GROWTH INDUSTRY: Paul Benhaim believes 2017 will be a watershed year for the hemp industry.
PAUL Benhaim is in an expansive mood as he outlines the great leaps forward he expects to see in the hemp industry in 2017.
The founder of Hemp Foods Australia has recently invested half a million dollars in new processing machinery at his Bangalow plant, where it produces certified organic hemp seeds, protein, hemp flour and hemp seed oil.
"They're the four main ranges we've had for five years, from a 114 gram pack of hemp seeds to full container loads of bulk products,” he says.
A two-year development project has led to the imminent launch of cosmetic range Sativa, "the world's first certified organic hemp extract skincare range” which is "super-nutritious, high in essential fatty acids, and can be absorbed through the skin”.
Mr Benhaim is also "very excited” at the likelihood that in April the law will be changed to make it legal for hemp seeds to be sold as food in Australasia.
Australia and New Zealand are the only countries where it is illegal to consume hemp foods and "we have got close to the ceiling of our distribution that is possible without hemp seeds being allowed for human consumption”.
At present the packets have a sticker covering the "food use” data on the back, warning purchasers that the contents are not to be eaten.
"In Europe you can buy hemp snack bars on aeroplanes, pastas and sauces in supermarkets, breads, cereals, the list goes on.
"That's all foreign to us here. In the US it's a multi-billion dollar industry and growing significantly, as it is in Asia.
"Most people in Australia are becoming educated to the benefits of hemp seeds but are not sure what they can do with them. At the moment we can't tell them 'you can add this to salads, sauces or smoothies, or have it as a snack by itself'.
"We still can't communicate that in Australia and NZ and we look forward to being able to do that later in 2017 and we look forward to giving out free recipe books.”
It's been a long haul: Mr Benhaim confronted the legal absurdity when he first came to this country, in 1998.
"Meanwhile I've watched the global market grow from a small niche to a multi-billion dollar industry, and it's now one of the fastest growing sectors within the fastest growing health food sector in Europe and North America.
"It's something we need to get on the bandwagon with as soon as we possibly can.”
What he is most happy about now though is the company's major breakthroughs in signing up large-scale farmers willing to grow certified organic hemp, or willing to convert their property to meet certification standards.
It's been a struggle to find growers to meet the increasing demand from a domestic and export market.
"We have been working to get Australian farmers on board since we began five years ago and we found it quite challenging for a number of reasons.
"Some farmers were scared that hemp was cannabis and was a drug and we have had to educate them that industrial hemp, our raw material, doesn't contain any psychoactive ingredients that would get you high.
"Finally we have found some great farmers, and we want to find more. This year we expect to be growing $15.5m worth of hemp food products - about a 30% step-up in total revenue from sales, but in terms of local farming it's a much bigger increase.
"It's big news because we have a four-year plan that will make Australia the largest single exporter of certified organic hemp grain in the world.”