Cropping farmers are poised to capture their share of a fast-growing global market as 2017 shapes up to be a massive year for hemp seed.
The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation in Adelaide approved the recommendation by Food Standards Australia and NZ (FSANZ) to allow the sale of low THC hemp seed food products for human consumption.
THC was one of the main psychoactive ingredients in cannabis, to which hemp was closely related.
The global market for hemp seeds was worth about $1 billion and its legalisation could eventually generate up to $20m in exports for NZ.
That could translate into as much as 2000 hectares of crop potentially generating a return to farmers of $4500 to $5500 a hectare in the medium to long term, NZ Grain and Seed Trade Association (NZGSTA) general manager Thomas Chin said.
The regulatory change on hemp seed opened doors for new exports and exciting potential for new jobs with the arable industry hopeful the necessary legal amendments could be made in time to sow the first crops this spring.“This is great news for NZ cropping farmers.
“It gives them an alternative, high-value, broadacre annual or rotation crop option and it will also boost investment in the infrastructure needed for the harvest, processing, storage and distribution of hemp seed,” Chin said.
The NZ climate and soils favoured industrial hemp seed production and NZ had the added advantage of world-leading agronomic research and cropping expertise in other seed crops such as ryegrass and clover.
Many other places including Europe, Canada and the United States already permitted hemp seed in a range of foods.
“As an overall industry we are excited about the opportunities under this revised hemp foods legislation and the future potential economic contribution to NZ agriculture,” Chin said.
The largest hemp seed producer in the country, Midlands Seeds, said allowing people to eat the seed would create new markets with huge economic and social benefits for NZ.
Midlands managing director of nutritional oils Andrew Davidson was excited with the outcome that had been a long time coming.
Not allowing the whole plant to be used had been a missed opportunity and despite waiting 18 years for approval, Midlands was geared up to move legislation changes as quickly as possible.
“We have been waiting a long time and now we have to move at some speed to hold a competitive advantage,” Davidson said.
But just how soon the NZ arable industry could begin to reap benefits was a million-dollar question.
“We first have three key tasks and they are to amend the Food Act, the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Medicinal Act.
“We have already started working with the Ministry for Primary Industries on this and I would like to say it should only take six months but the minister’s office has said it could take 18 months,” Davidson said.
Six months was a key date to get spring plantings in and also to secure markets for hemp products both in NZ and Australia.
“The more time it takes to get the acts amended the greater the competition will be.
The seed was a superfood containing essential fatty acids including omega 3, omega 6, omega 9 and protein.
While creating a consistent and stable crop for farmers it would also give people access to a nutritious superfood.
“We now have our own market in our own backyard and with that opportunity comes an investment in infrastructure and a confidence to invest in the product.”
Because NZ producers had been restricted to selling hemp oil, the co-product hemp seed meal, which was 75% of the whole seed, was relegated for sale as an animal food.
That had limited the potential value hemp could command and made the oil more expensive to produce.
“The change now allows the sale of 100%, making the whole product model much more viable,” he said.
Significant value creation would come from further processing the seed crop to hemp food products including oil, hemp flour, hemp protein and hulled hemp seeds.
Hemp could be integrated into existing cropping systems and while it was a form of cannabis its very low levels of THC meant it was not used as a recreational drug.