Bringing hemp out of the closet

21:35, Apr 10 2014
Kina Beach Vineyard.
MULTI-USE: Hemp fibre is used to make a wide variety of products including fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibres, paper, carpeting, home furnishings, construction and insulation materials, and auto parts.

Hemp, arguably one of the most versatile agricultural crops available, is restricted in New Zealand. Why is this? The answer is simple; hemp is closely related to marijuana.

Unfortunately, hemp got caught up in the anti-marijuana hysteria of the early to mid-20th century when country after country, including New Zealand, made marijuana illegal. The plants look similar but hemp has only tiny amounts of tetra-hydro-cannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that makes marijuana a class C controlled substance in New Zealand. So, no, you can't get stoned off hemp.

If you want to grow hemp in New Zealand, you need to apply to the Ministry of Health for a permit to cultivate, deal, breed, import or sell seed. Farmers must also pay a fee of NZ$500 per licence! Until recently farmers also had to categorise hemp crop as experimental, which is odd considering humans have been cultivating it for about 12,000 years.

So because hemp is related to another plant whose flowers you can get high on, it's restricted. This is irrational legislation and shows no commitment to evidence-based policy making.

Restricting hemp and making would-be growers jump through bureaucratic hoops is stifling the uptake of this remarkable plant and the industry which could develop if its reintroduction into the economy was enabled.

I spoke to a local expert who commented that the small numbers of growers still persevering in New Zealand have limited seed stock and varieties to work with. This, combined with the historic loss of manufacturing capacity, makes crucial investment dollars difficult to find. Relying on importing also has its pitfalls; it's not unheard of for shipments of seed products destined for food production to be routinely blocked by customs.


Thankfully, the hemp industry is making a comeback globally. It's estimated the US domestic manufacturing industry alone is worth US$500 million a year, supported by hemp imports from Canada, China and Europe. The US consumer market has managed to prosper despite hemp being effectively outlawed since before WW II. Farmers in the US are now gearing up to supply domestic and international markets after the Obama Administration signed off legislation paving the way for commercial growing to re-commence.

The fact that markets have survived despite massive legislative hurdles is testament to the quality and variety of hemp products. The sheer number of products being produced from hemp fibre and seed is staggering.

Hemp fibre is used to produce fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibres, paper, carpeting, home furnishings, construction and insulation materials, auto parts, animal bedding, material inputs, and even plastic. Hemp seed is used in food and beverages, is high in essential amino acids, and is a rich source of protein. Oil from crushed seed is also used as an ingredient in a range of body-care products, nutritional supplements, cosmetics and personal care products, pharmaceuticals and industrial oils.

There is a multimillion-dollar domestic and export market available for New Zealand hemp products if we reconfigure policy and create more attractive investment conditions.

The environmental benefits of hemp would be significant too. It reaches heights of 2-5 metres in 4-6 months, meaning it's a highly productive plant. Its growth density also means little or no herbicides are needed and it can easily be integrated into rotational cropping. Farmers could even choose between hemp and pine plantations and not have to wait 30 years to see a return on investment.

It really is a wonder crop. What other plant can provide paper, clothing, car bodies and food while helping the environment?

Let's begin the hemp revolution in Aotearoa.