Conference report - Industrial hemp:
Economic opportunities for Canada

Gero Leson

nova - Institute for Political and Ecological Innovation, Santa Monica, USA

    The conference "Industrial Hemp: Economic Opportunities for Canada", held on March 25 at the Design Center in Toronto, fueled the hope that Canada will continue on its route to gradually reestablishing hemp as an industrial crop.  Craig Crawford of the Ontario Realty Corporation, a branch of the Ontario provincial government, initiated the event in order to improve the dialogue between the groups involved in reviving the hemp industry and to identify needs for regulatory reform and technology research and development.
    The event was sponsored by Agriculture Canada, Environment Canada, and the Bank of Montreal.  Of the more than 250 attendees, approximately half were members of the young, growing North American hemp industry.  The balance were farmers, designers, manufacturers, distributors, researchers and representatives of industry, banks, governmental agencies, and unions.  The presence of significant numbers of Americans and Europeans underlined the international nature of the industry.
    Presentations were aimed at giving the audience an overview of various aspects of industrial hemp potentially relevant to the situation in Canada.  Gero Leson, nova Institute, presented estimates on global hemp cultivation and markets with a focus on recent developments in Europe.  He high-lighted the need for implementing processing strategies other than the classical long fiber route for textiles if hemp is to be used more widely for industrial purposes.  Sue Riddlestone, Bioregional Development Group, presented her experience with the recent establishment of a lab-scale long fiber line in the UK. Dennis Crone of Mackie International, the world's largest manufacturer of long fiber spinning equipment, introduced his company's equipment and capabilities.
    Three presentations covered developments in the US.  Andy Graves, president of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative, summarized the status of legal initiatives in several states and the interest of US farmers in an alternative crop.   The recent recommendation by the American Farm Bureau, representing US farmers, that hemp's viability as a crop should be investigated further is largely due to his group's extensive educational and lobbying efforts.  Don Wirtshafter, Ohio Hempery, and Eric Steenstra, Ecolution, discussed the experiences of young US firms involved in the manufacturing and trading of hemp oil and textiles which have to rely entirely on imported goods, with limited means of controlling raw material quality in the countries of origin.
    The situation in Canada was discussed by the last two speakers.   Gordon Reichert, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, summarized the results of the 1995 growing trials.  Late issuance of growing permits and correspondingly late sowing contributed in some cases to unfavorable growing conditions, such as competition from weeds.  Although such conditions will not be representative of large-scale farming, they demonstrated that pests and weeds can cause losses under unfavorable conditions and suggested careful planning for the crop.  His main point, however, was that the current legal situation in Canada, which does not permit farmers or processors to sell hemp based materials for profit, is the primary obstacle to further cultivation.   To attract farmers and investors alike, changes to the law are of the highest priority.
    Finally, John Convey of ORTECH, a large national research institution with experience in the textile sector, suggested that simply importing hemp processing technology may not be wise. Instead he proposed the evaluation of various potential processing strategies in light of product specifications by domestic end users.  Such an evaluation, initially on the pilot scale, would also have to include economic and environmental features of each technology.
    The formal presentations were followed by a lively panel discussion and informal discussions.  They demonstrated the wide range of backgrounds of the participants and also their need for information on specific aspects of the industry.
    The following day, 40 of the participants, including several representatives from major banks, industrial firms, government agencies, and unions, followed up with a visit to ORTECH's facilities and one day of in-depth discussions of the need for action if hemp is to be revitalized in Canada.  The need to overcome the current legal restrictions on commercial farming, processing, and trading was confirmed as the primary action item.  Improved communication and coordination between the ministries of agriculture and health, which currently administer hemp cultivation, were emphasized as one potential means of accelerating the political process.  The establishment of workable THC standards and cost effective enforcement mechanisms was identified as yet another priority.  A working group was subsequently formed to evaluate various regulatory approaches.  The long-fiber spinning line offered by Mackie as one of the processing options for the textile industry was discussed in more detail.  At a capital cost of $15-20 million, the line produces 80 kg/hr of long fiber yarn and 150 kg/hr of short fiber products.  A second working group was formed to compare this and other available processing strategies which may provide flexibility with respect to the use of the produced fiber and lend themselves to pilot testing.
    In summary, the event was a success in several respects.   Particularly, it demonstrated that there is a strong consensus among major interest groups in Canada to evaluate hemp's technical and economic viability and, in case of favorable results, reestablish it as an industrial crop.  The current legal obstacles are seen as surmountable if coordination between the ministries of health and agriculture and the development of a workable regulatory framework for the farming of low THC hemp can be accomplished.
    A second conference on hemp will, according to Craig Crawford, likely be held in Toronto in the summer of 1997, as part of the "Human Village", a world conference for designers.  It may also be coupled with a trade show for hemp products.

Cannabis seed types, greatly magnified (courtesy of VIR)