INDEPENDENT Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie is increasing pressure on the federal government to legalise industrial hemp consumption in Australia, to help release a potentially lucrative market for Australian farmers.
Mr Wilkie said industrial hemp – the non-drug, low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or pcychoactive version of cannabis – is an economically viable and environmentally responsible product that’s also highly nutritious.
However, it can’t be sold for human consumption in Australia at present.
In 2012, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recommended its approval for human consumption – but Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the western world still restricting the market.
Mr Wilkie said restrictions have frustrated farmers who want access to a growing market worth many millions of dollars in countries including Britain, Canada and the US.
He has signalled plans to move a motion in federal parliament later this month, urging the government to change the Food Standards Code.
The motion - seconded by Victorian independent MP Cathy McGowan - calls on the federal government to “champion” changes to the Food Standards Code administered by FSANZ to permit hemp sales for human consumption in Australia.
The two MPs have also co-signed a letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott asking him to end the “deadlock” on the approval of industrial hemp for human consumption.
“There is no good reason why Australia is one of the very few countries in the developed world that does not allow the production and sale of industrial hemp for human consumption,” Mr Wilkie said.
According to Mr Wilkie, industrial hemp seed and oil are both “very nutritious foods” and potentially lucrative crops nationally and in Tasmania.
He said experts agreed on the safety and potential of industrial hemp as a food crop, but there’s a lack of political will in Canberra and among the States to agitate for it.
“The experts are recommending it – it’s clearly a lucrative sustainable, safe and nutritious product – but for some reasons politicians are reluctant to give it the go ahead,” he said.
“Bring it on, government”
A spokesperson for assistant federal Health Minister Fiona Nash said the decision whether or not to allow the sale of hemp for human consumption in Australia sits with the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation.
The spokesperson said at the forum’s last meeting in June, Australian and NZ food Ministers asked FSANZ to complete its review of the decision to approve Application A1039 - Low THC Hemp as a Food (Application A1039).
The issue is due to be raised at the next meeting of the Forum in NZ in January, the spokesperson said.
Ms McGowan blamed bureaucratic delays for the crop’s non-approval but was hopeful that stalemate could be overcome with renewed lobbying and political pressure.
She said a decision was expected at the ministerial forum meeting in January after recent delays but, “we’re saying ‘bring it on, government’”.
“All it needs is the political will from the government to say, ‘a tick’,” she said.
“There’s no-one in the system saying let’s not do this – it just gets lost in the bureaucracy so we want to get rid of that red tape, work with government to say bring it on and get the decision made.”
Ms McGowan said she also discussed the motion with Agriculture Departments in Victoria and Tasmania and they “fully support it”.
She said her community in Indi - the north-eastern Victorian electorate - had asked her to advocate on the issue so they can access hemp seeds and oil to make healthier food products like bread.
“My community have said it’s not fair – anywhere else in the world can do it – and we know it gives us a better product,” she said.
“I’m fighting for it because it’s about value-adding to food in my community.”
Tasmanian Industrial Hemp Association president Phil Reader said his group supported Mr Wilkie’s motion because “we need some action in Canberra”.
He said if the product was approved for human consumption, it would immediately encourage two local companies to double their current area of production.
“FSANZ recommended it’s safe and nutritious and you can use in most of the industrial world, so what’s going on?” he said.
Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association policy and advocacy manager Peter Skillern said he hoped the MP’s motion would help to establish and expand the industrial hemp industry, particularly in Tasmania.
Mr Skillern said it was also a “perfect crop” to complement recent and future irrigation infrastructure investments in Tasmania and could also provide an additional rotation option for farmers.
Legislation long overdue
Former Victorian State Labor MP Denise Allen said industrial hemp was a multi-billion dollar business in Canada and had similar potential in Australia as “a clean, green and lucrative industry”.
Ms Allen has campaigned for industrial hemp for 20 years but said she’s gained little support for advancing the industry, in particular during her stint representing the rural north-west Victorian seat of Benalla from 2000 to 2002.
She believes politicians “beholden” to multinational chemical companies with heavy investments in the cotton industry, which manufactures similar products, are blocking industrial hemp’s approval.
In an online article for Independent Australia in July 2012, she said Australian politicians are either “bullied by, or subservient to, these powerful companies”.
“Otherwise, why wouldn’t industrial hemp - and other natural fibres - be at the top of a drive to create a 21st century clean, green, manufacturing industry around this amazing ancient product?” she said.
“Even The Greens refuse to promote this industry.”
Ms Allen said the government’s official argument against using industrial hemp as a food was that it would undermine the national cannabis strategy, implemented by the Howard government in 2006.
Allowing the product for human consumption would send mixed messages about the safety and use of cannabis and police would be unable to tell the difference between the low and high THC seed varieties.
But she said if people can’t be taught – and police trained – to understand the difference, “then something is seriously wrong with our education and police training programs”.
“This argument was again recently used against the current approval application - Australia is totally alone in this argument,” she said.
Addressing community concerns
Andrew Wilkie said there was a “quite separate” public and political debate about the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and industrial hemp as a potential farming venture or use in food products.
“What the community needs to understand (and) what politicians need to understand is that these are two completely separate even unrelated matters,” he said.
“They are completely different types of plant.
“Industrial hemp - you can’t smoke it (and) you can’t get high on it. But you can grow it and you can harvest it and you can take the seeds and the oil and you can consume it as a nutritious, safe food.
“You can take the fibre and you produce any number of things from that fibre; from clothing through to construction materials,” he said.
“There is a certain amount of misinformation - even disinformation - and certainly confusion in the community about the different types of hemp plants.”
Mr Skillern said there was no stigma attached to using industrial hemp for human consumption - only confusion with other varieties of the plant and uses.
“Marijuana is a completely different plant in many respects and industrial hemp clearly stands alone – confusion only muddies the waters in this debate,” he said.
Ms Allen said the non-approval of industrial hemp for human consumption had “frustrated the hell out of industry for years” dating back to 2006 under the Howard government.
But she said its approval would yield benefits for farmers in Victoria and Tasmania and for downstream manufacturing and processing, creating income and employment.
Industrial hemp can be grown under licence in Victoria and other States like Western Australia - but most of the current production is based in Tasmania.
“The sooner the approval happens the better,” she said.
“It will open up a multi-billion dollar industry like it is in Canada, especially manufacturing opportunities, because there’s a myriad of products can be made from it,” she said.
Hemp production challenges
An information paper commissioned by the WA Agriculture Department in 2008 outlined some of the challenges associated with industrial hemp production.
The report concluded the legalisation of industrial hemp crops in some Australian States was recognition by government and the general community it could be a viable alternative crop, “grown under conditions that do not compromise law and order”.
“It has been concluded that the seed and oil from industrial hemp crops could produce the most economically viable products, while utilising the stems and fibres as a residual agricultural product,” the report said.
“Despite the fact that about half of the world market for industrial hemp oil is currently for food and food supplements, the prohibition in Australia and New Zealand of industrial hemp seed and oil in novel food denies access to this potentially lucrative market."