By Patrick Atagi
NASCENT and emerging are the adjectives most often used when referring to the American hemp industry.
Since the 2018 Farm Bill passed Congress, and subsequent regulations by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one more adjective is appropriate – and that is ‘poised’.
The United States hemp industry is definitely poised for growth in the international marketplace.
A well-regulated hemp industry can have as much utility as the plant itself, including economic impact and carbon sequester capabilities to significantly reduce carbon change.
Europe’s Hemp History
I say this all the time. All our base essentials for life can be derived from the hemp plant. Hemp is food. Hemp is shelter. Hemp is clothing. Hemp is medicine.
It’s something that the Europeans have figured out. For instance, the pizza chain Papa John’s now has hemp seeds on their breadsticks in the UK – even going so far as referring to hemp as a “superfood” in their promotional material.
A decades-long regulation of industrial hemp in Europe has seen numerous other uses for fiber and even cannabidiol and has given it an advantage over the relatively new hemp industry in the United States.
It’s estimated that nearly 25% of the world’s industrial hemp is grown in Europe, led by France, but over 20 countries within the EU cultivate hemp.
European hemp cultivation has steadily increased over several years (estimated to exceed 60,000 hectares by the end of 2021) as producers and consumers alike have become more aware and engaged with its diverse uses, sustainability profile, and new product development.
Europe has developed a robust processing infrastructure and a finished-goods industry based on hemp fibers in industrial applications. Paper and pulp, along with biocomposites (used in the automotive industry, most commonly for insulation materials), are Europe’s most established uses for hemp fibers. Hemp shivs, byproducts of the fiber extraction process, also have long-established European commercial uses (primarily as animal bedding, but also increasingly for use in the construction industry), especially for insulation.
Opportunities For US
When Europe can’t process its hemp, it’s imported from China. However, recent complaints have suggested that European producers are dissatisfied with the quality of Chinese hemp.
This emerging issue has created an immediate opportunity for high-quality, high-oil content producers from the US to capture market share. Creating universal production standards, grading, or other quality assurance certification could significantly increase the marketability of US hemp in the eyes of major European buyers.
US exports got an even more significant boost last December when the EU harmonized its regulations with the US and raised the THC levels for industrial hemp crops from 0.2% to 0.3%.
That’s excellent news for the American hemp industry. But the European Union’s harmonizing the regulation that governs THC levels in crops isn’t enough because there are still different standards for what’s allowed in the field versus what’s allowed in the market.
Take France, for instance, which produces 40% of the industrial hemp in Europe, but it remains illegal to process any hemp products that contain THC. CBD, however, can still be sold in France if it was produced legally in another country within the EU.
So, for US hemp growers and producers of hemp-derived products, it’s essential to understand the nuances of not just the EU’s new Common Agriculture Policy; it’s necessary to understand the regulations of each member state and what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Another barrier to US exports that must be addressed is standards at the various ports of entry and along the supply chain. While there is standard governance from the EU, each nation-state has its directives. For US exporters, it’s essential to understand these directives for each country.
For instance, hemp exported into Europe may face quarantines at the port of entry or different transportation regulations in each country. Take a product being shipped to Switzerland, for example.
Exporters must meet the standards at the entry point, but they also must meet the transportation protocols in each nation that the product will travel through. We must have harmonized standards for import and logistics.
House In Order
Finally, to facilitate a more significant hemp trade with the EU, the US must get its own house in order. That means developing regulatory certainty for hemp-derived products, including CBD and animal feed.
It also means that the US hemp industry must establish safety standards for hemp-derived products so that the EU and the rest of the directorates know that products from the US have a higher safety profile.
Between 2019 and 2020, the U.S exports of industrial hemp and hemp-derived products increased from $310m to $18bn. Those numbers are forecasted to increase to more than $21bn by 2026.
The US is set to become a significant player in the global hemp economy. That $21bn is more than one-third of the $85bn in hemp-derived exports estimated to be traded globally by 2026.
So yes, while the US hemp industry might be nascent, it’s poised for significant growth. It’s not just because US regulations align with EU. agriculture policy, but because the USDA has made a significant investment by including hemp into the Market Access Program to give US hemp exporters a place in the international marketplace.
Patrick Atagi is the President and CEO of the National Industrial Hemp Council of America. He sits on the USDA’s Agriculture Technical Advisory Committee (ATAC) for Tobacco, Cotton, Peanuts, and Hemp. He advises the Secretary of Agriculture and the United States Trade Representative (USTR) on technical, non-tariff barriers to agricultural trade.