Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hemp a potential health food crop

By Matthew Denholm

Hemp growers Tim and Pip Schmidt with their dog Woody at their farm near Chudleigh in northern Tasmania. Picture: Chris Crerar

As far as food crops go, they don’t much better: light on water and pesticides, good for the soil, in demand globally and incredibly healthy for consumers.
It’s easy to see why hemp seed is increasingly eyed by Australian farmers as an attractive and potentially lucrative new food crop.
Harder to grasp is why the nation’s politicians continue to ignore expert advice that hemp seed — free of the mind-altering chemicals of its druggie cousin, marijuana, and brimming with healthy omega 3 and 6 fatty acids — should be approved for use in food.
“In Canada, it’s a billion-dollar industry — we could be heading in the same direction,” says Phil Reader, crop and cattle farmer and president of the Tasmanian Industrial Hemp Growers Association. “It’s so frustrating — politicians keep saying they support us but it’s not getting through.”
Industrial hemp seed and oil is sought-after globally as a health food — full of protein, nutrients, essential fatty acids and cholesterol-lowering gamma linolenic acid — used in everything from breakfast cereal and health bars to ice-cream.
The plant looks like marijuana, but contains minimal levels of mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), while its seeds are THC-free.
Hemp seed has twice been approved for use in food by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (in 2000 and 2012), a step that would bring Australasia into line with most of the rest of the world, and lead to hemp being grown for food here as it is in Europe, Canada and at least 10 US states.
FSANZ’s experts declared hemp seed “safe for consumption” and endorsed it as “a useful alternative dietary source of many nutrients and polyunsaturated fatty acids”.
Australian farmers have been growing hemp since the states began legalising its cultivation in the 1990s for use in hand-creams and shampoos. They say production would take off once the seed is approved for the far larger health food market.
And larger volumes would lead to processing of the byproduct: a strong fibre used in clothing and building products.
However, the final arbiter — health and agriculture ministers meeting as the Australia and NZ Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation — continues to stall approval.
The last hurdle appears to be concerns that people who consume hemp might trigger false positive results in police roadside drug tests — an idea dismissed by FSANZ and rubbished by farmers.
While some THC may rub off on seeds when they are separated from the heads, these trace amounts are not regarded by FSANZ or farmers as an issue, while state regulations strictly limit THC levels in any event.
“You’d have to eat a whole pallet of the stuff for it show up in roadside drug testing,” says Tim Schmidt, who with wife Pip grows hemp and potatoes and runs dairy heifers at Deloraine, northern Tasmania.
WA Police have expressed concern that allowing hemp foods might “send a confused message to consumers regarding the use of illicit cannabis”.
Farmers, particularly those in Tasmania who have grown opium poppies for pharmaceuticals for decades, say this is “ridiculous”. “It’s a hangover from the 60s, when anything to do with cannabis became bad,” says Mr Schmidt. “This is a health food!”
The ministerial forum is due to reconsider the issue on March 31 and farmers are encouraged by support from some states and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Mr Joyce was unsure of the likely outcome. “We have only one vote in the process,” he said.

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