Hemp harvest could pay healthy dividend

Last updated 05:00 20/03/2014

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OPINION: Monday's business feature in the Taranaki Daily News was yet another reminder (as if we needed it) that innovation and hard work are integral parts of our psyche.

Taranaki-born Greg Flavall founded Hemp Technologies in the US state of North Carolina before shifting to the tax-free state of Nevada. The business now has branches in New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Romania and employs about 300 staff, from administration and distribution to chemical scientists.

The core business is the manufacture of hempcrete, which is made much like concrete, and the only ingredient not from New Zealand is the hemp itself, which is grown in the Netherlands. It is actually a mixture of hemp and lime and is easier to work with than concrete because it is less brittle. It is also a compound that should be dear to the heart of every greenie - like every plant, hemp absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows. It stores the carbon and releases the oxygen. This could be a really important step in the climate change battle. The hempcrete also acts as an insulator and keeps the damp out.

The technology has been used in Europe for approximately 30 years and it would make sense for New Zealand builders and architects to look more closely at making use of this natural-based building block.

Greg Flavall already has crops of hemp, a legal and different variety of the cannabis plant which is more commonly in the news, in Tikorangi and Urenui. Hemp is the term for the industrial and commercial use of the cannabis stalk and seed for things like textiles, foods, papers, body-care products, detergents, plastics and, of course, building materials. It is not cultivated to produce buds and contains very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinoids, the ingredients that give smokers their high.

As Greg Flavall says, "You'd have to smoke a joint as big as a telephone pole to even get a headache".

The plus side of growing hemp is obvious: it is the most durable natural fibre of all and there is no need for chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. It produces far more fibre per hectare than pine trees and paper made from hemp trees can be recycled up to seven times, compared with three times for pine-pulp based papers.

The seed and seed oil are high in protein, vitamins and essential fatty and amino acids. Those who care about the environment should consider the fact that hemp would be an ideal source of biomass for fuel. Hemp ethanol burns very cleanly.

Industrial hemp has been grown for about 10,000 years but in the 1950s the US decided that it was in the same category as marijuana and banned its cultivation. This should not surprise anybody - after all, that was the same period when the US decided anyone who didn't agree with the authorities must be a communist. Clear thinking was not in vogue.

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As the world faces the increasing risk of climate change and over-population, it may be that turning to this ancient crop proves to be a significant move.

- Taranaki Daily News

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