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THE NEW GLOBAL HEMP INDUSTRY

Hemp is a cultivar of the cannabis plant that has been selected over many generations for fibre and seed production. Hemp cultivars usually contain less than 1% THC, a medicinal compound that is often regulated due to its potential for abuse when it occurs in high concentrations. Cannabis cultivars selected and developed for their drug properties, referred to as marijuana, or dagga, can have a THC content of 6%-12%. Hemp is a bast fibre similar to flax, kenaf, and sun hemp.

At least 26 countries permit commercial cultivation of hemp. World production volume of hemp was reported to be 124,000 tons in 1992 with China, India, Korea, Romania, and Russia as the major producers. Total acreage of hemp grown in Europe increased five times from 1989 to 1996, and was reported to have increased by 20,000 ha in 1997. The U.S. imported $5 million in raw hemp and $25 million in finished hemp products in 1996. US imports of hemp are growing at more than 50% a year.

Hemp fibre and seed, due to their high quality characteristics, are used to produce a range of commodities including food and beverage products, fibreboard, insulation, paper, composites, textiles, carpets, animal bedding and feed, cosmetics, body-care products, soaps, and paints.

Hemp seed contains approximately 25% protein, 30% carbohydrates, and 15% insoluble fibre. Hemp seed is reported to contain more easily digestible protein than soybeans. Hemp seed is high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, carotene, sulfur, iron and zinc, as well as Vitamins A, E, C, B1, B2, B3, and B6. Hemp seed is 25% to 35% oil, and is one of the edible oils lowest in saturated fats. Hemp seed oil is the richest source of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. Both hemp and flax seed oil have Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids EFA's. Hemp seed oil has a nutty taste that is somewhat similar to sunflower oil, and is reported to be more palatable than flax seed oil. Hemp seed oil and flax seed oil are good for all food uses except cooking. Hemp and flax seed pressed for oil must be bottled immediately under oxygen-free conditions, and must be refrigerated in dark, airtight containers to prevent rancidity.

Until the 1930's, most paints were made from hemp seed oil and flax seed oil. Hemp and flax oil make durable, long lasting paints because they contain high levels of essential fatty acids that react with oxygen and dry into a thin film that renders wood water-resistant. Several companies that import hemp oil manufacture hemp soap, shampoo, and body care products in South Africa. Hemp seed oil can be combined with 15% methanol to create a substitute for diesel fuel which burns 70% cleaner than petroleum diesel.

After oil is extracted from the hemp seed, the remaining seed cake is about 25% protein and makes an excellent feed for chicken and cattle and fish. Chickens fed hemp seed on a regular basis have been found to produce more eggs, without the added hormones used in most poultry plants. Hemp beer can also be made from seed cake that is a by-product of oil pressing, and is commercially available in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and the US.

Prices for certified agricultural hemp seed in 1994, minus shipping cost, ranged in price from USD 1,000-1,300 per ton from Ukraine, and $2,000-2,100 per ton from Hungary , to F16.3000 - F21.000 per ton from France. A supplier in Ukraine in 1994 reported a price of $350-$400/ton for edible seed. German farmers, assisted by the EU subsidy for hemp, can earn a gross profit of 1,400-1,500 DM/ha. These prices are comparable to gross profits for winter wheat, barley and maize. Organically grown hemp seed in Europe currently fetches Canadian $525-$1,750/acre. Pressed hemp seed can reportedly gross C$2,900-$4,800 an acre based on an oil extraction rate of 25% and seed yields of 0.3 and 0.5t/ac.

Dry stem yields of 16.6 t/ha, and 2.6 t/ha total fibre have been recorded for hemp in Europe according to a 1997 Government of Canada report. There is only one hemp cultivar that is specifically grown for high yield seed production, and yields from this cultivar are from 1-1.5 tons/ha. Additional high yielding seed cultivars need to be developed.

A very limited variety of hemp seed is currently available on the international market. All of the 45 hemp cultivars registered or in commercial trade are European. These cultivars were developed in and for regions north of the 45th parallel and in general will not perform well if moved closer to the equator by as little as 10 15%. No developed hemp varieties exist that are suitable for equatorial or subtropical latitudes. Only unimproved landraces with fibre contents below 20% and THC levels that may reach 3% satisfy the daylength restrictions of tropical areas. An enormous reservoir of natural variation is maintained by local landraces of cannabis, which may prove invaluable in the future. There is an immediate need for collection of tropical and subtropical cannabis cultivars and for equatorial facilities to be established for tropical hemp variety development. Written by: James Wynn of Southern Africa Bast Crop Consortium


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