TO the untrained eye industrial hemp looks and smells identical to the infamous illicit ‘pot’ plant. The problem is there’s little to suggest our short-sighted government can’t tell the difference either, despite efforts from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).
I've only ever smoked three things in my life.
The first was a puff of a “barky” (rolled up bark off a gumtree) behind the wood shed when I was 13. Its flavour, in a word: bushfire. Symptoms: watery eyes, coughing, sore throat, sick tummy and consequent concern about my own levels of stupidity.
The second was a decade later in Amsterdam. Given marijuana’s legality there, I tried to be ultra cool as I choofed on a doobie. Flavour: Musky and herbaceous. Symptoms: bloodshot eyes, coughing, dizziness, extreme hunger and then immediate tiredness. Actually, it was much like Kevin Rudd's Saturday night following the election: confused, disappointed and in bed by 10pm.
The third was in Queensland. At a party on a farm, a neighbour who was a commercial hemp grower brought around a mature plant for show-and-tell. Hours later during a game of truth and dare the inevitable happened and it was chopped, rolled and smoked. Flavour: see marijuana description. Symptoms: see “barky” - nothing.
The fact is, the stuff in the plant that makes you high, THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), only features in a few of the numerous hemp or cannabis varieties. You need the right plant, with THC levels at 7 per cent and above to get stoned, however a commercial low-THC variety will never get there and if it tests over 1pc, the crop is condemned and destroyed anyway.
As you can imagine, there are many hoops hemp farmers must jump through, even simple things like not growing it roadside, only to find after all the dancing to the tune of pencil-pushing policy makers there’s an almost dead end anyway.
There are limited markets for the end product. It’s like saying you can produce wheat but we can’t eat the grain. As soon as we can legally consume hemp, opportunities to use all parts of the plant will improve, as will the industry as a whole.
The federal and state governments still refuse to give the all clear on the use of hemp seed in food. Once again they hide behind our atrociously clunky food labelling laws.
Australia is one of the few developed countries that don’t allow human consumption of hemp products. This seems ridiculous considering in 1961 we were a signatory at the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics on the safe uses of hemp for food and fibre. Other signatories have their sights set on hemp being a commercial commodity and already use it in a range of products.
The barriers around the production and promotion of low-THC, commercial hemp have nothing to do with human safety and everything to do with perception. We grow poppies in Tasmania that can actually be turned into opium at home, yet won’t support the consumption of a plant that you can’t actually get high from but just looks like one you can.
The Australian government needs to look past the shape of the leaf, a symbol of Bob Marley, Bob Brown supporters and Bob the local bong-head. We need to open our eyes and - alongside China, Europe and Canada - see it as it is: a commercial seed crop like canola and fibre crop like cotton, but far more diverse.
Hemp’s uses for food, oil and fibre are endless. The hemp seed, or oil, is so rich you could grow babies in the stuff: 33pc protein, extremely high in amino acids and omega 3 and 6. In North America and Europe it’s used to make health bars, salad oils, baked goods and in athlete nutrition, just to name a few.
The fibre is a bi-product of the oil varieties, or a variety of its own is used to make paper, clothing, building materials like Hempcrete, composites and insulation as it is fire retardant. Also BMW, Honda and others use it in car interior to make glove boxes and door panels. Even as animal bedding its naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal attributes and high water retention run rings around other products.
It produces more pulp per hectare than timber, is sustainable, grows to maturity in four months and can be recycled more times than wood-based paper. Its canopy wipes out weeds in the paddock and it requires little chemical to grow, just add water.
So let’s hope this new government raises a few restrictions to let this crop take off. It’s not just the growers that are waiting - so are the investors, builders and a growing number of consumers.