Last week, the Northern Territory became the final Australian jurisdiction to legalise the cultivation and sale of industrial hemp with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering chemical compound found at high levels in marijuana.
The plant’s qualities and multiple benefits have encouraged a swathe of new industries to take root across sectors such as consumer goods, construction, food, and fuel, and in the area of environmental rehabilitation.
Low carbon and green
Forget happy hippy shacks made of hemp bale; hemp masonry is a high-quality building material that has been scoring awards for high-end homes.
One home in O’Connor in the ACT, constructed by David Fogg from ProStyle Builders and designed by Angela Knock from Plan It Green, used products from the Australian Hemp Masonry Company (AHMC). The home won the HIA 2018 Australian GreenSmart Award and the 2018 ACT Master Builders People’s Choice Award.
AHMC managing director Klara Marosszeky tells The Fifth Estate demand for hemp masonry has been growing rapidly over the past 12 months as more builders and buyers see examples of completed projects around the country.
She says the feedback from buyers is that the homes perform exceptionally well in terms of their thermal comfort and acoustic insulation and general wellbeing for inhabitants, including anecdotal reports from asthmatic sufferers that their symptoms lessened after they moved into a hemp home.
As a biomass for building construction, hemp absorbs more carbon per kilo than timber during its growth phase. That carbon is then stored permanently in the building products. Hemp delivers a breathable wall product, which reduces condensation and improves air quality, and is light, and durable.
The next step for the industry is to establish local processing and manufacturing in every state to reduce the carbon footprint from freight. Some states, such as Tasmania, don’t have processing for the fibre used to make building materials.
Marosszeky says the goal is not to have hemp products replace everything else but for it to be used in conjunction with other materials to introduce biomass into building products across the materials spectrum and reduce the quantity of higher-emissions material.
Hemp helps increase biomass while also storing carbon.
“It’s a carbon bank, and at the same time we can create homes and workplaces where people have a better life and a healthy life,” Marosszeky says.
AHMC has just completed its first project in the commercial building space, an Innovation Centre at Cape Byron Steiner School.
Another advantage of hemp masonry is that building owners can become involved in the building process, leading to significant cost-savings.
Marosszeky sees enormous potential for the material in the affordable housing space, including remote Indigenous communities.
She was one of the earliest innovators in the space, gaining a special license from the NSW Government to grow a trial hemp crop in the Hunter Valley in 1999 and undertaking research into applications for hemp at the University of NSW, Sydney from 2000 to 2006.
Her involvement with Landcare, Greening Australia and the Nature Conservation Council and her realisation that to protect crucial forest corridors we need an alternative to the continued harvesting of native forests for timber, prompted her to get involved with hemp.
Using hemp as a product for food, fibre, fuels and construction is not entirely new; historically, many cultures have used hemp for a variety of purposes.
“There is a really quite deep cultural knowledge [about hemp] in many of our migrant communities, and we have an opportunity to innovate using that knowledge.”
In addition to the traditional uses, new applications for hemp are emerging, such as hemp-based superconductors.
Car manufacturers, including Mercedes Benz and Porsche, are using hemp fibre composites in new luxury car models but Henry Ford built an entire car from hemp composite as early as 1941.
There’s a hotbed of innovation happening in the bioplastics space too, as materials manufacturers look for low-carbon, renewable materials.
Australian company Zeoform is using hemp to manufacture a range of products, including surfboards made of hemp instead of fibreglass, extruded bioplastic furniture, and rapidly biodegrading plastic substitutes for throw-away consumer items.
In Europe, Kanesis, a company based in Sicily, is manufacturing 3D printer filament from hemp waste.
Not a thirsty crop
Per hectare, hemp uses about a third of the water used by cotton, and whatever cotton can do, hemp can do, too. The earliest Levis jeans manufactured for California gold miners in the 1800s were made from hemp, and Levis has now come full circle, with a new range of “cottonised” hemp garments.
Hemp clothing is also gaining traction in the ethical, organic and Fair Trade clothing space.
Given the water savings, it’s easy to imagine the positive benefits it could have for the Murray-Darling River system and other regions where water supplies are at crisis point, if thirsty industrial cotton crops were swapped for hemp.
Hemp needs extra water beyond natural rainfall in most regions only in the first six weeks of its growth cycle, and in many parts of Australia, hemp can yield two crops a year.
Sucking up chemicals
In 2004, Southern Cross University researcher Dr Keith Bolton, in conjunction with Ecofibre Industries Ltd (EIL) and Byron Shire Council, demonstrated that hemp can be used to “mop up” sewerage plant effluent.
Other research has shown hemp can be grown on land contaminated by heavy metals, while still producing a safe material. It can also be grown with fewer pesticides than cotton. Bugs just don’t dig hemp.
Every part of the crop can be used
Hemp is the posterchild for multipurpose cropping – the stems can be used for fibre and biomass; the seeds produce high-quality food for humans and animals as well as high-quality oil for both human consumption and conversion to biodiesel; and while it is currently not legal in Australia to feed animals the leafy parts (although it is in Europe], the leaf material left after harvest can be ploughed back in to boost soil carbon and mulch for the next crop.
Hemp can also be direct seeded without needing to plough deep into the soil, protecting soil structure and soil moisture.
The use of low-THC seed for human consumption in Australia was legalised by the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation in 2017, following extensive research and consultation. Demand quickly soared.
Farm Weekly reported last month that Australian Primary Hemp, which offers customers an end-to-end hemp service, is preparing to list on the Australian Stock Exchange. The company’s products include cold pressed hemp oil, protein powders for human consumption and stock feeds using hemp grown in Victoria and Tasmania by contract growers.
Research shows stock feed products made from hulls left over from processing for human food products improve dairy animal gut health and general condition.
Hemp seed oil is also a promising product as a vegan substitute for fish oils as a source of Omega 3 oils as well as Omega 6 and Omega 9 oils. It is also appearing in a wide range of cosmetic and personal care products.
The protein powder derived from the seeds has the full amino acid complement required for human nutrition, a quality shared by few other Australian-grown, plant-based proteins. Soy, for example, does not have the full amino acid complement.
Since legalisation, the number of Australian food manufacturers jumping on board with hemp seed containing foods has skyrocketed.
Given its environmental credentials, if we are looking for a recipe to help save the planet hemp seed and hemp oil would be excellent ingredients.