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Industrial Hemp: An Environmentally Sustainable Future?

In the mid 1990s Victoria’s agriculture sector was on the brink of being a world leader in innovation and technology. Industrial hemp, a super crop that yields thousands of uses, from automobiles to baby nappies, was said to change the face of the rural economy. Its environmental footprint is barely visible, and contrary to popular misconception it has no psychoactive qualities such as those found in its sister plant, marijuana. Textile and Composite Industry founder Adrian Clarke was at the forefront of industrial hemp technology and, backed by the Kennett Liberal government, was about to revolutionise the industry.

Clarke had developed a prototype decorticator – an agricultural machine that separates the fibre and hurd of a crop so it can be used as a material – eradicating the need for time- and labour-intensive processes.

However Clarke and Kennett were stopped in their tracks as soon as ex-Victorian Premier Steve Bracks was elected in 1999. Bracks shut down the research centre at Deakin University where Clarke had been devoting his time and effort, simultaneously stonewalling the industry.

“We were able to convert the hemp fibre straight off the field straight through a processor… into cotton spinning machinery… That’s when Bracks got in, and he stopped us cold,” said Clarke, then alluding to Bracks’ involvement with multinational biotechnology corporation Monsanto.

“At the same time Bracks was doing a deal with Monsanto of the growing of genetically modified crops in Victoria, so there are some obvious links that one could make,” he argued.

Paired with a near crippling report published in the Financial Review three years prior, the industry was sent spiralling into decline.

“There was a trial of hemp growing done in South Australia in the Yorke Peninsula, and it was very peculiar. They planted in May and then said, ‘hemp won’t grow in Australia’ – of course it won’t if you plant it in May!” commented Clarke, frustration evident in his voice.

“It was reported in the financial review as proof that it wouldn’t grow, so we said to the financial review reporters and editors, come up and have a look at our crop, because it is already six or seven foot tall. This was in October.”

Consequently, there were vast financial repercussions on the industry.

“Investors who were going to invest in us at the time, including some superannuation funds said, ‘We can’t invest because the Financial Review is seen as a paper of record’,” Clarke said.

However the current Victorian Government has loosened industrial hemp regulation in Victoria, and the industry has licked its wounds clean.

Clarke has now developed a prototype processing machine; the first in the world that allows hemp fibres to be spun in pre-existing cotton machinery, potentially saving millions of dollars.

With interest growing across the country, many companies and organisations are realising the environmental benefits of industrial hemp products.

Geelong Industrial Hemp Farmer Robert Trethewey says industrial hemp can benefit Victoria’s agricultural industry immensely.

“I believe it’s got the opportunity to be as big as poppies are in Tasmania. Poppies are huge down there and they actually saved Tasmania’s rural industries,” says Trethewey.

“The fibre is a very good natural resource, it’s extremely strong, it’s biodegradable, so it makes perfect sense to use it in building materials,” he continues.

Industrial hemp’s ability to store carbon from the atmosphere has attracted the attention of building industries looking to create environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly housing.

“It actually locks up more carbon than it uses, so it’s actually carbon negative,” says Hempcrete Executive Administrator Leanne Collett.

Using a hemp hurd and lime concrete composite material, Hempcrete Australia’s environmentally sustainable housing is also beneficial to your health.

“They’re finding with Hempcrete houses they really reduce the bill on your heating and cooling,” says Collett.

“It’s completely pest and mould resistant. The lime in the mix means that no termites and no moulds are attracted to it at all, and that’s a really great quality because it creates a healthy living environment,” she says.

Many of those involved with the hemp industry can’t understand why governments haven’t supported such a sustainable product.

Treasurer of the Industrial Hemp Association of Queensland, Matt Stapleton, is clearly frustrated by the State and Federal Government’s lack of initiative.

“I cannot understand why the government isn’t getting behind the innovation and technology that’s being incubated here in places like Queensland,” argues Stapleton.

“Big masonry companies don’t want it out there because they know that it can produce good quality products that are better than their concrete … Deep down, government doesn’t want to support it because they don’t want to upset the big business sectors.”

However the building sector is merely one of the three ‘pillars’, as Clarke puts it, of the hemp industry. Clarke’s decorticator is able to extract the fibre from the crop to be used in textiles and paper, and the seeds can be used to make food for human consumption as well as stock feed.

Textiles made with hemp are more durable, especially when combined with cotton. However Clarke says the hemp industry has been overshadowed and out lobbied by cotton companies.

“We were not interested in competing against cotton. One of the most successful blends you can get is a blend of cotton and hemp That’s all we were trying to do, but unfortunately the cotton industry completely mistook what we were doing and their lobbying has been very effective,” says Clarke.

“Textiles made from hemp are more durable. They last a lot longer and the more you wear them the more comfortable they become. Hemp has natural antiseptic qualities so they’re perfect for things like hospital bed sheets. They’ll outlast cotton sheets maybe tenfold,” he says.

According to a report issued by the West Australian Government, paper made from hemp fibres could be at least two times more recyclable than paper produced from wood fibre. The report also states that adding plant fibres such as hemp to replace fiberglass can be more cost effective and have ‘comparable strength properties.’

“You can usually recycle ordinary newsprint three times. If you put hemp fibre into it, it goes up to ten times,” says Clarke, who then points out the cafeteria chairs littered around the shopping centre.

“We’re looking at those chairs over there. Those could all be made of hemp composite instead of fiberglass. Everything that’s got fiberglass in it can be done with hemp, and that’s renewable and that’s recyclable,” he says.

Hemp for human consumption is illegal across Australia despite Food Standards Australia & New Zealand stating that “Low THC hemp in food products may provide a useful alternative dietary source of many nutrients and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3.”

Industrial Hemp Association of Victoria President Lyn Stephenson says the Police Department are in opposition to the legislation, who argue hemp food consumption will result in positive THC results in random drug tests.

“That’s a misnomer… part of that licensing process is that you have to get the crop tested for THC content. And the minute it tests positive for THC then the crop has to be destroyed,” says Stephenson.

“The Police Department are the ones who have said no. What they’ve done is just jumped at shadows – they haven’t actually really looked at the whole application,” she says.

Many lobbyists pressuring the Australian government to legalise hemp food consumption blame the lack of government support on misconceptions regarding hemps association with marijuana.

“Unfortunately, as soon as someone speaks up about hemp… the first thing people say is ‘this person’s talking about bud’. It’s got that image problem,” says Stapleton.

“John Howard and Steve Bracks both, on their drugs campaign, put the industry back 50 years. They just wouldn’t talk about the canvas plant in any form,” adds Trethewey.

“How can anyone suggest that building a house with hemp bricks or your kitchen out of a hemp product has anything to do with smoking dope?”

It seems the progression of the hemp industry is dependent upon the education of the public, and upon political sectors that have the power to change public opinion and provide the money to support a vulnerable agricultural industry.

The industry is seemingly in a similar position as it was before the Bracks intervention. Now armed with cutting edge technology, the industry has potential to benefit not only Mother Earth, but also the Australian economy. Government support and private investment are vital to its success.

Clarke is once again at the forefront of the industrial hemp technology, and with his decorticator attracting international attention, holds a positive view for the future of the industry.

“Victorian agriculture would be a world leader in the industry and there would be a very wealthy rural sector. And that is still a possibility today, because today we now have our machine.”

Nick Reid

The author Nick Reid

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