| The story of Australia’s hemp pioneer
On May 1, 2017 hemp was finally legalised as a food in Australia. Here is the remarkable story of the man who has spent the past two decades committed to sharing the health of hemp with everyone.
It was during my travels in Canada in 1993 that I was introduced to Dylan, who owned a hemp store in downtown Montreal. Dylan was your typical long-haired guy who showed me his 6-foot long bong and all the other things hemp can be used for: paper notepads, textiles, fabrics of all kinds, and my first sight of a hemp food bar. The food was obviously made in someone’s kitchen and hand-wrapped, but it made an impact on me upon hearing about hemp seeds' nutritional content. For starters, hemp seeds are high in omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids, and are a great source of protein.
For some years prior I had been travelling throughout Asia, living with locals who spoke no English and knew nothing about foreigners except that they were white. I knew as little about them and spent time observing their habits. After some weeks, which became months, I noticed how their lives revolved around food. In the mornings the women would go out and tend to their crops, fetching water, harvesting, and ultimately preparing food, which resulted in a late lunch where the men suddenly appeared. Food time, which contained some items not consumed in the west, would last quite some time and was often filled with laughter. It always finished with an afternoon siesta. My biggest observation was that these people, who lived virtually without money or sanitation and lived literally surrounded by shit, were the healthiest and happiest people I had ever met in my life.
This was a lot to take in, as I had been brought up in middle class London, which is very multi-cultural. Not washing your hands with soap before each meal was not heard of where I was brought up. In parts of Asia I visited – they used hands for something else. Enough to say, there was no toilet paper there.
GOOD FATS AND BAD FATS
These experiences led me to take an interest in nutrition, happiness, longevity, and sustainability – a word now overused, but still worthy of discussion (not here). These lengthy studies (I often travelled with a backpack of books rather than anything else), which included long sabbaticals high in the Himalayas, dispersed with song and fireside chats led me to learn about good fats. It is now understood by many that there are good fats and bad fats. The fats used to stabilise foods for shelf life that are more ideal for large food chain outlets are often not ideal for the body, whereas the fats found in small quantities in fresh and unprocessed foods are the opposite – they are in fact essential for life to exist.
When I later met with Dylan in Montreal and he mentioned that hemp had the ideal balance of these essential
fatty acids, I knew what he was saying and started to take him more seriously. This soon led to me realising hemp is the most nutritious and useful plant known to man. I re-read Fats That Heal Fats That Kill by Dr Udo Erasmus and found that hemp was only awarded a paragraph. I sought a meeting with Dr Erasmus in the USA and asked him why was hemp only given a token mention. He explained it was due to the stigma surrounding hemp that he did not put his name to it, despite it truly being one of the best foods ever.
HEMP SEEDS AND MY MISSION
From this meeting, my young, idealistic self immediately decided this was to become my mission – to tell the world that hemp seeds are fantastic. I headed back to my country of birth and sought volunteering to help spread the message to anyone selling this super seed. I was disappointed to find no one. I scoured the infamous Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer and learnt that Eastern Europeans had always consumed hemp seeds as a traditional food. Dylan had a friend who made hemp clothing in Hungary who offered to take me to meet the farmers to discuss what they did with the seed. I travelled a long way and discovered they were hand cutting and hand thrashing (harvesting) their small plots of hemp for the seeds that they were using in their traditional soups.
In Hungary I purchased my first ton of hemp seeds, knowing I was supporting a great local traditional farming family. The product was shipped to me in the UK where I quickly realised it would be a challenge to sell bird seed to the masses. Instead, using my knowledge regarding nutrition and other nuts and seeds also containing essential fatty acids I developed a recipe with a small bakery to prepare what I considered a tasty snack bar.
Instead of educating people about hemp I had the notion that if people ate a tasty snack bar, their bodies would recognise the much-needed nutrition and their brains would communicate ‘buy that again!’ They would, in my words at the time, be addicted to healthy nutrition.
MY FIRST BIG HEMP SUCCESS
I made a name up, the 9bar (nine ingredients, nine grams of protein per bar, and other meanings of the 9bar that only some British people may understand), created some packaging on my home computer, and went about selling to family and friends, then local health stores. They suggested I promote at a trade show, and I did a few. Long hair, trestle table, and home printed promotions were all I had and yes, I did look strange and was mainly ignored. That was until I promoted at the largest health food trade show in Germany – Biofach. There a Canadianborn gentleman living in Germany said, “I understand your concept – when can you deliver 10,000 snack bars for me to sell in Germany?”
