Canada’s Industrial Hemp Industry
As the world’s premier renewable resource, hemp has been the source of food and fibre for the past 10,000 years. Hemp fibre has been used to make clothing, ropes, and paper; the grain has been stewed, roasted, and milled for food; and the oil derived from the grain has been used for cosmetics, lighting, paints, varnishes, and medicinal preparations.
Like the marijuana plant, industrial hemp belongs to the species Cannabis sativa L. However, unlike marijuana, it only contains small quantities of the psychoactive drug delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Nevertheless, the cultivation of both marijuana and industrial hemp were banned in Canada in 1938.
Since 1994, a small number of Canadian companies, as well as Canadian universities and provincial governments have researched industrial hemp production and processing. Due largely to their initiative, the 60-year ban was lifted and the commercial cultivation of hemp was authorized in Canada in 1998. The Industrial Hemp Regulations came into effect on March 12, 1998, and cover the cultivation, processing, transportation, sale, provision, import, and export of industrial hemp.
Since its legalization, hemp has sparked much interest among Canadian farmers. The Government of Canada has been very supportive of Canada’s re-emerging hemp industry through changes in legislation and regulations, and through market development funding. Today, hemp is enjoying a renaissance, with the global hemp market becoming a thriving, commercial success. More than 100 Canadian farmers are currently taking advantage of the vast market potential for hemp and are growing this crop in most provinces, primarily in central and western Canada.
The regulatory system for the commercialization of industrial hemp is strict; however, it is crucial to protect the health and well-being of Canadians, to abide by Canada’s international commitments against illegal drugs, and to contribute to the production and export of safe food products. Administered by the Office of Controlled Substances of Health Canada, the system operates by issuing licenses for all activities involving hemp. It ensures that all industrial hemp grown, processed, and sold in Canada contains no more than small amounts of THC, at levels far below those found in marijuana. For example, the upper limit in Canada for THC in the industrial hemp plant is 0.3% of the weight of leaves and flowering parts, while marijuana plants often have a THC level of 5% or more. In addition, Canada has set a maximum level of 10 parts per million (ppm) for THC residues in products derived from hemp grain, such as flour and oil.
Like flax, wheat, corn, canola, and other major cultivated species, hemp is a crop that can be grown for food and non-food purposes. Whole hemp seed is composed of approximately 45 percent oil, 35 percent protein and 10 percent carbohydrates and fibre. As a result of the numerous nutritional benefits, many new food products containing hemp seed and its oil are finding their way onto the Canadian market, including pasta, tortilla chips, salad dressings, snack products, and frozen desserts.
Recent scientific research indicates that essential fatty acids (EFAs) cannot be manufactured by the human body and deficiencies can cause undesirable chronic conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and eczema. Therefore, hemp seed and its by-products can be used to supplement diets poor in EFAs in order to maintain health. One by-product, hemp seed oil, contains 30% of its weight in EFA-rich oil, delivering an ideal combination of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids for long term use. Hemp seed oil may have potential health benefits for diabetes, cancer, lupus, asthma rheumatoid arthritis, depression and hypertension. Hemp is one of only two plants that contain both EFAs as well as gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA has been found to have many properties ranging from anti-inflammatory to anti-depression. It can lower cholesterol and help to correct dyslexia, dyspraxia, and hyperactivity (ADHD). Approximately one-third of the population lacks the enzyme to metabolize GLA from omega 6 and must take GLA from an outside source to maintain good health, and hemp is an excellent way for them to do so.
Hemp oil has traditionally been used for industrial functions such as lamp oil, paint, and varnish, but today is finding major new markets in the cosmetic and functional food industries. One of the fastest growing sectors for hemp seed oil is the body care products market. The EFA content of hemp oil makes it an ideal topical ingredient in both leave-on and rinse-off body care products. The EFAs in lotions and creams help to soothe and restore skin, while their content in lip balms, conditioners, shampoos, soaps, and shaving products are emollient and provide a smooth after-feel. With cosmetics companies taking advantage of the moisture-retention qualities of hemp oils, the functionality and marketability of industrial hemp oil is expected to continue to increase steadily. Increased consumer awareness and product availability are also expected to help expand the markets.
