The five-year $2.5m Australian Industrial Hemp Program of Research (AIHPR) is funded by Agrifutures Australia, a government entity charged with investing in research, innovation, and leadership to strengthen rural industries and regional communities.
The Australian industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L) industry is in its infancy, trailing Canada, China and the EU in terms of scale and value of production. But it is a sector that is rapidly growing, noted AgriFutures' Dr Olivia Reynolds.
She said hemp had enormous potential to boost Australia’s agricultural productivity.
Market research data puts the value of the global industrial hemp market at over $18bn by 2027, and this initiative is aimed at helping Australian producers and processors capitalize on that opportunity, reported the organizers.
Led by Southern Cross University (SCU), which has more than 15 years’ experience in industrial hemp research, AgriFutures said AIHPR will be developed in close consultation with industrial hemp growers, processors, agronomists and researchers.
The team will first review the current situation and then outline a pathway for future growth.
Professor Mary Spongberg, deputy vice chancellor (research), SCU, added: “The program will allow us to better understand the impact of hemp on our environment and enhance production across Australia and is an opportunity to work in partnership with industry and other researchers, transferring and sharing knowledge to build a better hemp industry and a better environment.”
Feed safety, animal welfare
The hemp program is focused on four areas: hemp seeds and varieties, hemp primary production, hemp products, and hemp sustainability.
“The focus areas include securing a steady supply of well-characterized varieties, developing value-add processing methods, investigating the safe and beneficial use of hemp products in livestock feed [and pet food] and generating information and tools for growers to understand the sustainability credentials of industrial hemp," commented lead researcher, Professor Tobias Kretzschmar.
In terms of feed, the team will also assess the value-add of hemp to end-product quality and animal welfare.
SCU will implement internal and external governance mechanisms for the initiative, along with an annual AIHPR workshop.
The hemp plant
Almost all the hemp plant has some potential use, but the three main industrial use parts are the inner fibers, the outer fibers, and the flowering part (seed).
While there is relatively limited information about suitable hemp varieties for cultivation in Australia, private companies have undertaken plant breeding and selection trials over the past two decades to develop varieties suitable for local production.
Ruminant nutritionist, Prof Gaye Krebs, who is based at the Charles Sturt School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences said industrial hemp is an emerging crop that shows great potential but that more data is needed about its potential for grazing.
“Hemp is a fast-growing, water efficient annual crop that can be grown in a number of Australian states under strict license conditions for seeds and fiber.
“A pilot study carried out at Charles Sturt University identified potential for the crop to be used in livestock feed. But it also highlighted the need for more information, particularly around residues of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in meat.”
Hemp-based feed materials are approved for use in cattle and monogastric farming in the EU.
Hemp in UK salmon feed
Last summer, the UK government published its Hemp-30 roadmap – a 10-year strategy to make industrial hemp a major UK crop. It is estimated to add around £700m to the economy and sequester or displace 1m tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Moreover, UK researchers are moving ahead on a project aimed at making hemp seed a sustainable protein source for Scottish salmon feeds, following the success of feasibility trials last year.
Rare Earth Global, the company behind the initiative and growers of industrial hemp for a range of sustainable products, has received more than £260,000 (US$329K) in funding from the UK Seafood Innovation Fund (SIF) for a full-scale research and development project which will include a two-month feed assessment.
The next stage of testing involves monitoring how fish perform over the long term when fed hemp seed protein as part of their diet, with the company also supported by the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) and the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture.
Mowi, the global Atlantic salmon producer, will support the formulation and production of the feed, while farmers in Angus and Aberdeenshire will grow the crops.
The researchers are hoping to get protein levels in the hemp seed meal of over 50%.
Call to speed up US regulatory approvals
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently allow hemp products to be fed to farmed animals. Late last year, the US National Industrial Hemp Council (NIHC) wrote to the agency, asking it act quickly to approve hemp seed meal as a feed ingredient.
Patrick Atagi, CEO of the NIHC, told FDA Commissioner, Robert Califf, that there was an urgent need for alternative feedstuffs.
“Part of our mission has been to promote the safe and efficient use of hemp-based animal feed for the production of livestock. The US agriculture industry is struggling with a global grain shortage that is a direct result of the war in Ukraine. This has resulted in a direct increase in inputs for all domestic livestock producers of 16% since last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“Hemp is an environmentally responsible and domestically grown alternative. Considering the higher costs associated with the worldwide grain shortage, a sustainable American hemp crop is a nutritious source of animal feed, and it can lower the cost of farming feed inputs. This would be good news for farmers and consumers who now struggle with the higher costs of milk, meat, and eggs," noted the letter.
In August 2022, the NIHC hosted a webinar with the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), comprised of local, state, and federal officials responsible for safeguarding the sale and distribution of animal feeds and veterinary medicine. Over 1,000 people, from regulators at all levels of government, veterinarians, university researchers, and hemp advocates, participated in the online event. “It was a fascinating discussion that showed great interest and agreement on hemp’s potential as a nutritious feed source for production animals,” noted Atagi.
He said there is no reason why the FDA has not already approved hempseed-based animal feed ingredients.
“We have seen numerous clinical trials, by Land Grant Universities and others, submitted to the FDA that all show the same outcome, that there is no transference of cannabinoids into the nation’s food supply chain from animals raised on hemp seed meal. Those results are consistent across the various species of animals, including laying hens, hogs, and dairy cattle.”