My first success! I rushed back to discuss with my manufacturing partner in Anglesey in North Wales, UK. His response to my good news was, “Sorry, I am too busy." I was devastated. Thankfully he continued with an offer to introduce me to another manufacturer that may help me. That new manufacturer took a lot of persuading. 10,000 was a big number for me, but for them was a small minimum order quantity. They asked me why they should do it and not focus on their 30+ other snack bars they were making and selling hundreds of thousands of. They employed around 20 people at that time.
I explained that hemp was a sustainable plant and its many uses as a crop that could support local small farmers. I told them how hemp can improve their soil and sustainability as a rotation for other crops whilst using less water. I also informed them about how the seed can be harvested not only for the nutrition, but for the stalk that could be made into textiles, building materials, bioplastics, car parts, and more. He agreed. That was in 1996. Two decades later, that manufacturer employs around 400 people and most of their production is dedicated to the 9bar, which has led to massive growth and success in selling hundreds of millions of snack bars globally.
SPREADING THE WORD TO AUSTRALIA
This success led me to realising my theory about the body needing nutrition packaged in tasty food products. I decided to move my focus from running a successful company to consulting with
other key brands about how they too (for example) can turn their natural bread into a hemp bread. This worked also, and I helped create the first non-dairy hemp milk, hemp ice cream, hemp pasta, hemp sauces, numerous other hemp snack bars, hemp breakfast cereals, hemp breads, and much more.
Shortly after, I wrote and completed a 300-page book on food, nutrition, natural healing, permaculture, and how they are all connected, published by London’s Vision Paperbacks. It was to be the first of 9 (yes, a special number to me) books I have now authored and translated into numerous languages.
Late in 1999 I was head hunted to bring my knowledge of hemp foods to Australia. I had visited once before and loved its geography. Hemp was only just starting to be grown there and I was told that hemp foods would soon be legalised. I developed new snack bars, ice creams, pasta and sauces, and discussed the production of hemp milk with one of Australia’s leading producers. I had even pre-sold some of these products, based on legislative support of hemp foods, to the major supermarkets. I was all set and waiting for hemp legislation to be approved when it was knocked back.
A 17 YEAR JOURNEY
This was to be the first of three applications to allow hemp as a food in Australia over the next 17 years. It has been 17 years of which I have spent a long and hard time watching my international friends be very successful while I found myself in the only country that did not allow hemp as a food.
During those 17 years I wrote more books, trained others globally to be successful business leaders, managed a health resort (9 months – the only time I have every worked outside of the hemp industry), created a hemp bioplastics business, supported hemp building projects, and travelled as a lead speaker at conferences in Europe, Asia, and more.
It was not until I noticed people starting to import low quality hemp seeds to Australia and sell them at high prices in 2012 that I decided to import high quality hemp seeds and sell them at the best price possible for the consumer. Within three months this evolved from a business in my garage to a small warehouse and now to a state-of-the art hemp foods processing facility designed and built in the Byron Shire of NSW that produces 100% Australian certified organic hemp seeds, hemp oil, hemp protein, and flour. We have also developed a skincare range, but that has recently stalled due to more restrictive Australian legislation (we hope this will soon be overcome).
A BRIGHT GREEN FUTURE FOR AUSTRALIA
All of our products in Australia and New Zealand have been sold for external use only – you must rub them on your body. I have no idea why so many people do this in Australia, but they do it seems (I have to guess what they do in their own homes). We now export to every continent on our planet and have won awards for innovation, export, employment, and business acumen. We also process other Australian growers' crops, sell OEM and have a strong R&D team. Our superstar team includes national farming managers that ensure Australian farmers are educated on how to grow and supply sustainable organic hemp seeds. We intend for Australia to become the largest certified organic hemp seed grower in the world, which is no easy task after the Canadian and Chinese who have had decades of a head start.
For now the future is bright ( green), and due to the recent Australian legislation to allow hemp as a food we are now seeing a much wider distribution channel opening up which includes manufacturers of other foods. So expect to see snack bars, cereals, milks, and much more on the shelf of your local store soon.
Everyone can make a difference by following their dreams, choosing where they spend their hard-earned money, and sharing the positive news. ■ Connect with other readers & comment on this article at www.livingnow.com.au
Paul Benhaim is a pioneer of the hemp food industry globally, CEO of Hemp Foods Australia and founder of Elixinol, a medical cannabis company.