Hemp fibre contains no measurable amounts of THC, and is renowned for its resistance to rotting and wear and tear, as well as for its high tensile properties that make it durable and strong. These qualities have been recognized through real life applications over thousand of years. The stalk of the plant offers two distinct types of fibre:
- The outer portion of the hemp stem contains the bast fibres, the strong, long, and slender fibres that provide the strength and quality attributed to hemp. Bast hemp fibre excels in durability and absorbency, has anti-mildew and anti-microbial properties, and is in demand for certain applications, such as car panels in the automobile industries in the U.S. and Europe. The panels have the advantage of being stronger, lighter, and relatively less expensive than traditional car panels.
- The core fibre, sometimes referred to as the hurds, is derived from the sturdy, wood-like stalk of the hemp plant. Similar to the bast fibre, the core fibre possesses anti-mildew and anti-microbial properties. It is currently being used for animal bedding and simulated cedar shakes, as it is twice as absorbent as wood. It is also used for manufacturing hemp paper, although only small quantities are currently being produced in North America.
Additional hemp uses are listed in the following table:
Table 1: Examples of hemp uses
Hemp Seed Product Uses
- Dietary Fibre
- Non-dairy Milk and Cheese
Hemp Oil Product Uses
- Salad Dressing
- Dietary Supplements
- Body Care Products
Hemp Fibre Product Uses
- Pulp and Paper
- Recycling Additive
- Automobile Parts
- Animal Bedding and Mulch
An annual fibre plant adapted to temperate regions, hemp has been genetically selected into dozens of varieties. As a result of their proven low THC content, Health Canada has approved 27 cultivars or varieties of industrial hemp for the 2006 growing season. Cultivated plants usually consist of a single main stalk and a growth of leaves, with the potential to grow up to 7 metres (21 ft) in height. However, hemp plants usually reach heights between 2 and 4.5 metres (6-15 ft), with a period of seeding to harvest ranging from 70 to 140 days, depending on the purpose, variety, and climatic conditions. One hectare of hemp can yield an average of 800 kg of grain which in turn can be pressed into 200 litres of oil and 600 kg of meal. The same hectare will also produce an average of 6 tonnes of straw which can be transformed into approximately 1.5 tonnes of fibre.
For more information on hemp cultivation, please consult your provincial ministry of agriculture. Hemp has been the subject of much interest in rural communities, mainly because farmers are under pressure to find alternatives to traditional commodities, and also because the possibilities of industrial hemp have sparked so much interest.
Experts indicate that production costs can be lowered by exploiting hemp as a dual-purpose crop, using both the grain and fibre from the same plant. Of the 27 varieties legally authorized for cultivation in Canada in the year 2006, some are best-suited for the production of fibre; others are outstanding in the production of grain, while certain varieties are ideal for a dual harvest of grain and fibre. Moreover, there is great interest in developing varieties with the lowest THC content possible.
Growers tend to be clustered in loose alliances and co-operatives, or are geographically close to processing facilities in order to keep transportation costs low. The first challenge for hemp growers is to find a buyer who can guarantee, through contract, the purchasing of their harvest.
Hemp processors investigate and promote viable applications of hemp products in order to create new markets domestically and abroad. The re-introduction of hemp as a legal crop and the development of markets is a slow process and the hemp sector will need to expand carefully to ensure that supply and demand are harmonized. As the hemp sector continues to grow and as new technologies are applied to production and processing, more commercial possibilities will become feasible.
Hemp’s agronomic and environment attributes are remarkable: it can be grown without fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, it absorbs carbon dioxide five times more efficiently than the same acreage of forest and it matures in three to four months. Hemp can be used to create building materials, textiles, clothing, inks, and paints and has potential use in other non-food products. These advantages are in tune with the environmental and health preferences of today’s North American public. The growing curiosity of consumers, the interest shown by farmers and processors, and Canada’s excellent growing conditions for industrial hemp allow optimistic views for its future.
For the latest market information and analysis available from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, please consult the following publications: