Hempseed needs innovation boost, says industry

Demand could jump rapidly, as cannabinoid draws interest, but industry says more Canadian processors needed

Farmers who can sell their hempseed can make good money.

But few farmers are able to do that because Canada only has a few processors, hemp is used in a limited range of products, and there isn’t enough consumer demand to justify a significant acreage, says a major hemp production player.

However, general hempseed demand could rapidly inflate as the widespread excitement over cannabinoids draws much attention to the overall hemp plant.

“We have the millennial interest, and we also have, thanks to fractions, the 50- to 75-year-old interest,” said Marc van Burck of Hemp Production Systems, speaking at the Fields on Wheels conference Nov. 1.

Western Canadian hemp acreage is stuck at about 150,000 acres, despite decades of talk about hemp’s supposedly amazing range of uses in everything from health products to skin creams to fibre food uses in oil and protein meal.

Products are out in the marketplace, including many created on the Prairies by domestic processors, but overall consumer demand just doesn’t get big enough to allow the crop to become a regular part of many farmers’ rotations.

Cannabinoid demand could change that because it could appeal to millions of consumers and it creates a high-value component of hemp not seen within the seed’s meal, oil and fibre composition.

If cannabinoids can be extracted for specialized uses and leave the rest of the components for food, feed and fibre markets, “we will suddenly have an oilseed that is cheaper than canola, cheaper than flax, cheaper than soy, as well as something that (contains high-value cannabinoids,” said van Burck.

“That is pretty powerful.”

Extracting all this value to drive a bigger acreage will take a lot of innovation in both extraction and applications, and that’s a problem today. There are too few processors and too few players to fund enough research and development.

“There is a lack of innovation and a lack of marketing innovation in the entire industry to the point that there are not enough consumers to date to make 150,000 acres of hemp seed disappear every year,” he said.

Interest in cannabinoids will bring “a ton of innovation,” he said, but that might not happen in Canada.

Tougher processing approvals regulations in Canada for hemp-related processing plants than in the United States mean the investment capital could pour in south of the line rather than on the Prairies. The valuable components might remain locked inside the food and fibre of the plant if they can’t be extracted and sold to enough processors.

That could inhibit expansion for the western Canadian hemp industry.

“If we in Western Canada have a ton of co-products that are coming off the back of the combine where there are cannabinoids, and we cannot sell them to a processor because there is a lack of processors, there will be a stalling (of the crop base) and higher prices (of consumer products,)” said van Burck.

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