Hemp’s com­ing of age con­fer­ence

The 1975 Mis­use of Drugs Act de­monised the plant species Cannabis for 40 years, but it came of age in Welling­ton in July with a two-day in­au­gu­ral con­fer­ence.

NZ Grower - - Vegetables.Co.Nz / Toque d'Or - By Mike Ni­chols

The con­fer­ence theme was Cannabis for food, fi­bre and medicine and it was cer­tainly not a meet­ing for hip­pies in­ter­ested in “weed”, but a meet­ing which in­cluded del­e­gates from AgRe­search, Plant & Food and sev­eral univer­si­ties. There was a speech from Damien O’Con­nor, the Min­is­ter for Pri­mary In­dus­tries, and a de­tailed ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion with MPI’s Bryan Wil­son on the cur­rent state of play in food reg­u­la­tions for hemp. Ste­wart Jes­samine from the Min­istry of Health also spoke on the cur­rent grow­ing reg­u­la­tions and there was con­sid­er­able sup­port from del­e­gates for the trans­fer of the reg­u­la­tor re­quire­ments for grow­ing hemp to be passed from this min­istry to MPI.

Space lim­i­ta­tions at Mac’s Func­tion Cen­tre meant del­e­gate num­bers were re­stricted to 250, but a fur­ther 65 in­ter­ested peo­ple logged into the streamed pre­sen­ta­tions. The con­fer­ence was or­gan­ised by the NZ Hemp In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion (NZHIA) and its deputy chair­man, Richard Barge was chair. Af­ter an even­ing wel­come re­cep­tion spon­sored by Ash­bur­ton-based Mid­lands Seed, the of­fi­cial pro­gramme started with MC Greg Ward. Mack McIn­tosh, the long time chair of NZHIA, pre­sented a chrono­log­i­cal ac­count of the his­tory of hemp pro­duc­tion in Aotearoa, at least since 1975. Barge then set the cur­rent scene, or fi­bre, food, and medicine, care­fully avoid­ing the sen­si­tive area of recre­ational cannabis. Wayne Mul­li­gan from Fo­mana then pre­sented a Maori per­spec­tive of where New Zealand sci­ence can best as­sist Maori /re­gional com­mu­ni­ties.

Questions were sub­mit­ted by the au­di­ence by cell­phone.

Damien O’Con­nor pre­sented a po­lit­i­cal view­point on hemp, dur­ing which he said he and the Min­is­ter of Health were al­ready dis­cussing a pos­si­ble trans­fer of re­spon­si­bil­ity for hemp reg­u­la­tions to MPI. An­drew Gibbs from Deloitte then pre­sented an in­ter­est­ing re­view of the pro­duc­tion of hemp for food, fi­bre and medicine, and the chal­lenges for a new in­dus­try. I found this pre­sen­ta­tion a lit­tle dis­turb­ing, as it ap­peared to ex­am­ine only the lo­cal mar­ket, which would elim­i­nate from con­sid­er­a­tion a wide ar­range of other crops in New Zealand, such as ap­ples, ki­wifruit, wine and onions, all of whom de­pend pri­mar­ily on ex­ports.

Cannabis medicine is pre­dicted to be worth $70 bil­lion world­wide by 2025, and recre­ational cannabis three times that amount.

Cana­dian agron­o­mist, Jeff Kos­tuik from Hemp Ge­net­ics In­ter­na­tional gave an ac­count of the Cana­dian scene from a view­point of grain pro­duc­tion. Take home mes­sages in­cluded the im­por­tance of de­lay­ing sow­ing in the spring un­til soil tem­per­a­tures were sat­is­fac­tory, and the fact that hemp should be treated like any other crop, with ad­e­quate fer­tiliser, weed con­trol and ir­ri­ga­tion if nec­es­sary.

The New Zealand scene for hemp seed pro­duc­tion was then de­scribed by Jo Townsend from Mid­lands Seed. Most of this in­for­ma­tion was about Can­ter­bury con­di­tions, and al­most en­tirely about seed rather than fi­bre. Her work, apart from stud­ies done by Massey Uni­ver­sity nearly 15 years ago on sev­eral sites on the North Is­land, is vir­tu­ally the limit to hemp agron­omy stud­ies in this coun­try. If the in­dus­try is to be­come es­tab­lished on a sound ba­sis, there will be an ur­gent need for more agro­nomic re­search.

Cannabis medicine is pre­dicted to be worth $70 bil­lion world­wide by 2025, and recre­ational cannabis three times that amount.

Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy then took over, with a skype con­fer­ence call from Bob Doyle from Hemp In­ter­na­tional Aus­tralia. He looked at the type of equip­ment re­quired for pro­duc­ing hemp for fi­bre, and the dif­fi­cul­ties of har­vest­ing a crop with con­ven­tional cut­ting equip­ment, when the crop is made up of such strong fi­bres.

John Smith also from Hemp Tech­nolo­gies In­ter­na­tional then pre­sented on the use of hemp stems as a build­ing ma­te­rial. My nephew in the United King­dom has re­cently com­pleted build­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly house from straw, so the po­ten­tial to use hemp stems added to my knowl­edge. Cer­tainly hemp grows far quicker than pine trees, and is much eas­ier to han­dle and trans­port.

Dave and Ann Jor­dan have been long term hemp grow­ers, and were on a well de­served hol­i­day, sent a mes­sage which was read by Richard Barge. Pro­fes­sor Kim Pick­er­ing from Waikato Uni­ver­sity, who I met over 10 years ago, talked about her stud­ies us­ing hemp fi­bre in bio-com­pos­ites in a video con­fer­ence call.

