carl Gibson, the CHC’s chief executive, is visiting the Hemp Foods Australia factory in Bangalow, New South Wales, this week to be briefed on the latest developments in the industry.
“Hemp food is gaining global popularity and has a great potential for Australia’s economy”, Gibson said ahead of the trip.
Hemp Foods Australia manufactures a range of supplements for the health foods sector such as hulled hemp seeds, seed oil, and protein powder. Last year, the company tripled in size, but its founder, Paul Benhaim, has indicated he might have to move it overseas if the government doesn’t change the law soon.
With Australian sugarcane, cotton and fruit farming going through difficult times, farmers have been approaching Benhaim with inquiries about growing hemp as an alternative, he told FoodNavigator-Asia.
”We believe the economic evidence is there, especially due to the versatility of hemp’s uses. But while new industries, like hemp fibre in bioplastics for building, require new infrastructure, we already have infrastructure to process seeds.
“We have been getting increased demand from Asia. There are already established markets in north America and Europe, but now Asia is starting to catch up.”
Australian food laws are currently under review to allow hemp, which has no psychoactive properties, to be used as in food ingredients like flour, oil and protein powder.
Historically, hemp seed has been used as a source of both high-quality nutrients, but its seeds and oils are legally sold in Australia for cosmetic and skincare only.
The crop is cultivated worldwide, including in Australia and New Zealand under strict licensing arrangements. Its seeds contain protein, vitamins and minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seed food products may provide an alternative dietary source of these nutrients, according to the CHC.
Citing a recent report by the Australian hemp industry, Gibson said the crop would provide economic and environmental benefits for Australia, and uses of much less water than cotton in farming, and could remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The hemp industry is already responsible for around A$13m (US$11.6m) of trade in Australia, with over 350% growth between 2012 and 2013. The growing international market is estimated at A$1bn (US$890m) annually.
Benhaim, who has been involved in the hemp industry for 18 years, hopes a positive decision will be made on the basis of economic and health reasons.
He said: “FSANZ, who have done the science, as well as Dietitians Australia, have both given positive feedback on the use of hemp. But the industry as it is today looks very small to politicians.
“But we could soon be a significant industry—it’s a chicken and egg thing. We could turn a A$13m business into a billion-dollar business in just a few years.
“It’s not just the economic benefit to agriculture they need to consider, but also the health benefits from hemp. Hemp contains no psychoactive properties, and is a natural source for high-quality protein and omega 3 and 6 fatty acid content, meaning there are extremely positive health benefits. All we are asking for is the opportunity to bring that to Australia.”
At present, hemp cannot be used in food in Australia and New Zealand as it is prohibited in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. However, hemp oil has been permitted in NZ since 2002 under the New Zealand Food (Safety) Regulations.
In December 2012 the ministers responsible for food regulation sought a review of a FSANZ decision to approve an application to permit hemp for sale. This means the sale of foods containing hemp-based ingredients is still prohibited. In New Zealand the sale of hemp seed oil as a food is permitted subject to certain conditions.
A year later, ministers agreed to extend the review period until June 30, 2014, after which ministers will consider FSANZ’s advice and provide further direction in relation to completing the review.