Hemp set to save the bush

Hemp set to save the bush

An ecofibre seed crop south of Dalby.

An ecofibre seed crop south of Dalby.


An increasing number of voices in Australia are saying hemp needs to be taken seriously rather than treated as a niche market.


MOST of us learnt at school that the colony that became Australia was founded as a dumping ground for convicts after the American war of independence, to be a ready-made workforce cultivating and processing all sorts of raw materials for the Empire.

But how many realise that the desire for hemp, the material that made up canvas sails and fuelled Britain's dominance of trade routes, was another prime motivator for the settlement of our nation.

It's a fascinating fact about a crop that an increasing number of voices in Australia are saying needs to be taken seriously rather than treated as a niche market selling shirts and socks on east coast market stalls.

John Ryan, executive officer of Landcare/community group Macquarie 2100, says the war on drugs has caught industrial hemp prospects in its net, shrinking it from the world's most traded commodity to a cottage industry.

But his group and a number of other people see so much potential for the revival of regional Australia's fortunes through hemp production that they're determined to push through these barriers.

"Industrial hemp would give farmers the potential of such diverse markets they could move from the price-taker mentality of relying on monoculture buyers to having vibrant choice when it comes to deciding who they'd sell their in-demand products to," he said.

"Farmer profitability has been degraded so much in the past few decades that regional Australia has become a shambles, a pessimistic hollow shell which superficially retains enough similarity to the 'good old days' to haunt those who remain.

"Governments have proclaimed many remedies over the years, normally window-dressing, at its best mere tinkering around the edges.

"Hemp is the one crop which promises to deliver profits and hope to the regions, a crop which has almost unlimited market potential as a plastic replacement, a wood and paper replacement, is a biofuel, a nutritious stockfeed, an anti-cancer and anti-depression health food, and a soil carbon builder, just to name a few uses."

Phil Warner, the managing director of Ecofibre Industries, a leading Australian hemp research, development and commercialisation company, hails the product in much the same way.

A drive through the decimated landscape of country Queensland in the 1990s - town after town of deserted railway sidings, government buildings with weeds growing through the steps to the front door - got him thinking.

"One-industry towns are all wrong," he said.

"The government helped develop all these towns at the beginning of the century, then everyone started moving to jobs on the coast, and the government had to go and build new police stations and schools to accommodate them.

"I set out to find a commodity that would create jobs, value adding in the region of raw material production.

"Hemp is where we'll save the bush."

With so much going for it, the question is, why is it not flourishing around the country already?

John has identified two roadblocks - a recent decision by state agricultural ministers at COAG to reject a Food Standards Australia and New Zealand recommendation to legalise human consumption, and having no processing (decortication) plant.

The latter problem is being addressed in one way by Ecofibre, which has just constructed a world-first hemp fibre processing mill at Jerry's Plains in the Hunter Valley.

Until now, a commercial return from the crop in this country has been hampered by the high capital cost of processing and so a "critical mass" has been hard to achieve.

According to Phil his mill breaks this chicken and egg conundrum.

"I could see we needed a few dipping their toes in the water and a price structure to compete with cotton or corn, so I went to Europe, brought their processing concepts back and came up with an innovative design at a much lower cost."

Described by him as the breakthrough the world has been waiting for, and built with no government assistance at all, it will turn a 400-hectare fibre crop into 4000 tonnes and pay a sufficient amount to the grower at a cost competitive rate for marketing.

It will make 'tier one' products such as animal bedding that lasts longer than conventional material, but the high-value products are still out of reach.

Issues well canvassed in the Australian market - the cost of wages, transport logistics, the decimation of manufacturing industries in general - dogged further development, Phil said.

He sees a future in research and perfecting plant breeding, harvesting and processing techniques and selling knowledge to overseas groups with the capacity to produce them.

"Australia has latitude to burn," he said.

"There's nowhere else on Earth with such a spread, which gives us significant research advantages."

John has been working on a number of angles to make Macquarie 2100's 100-year plan for the economic, environmental and social revitalisation of the lower Macquarie Valley through the establishment of a viable hemp industry a reality.

One of the most important is convincing the federal government that Australia should join the rest of the developed world in being able to consume hemp food. Ministers fear legalising its use for human consumption, while allowed everywhere else in the developed world, will confuse messages regarding the war on drugs.

"It's a wonder we're allowed to eat poppy seeds on our bread," John commented.

The recommendation comes up for discussion at COAG again in January: if allowed, it will open up huge potential markets for immediate seed production.

In the long term, investors for a full-on processing plant are being sought.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has been briefed on what hemp offers the environment - it uses far less water than most other irrigated crops, only needs chemical applications in extraordinary circumstances, sequesters 1.383kg of CO2 for every kilogram of plant, and can be used as a valuable break crop.

Two centuries ago hemp was the golden-haired boy of the British Empire. In the 21st century, will it finally be nurtured and used to its true potential? History will judge.


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