Phil Warner from Ecofi­bre pre­sented a stim­u­lat­ing pa­per on his ex­pe­ri­ence with the pro­duc­tion of hemp fi­bre world­wide. My per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with his com­pany was some years ago, when I car­ried four kilo­grams of their cannabis seed from Aus­tralia to NZ for trial work in Ash­bur­ton. It demon­strated some of the para­noia which ex­isted here with cannabis in those days, when at flow­er­ing time one of the va­ri­eties ex­ceeded the 0.35 per­cent THC level, and the whole crop had to be de­stroyed un­der po­lice su­per­vi­sion.

Mike Mayell pre­sented a riv­et­ing ad­dress on Mar­ket­ing hemp food.

Food from Hemp was in­tro­duced by a video con­fer­ence call from John Poulac of the United States. It is a funny old world, as the grow­ing of hemp seed is al­lowed in Canada, but cur­rently hemp food for hu­mans is not per­mit­ted. John’s pre­sen­ta­tion em­pha­sised the wide range of hemp seed food prod­ucts that were pos­si­ble.

My re­spon­si­bil­ity then was to in­tro­duce the huge gaps in our knowl­edge on how to grow hemp for fi­bre, food and medicine. It re­ally is a plant on which our agro­nomic knowl­edge is ex­tremely poor, and one in which tremen­dous im­prove­ments in pro­duc­tiv­ity can be an­tic­i­pated in the fu­ture. Sixty years ago the best green­house tomato grow­ers pro­duced crop of 200 tonne per hectare per year and now the fig­ure is 800t/ha/year. This is a mea­sure of im­proved ge­net­ics, im­proved green­houses and im­proved grower knowl­edge through re­search. Al­though sim­i­lar yield in­creases would be un­likely with a field crop, an­tic­i­pated yields could dou­ble in the next 50 years.

It re­ally is a plant on which our agro­nomic knowl­edge is ex­tremely poor, and one in which tremen­dous im­prove­ments in pro­duc­tiv­ity can be an­tic­i­pated in the fu­ture.

Carmelle Ri­ley from Whenua Kura then em­pha­sised the need for skills train­ing for a new crop.

Mag­gie Davidson from the Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Syd­ney gave a heart­felt plea for con­sid­er­ing the health and

safety as­pects of pro­duc­ing hemp. Sur­pris­ingly (to me) this did not only em­pha­sis the im­por­tance of re­spect for the heavy ma­chin­ery nec­es­sary to pro­duce the crop, but also the dan­ger from dust par­ti­cles” pro­duced dur­ing the har­vest­ing and pro­cess­ing process. Phys­i­cal in­juries can be dev­as­tat­ing, but so too can lung dam­age.

Then it was time for Wil­son and Jes­samine to clar­ify the le­gal or reg­u­la­tory as­pects re­quired for grow­ing cannabis, and also the use of the grain for hu­man food.This was fol­lowed by a sub­stan­tial questions and an­swer ses­sion, in which a num­ber of con­tentious ar­eas were clar­i­fied.

Panapa Ehau and Manu Cad­die of the Hiku­rangi Group pre­sented their views on medic­i­nal cannabis pro­duc­tion. Then He­len Poulsen of En­vi­ron­men­tal Sciences Re­search (ESR) and Karen Old­field (MRINZ) spoke, em­pha­sis­ing the need for a high level of qual­ity con­trol when deal­ing with medic­i­nal cannabis.

Stephen Tal­lon from Cal­laghan In­no­va­tion de­scribed the var­i­ous meth­ods avail­able to ex­tract the cannabi­noids from the raw prod­uct, us­ing car­bon diox­ide or or­ganic sol­vents.

Then Anna Camp­bell from Aba­cus Bio ex­plained breed­ing and other op­por­tu­ni­ties for dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing New Zealand cannabis and Si­mon Row­ell from the In­no­va­tion Lib­er­a­tion Front gave a strong ar­gu­ment to pro­tect any in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Steve Saun­ders from Plus Group, who has a sig­nif­i­cant blue­berry op­er­a­tion in the Bay of Plenty, sug­gested estab­lish­ing a sound busi­ness plan was an es­sen­tial pre­req­ui­site to a sci­ence-based in­vest­ment in high tech foods. Few could dis­agree, but an­other es­sen­tial com­po­nent is the need to have a sound sci­ence (agro­nomic) pro­duc­tion back­ground, and that does not ex­ist cur­rently for cannabis.

Miri­ana Stephens from Whakatu In­cor­po­ra­tion then em­pha­sised the need for the in­dus­try to work with sci­ence part­ners, and Ann Bar­nett from Vi­clink/Ki­winet pro­vided some in­valu­able in­for­ma­tion on net­work­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties via two well es­tab­lished sys­tems.

It ap­pears that New Zealand had lost 40 years of progress sim­ply by a poorly con­structed Mis­use of Drugs Act, which con­sid­ered all cannabis species as a po­ten­tial source of a psy­choac­tive drug.

There’s a pro­posal to or­gan­ise an­other hemp con­fer­ence in Fe­bru­ary next year in Palmer­ston North. So what was the take home mes­sage from the con­fer­ence? For me it was not the pre­sen­ta­tions, though these were fas­ci­nat­ing, but the op­por­tu­nity to net­work with a group of highly mo­ti­vated New Zealan­ders. We learnt that hemp was an ex­tremely ver­sa­tile crop, and al­though the recre­ational as­pects of cannabis were not con­sid­ered, few crop plants are so ver­sa­tile. It ap­pears that New Zealand had lost 40 years of progress sim­ply by a poorly con­structed Mis­use of Drugs Act, which con­sid­ered all cannabis species as a po­ten­tial source of a psy­choac­tive drug.

▴ A view of the hall at Mac’s Func­tion Cen­tre dur­ing a short break in the con­fer­ence.

▴ Hemp va­ri­eties can vary greatly in height.

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