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Enormous potential for hemp seed food products

10 August 2018

Local growers won’t be the only ones who benefit from the government’s move to legalise the sale of hemp seed foods in New Zealand from later this year – consumers will also be in line to gain from ‘fantastic’ and sustainable nutritional benefits with low food miles. 

That’s according to the Ashburton companies which pioneered industrial hemp production here. Midlands Seed and Midlands Nutritional Oils have backed the alternative niche crop for the best part of 20 years and were among the first companies to be issued licences via Medsafe for production of hemp in the 2001/02 growing season.

They were also the first to grow and process hemp seed to oil for retail sale under this first licence over 17 years ago, and more recently became the first in NZ to produce hemp seed protein, and hulled hemp seed.

Now director Andrew Davidson says they are excited at the prospect of the legal sale of hemp seed foods in NZ from later this year.

“Up until this point, we have been able to sell hemp seed oil but no other parts of the hemp seed for human consumption. The new laws will allow us to sell oil and other parts of the seed, which creates opportunities for other products – this means hemp seed becomes a much more viable economic proposition.”

Andrew says there is enormous potential in hemp food products and the market is growing around 25 per cent year on year.

“Demand for our cold pressed hemp seed oil is being fuelled by interest in its beneficial health properties. It’s rich in essential fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, Omega 3) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). These are the sort of speciality products that are also attracting the rapidly growing market of vegetarian and vegan consumers looking for new protein sources.

“Legislative changes that will allow other hemp seed based foods will open up new sources of income and markets for the crop, potentially tripling plantings in the next few years,” he said. Currently 15-20 growers in Canterbury produce hemp commercially. It’s a relatively low input crop which also serves as a much-needed break between more conventional cropping options.

Total NZ plantings are estimated at 200-300ha, with Midlands contracting the lion’s share of this. Increasing interest in hemp both here and overseas has prompted NZ’s inaugural iHemp Summit, which was just held in Wellington.

This brought together farmers, companies, scientists, funders, regulators and community leaders to explore the potential for NZ to be the best in the world at growing and using hemp for food, fibre and medicine.

While products such as hemp seed oil, hemp seed flour, hemp seed bran, hemp seed protein and hulled hemp seed can be found in retail stores in other developed countries such as Canada, USA, United Kingdom and throughout Europe, currently the sale of these hemp foods for human consumption in NZ is prohibited, with the exception of hemp seed oil.

However, in April 2017, trans-Tasman ministers approved a change to the Australia NZ Food Standards Code that would eventually allow the use of hemp seed products as foods for human consumption.

But before the new standard can take effect in NZ, changes need to be made to regulations under the Food Act 2014, Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and Medicines Act 1981. This process is likely to be completed for NZ in November 2018, while hemp foods can already be brought off the shelf in Australia.

While regulatory delays in NZ are frustrating, Andrew Davidson says Midlands Seed is focusing its resources and energy on working with authorities to implement the legislative change as soon as possible. This includes the consultation process by the Ministry for Primary Industries on proposed changes to the Misuse of Drugs (Industrial Hemp) Regulations 2006 and regulations under the Food Act 2014, which closed two weeks ago.

Under the current system, hemp crops are produced by Midlands Seed. These hemp crops are produced on contract with local farmer suppliers, and all crops produced are licensed with the Ministry of Health.

The resultant hemp seed is then supplied to Midlands Nutritional Oil, which processes this seed into oil and meal and then supplies it to consumers.

This means the company has a vertically integrated supply chain and full traceability of its products.

Midlands Nutritional Oils is a bulk wholesaler of its range of specialty oils and related oil seed products, and also supplies hemp seed oil wholesale in bulk quantities.

In addition, the company also has its own finished product brand new hemisphere, which is a clever twist of the words ‘hemp is here’.

However, oil represents only 20 per cent of the seed value, with the balance of Midland’s crops (meal) being sold as animal feed, Andrew says.

“Being able to sell 100 per cent of the seed value will make the crop more economically viable.”

Part of the reason for growing interest in hemp seed for human consumption is that it is a GMO/GE free alternative to other sources of protein such as soy and whey. Its unique amino acid profile has seen it touted as a superfood, and it has become popular and sought after as a dietary supplement worldwide.

Hemp seed flour and hemp seed bran offer a nutritionally dense alternative to other common flours, with high levels of dietary fibre, both soluble and insoluble, with the added benefits of hemp seed’s amino acid profile and essential fatty acid component.

“Hemp seed foods produced within the Midlands business model offer a sustainable crop production option with low food miles, typically grown and processed within a 100 kilometre radius (from paddock to processing facility),” Andrew says.

Equally importantly, several downstream benefits for employment and additional industry will result from the pending amendment to the hemp food laws.

“Thanks to the existing infrastructure for seed production and food processing in NZ, and our temperate climate and ideal soils, NZ is well positioned to capture the added value and economic benefits this opportunity presents.”

Hemp is one of several crops noted in ‘The evolution of plant protein – assessing consumer response’, a new report released 1 June by MPI and Plant & Food Research. Along with lucerne, barley, beans, canola, kumara, linseed, white maize, oats, peas, potatoes, walnuts and wheat, hemp is identified as a NZ-grown crop that could be more immediately used as a protein source for human consumption.

- NZ Cropping Yearbook 2019

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