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HIGHLIGHTS
  1. Health Canada to extend hemp licence duration following bigger-than-expected growth
  2. Hemp fibre industry has high hopes for strong demand, but awaits supply chain
  3. Fibre bottleneck starts at the lack of decortication facilities

This week’s Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance Conference in Calgary, Alta., was filled with farmers and companies representing the entire supply chain of a plant that feeds into an unusually wide variety of uses and revenue streams: health food; cannabinoid extraction; fibre; and potentially livestock feed.

Though industrial hemp farming has been allowed in Canada since 1998, the legalization of recreational cannabis in 2018 increased the general public’s interest and acceptance of the plant, and boosted demand for its products. Unlike its cousin cannabis, hemp is only permitted to contain a maximum of 0.3 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

One reason there has been so much chatter among consumers recently about industrial hemp is because last year’s Cannabis Act put hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) extraction on the can-do list for the first time, meaning farmers and licensed extractors can now get in on the surge in demand – and price premium – for this cannabinoid that is associated with health and wellness claims. Despite the lack of clinical trials proving health claims made by some product manufacturers, CBD demand is widely expected to soar, particularly after the United States legalized industrial hemp at the federal level in late 2018.

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The catch is, hemp cultivars approved in Canada produce relatively low CBD levels. So while hemp-derived CBD was discussed at the conference, some of its other uses took center stage:

Hemp surge surprises Health Canada; may tweak licences

Health Canada issued 819 hemp farming licences in 2019, more than 50 per cent higher than 542 in 2018, said Mike McGuire, who is responsible for licensing related to hemp and cannabis for Health Canada.

The biggest year-over-year increase was in Ontario, where it tripled to 182 licences from 53 in 2018, while it doubled in British Columbia to 100 from 42.

“We expected growth. We didn’t expect it to be 50 per cent,” Mr. McGuire said.

While Health Canada has not yet released its estimate for Canada’s 2019 hemp harvest, cannabis licence holders reported purchasing or receiving 82,417 kilograms of dried hemp between October 2018 and September 2019.

Mike McGuire of Health Canada speaks on Nov. 26 at the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance Conference in Calgary.

Marcy Nicholson/Cannabis Professional

Mr. McGuire told the conference attendees that hemp licences have been extended to be multi-year, versus annual, and will soon extend to be valid for five years. Reporting compliance by hemp licence holders within the one-month window has been low but “we’ll be looking at ways to increase that compliance,” he said.

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As scientists and farmers seek hemp cultivars that will produce higher CBD levels while staying below the 0.3 per cent THC limit, Health Canada is considering updating its policy before the 2020 planting season to add flexibility and speed to the approval process of new cultivars.

However, when asked if the non-intoxicating CBD cannabinoid will be removed from the controlled substance list, Mr. McGuire said there was no such discussion taking place.

The future looks fibrous

Despite expectations for CBD demand to soar globally over the coming years, and growing interest in hemp seed and oil food products, many Canadian hemp farmers are looking to harvest the crop’s stalks to sell to the fibre industry.

“Fibre’s going to play a really significant role in hemp,” said Reuben Stone, treasurer for Uniseeds Inc.

The biggest opportunity for hemp fibre is to replace single-use plastics, several speakers said.

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“All we need is a tiny little sliver of that market place and we’ve got a big market,” Mr. Stone said.

But in order to get this going, hemp farmers need to have a place to sell their stalks, and in turn, decortication companies need to have customers. The momentum for the industry to grow into a significant segment is there and all aspects of the supply chain are widely expected to be formed. Hemp conference attendees said it is just a matter of time before the supply chain is in place, but for now it appears to be a “chicken and egg” standoff.

Word of the week: Decorticate

This is where the hemp fibre bottleneck begins. There are many different ways to decorticate hemp stalks, which involve removing the hurd (tough woody interior) from the stalk’s fibrous exterior. This softened fibre is then used to make hempcrete, textiles and other products.

“[Decortication] has been a missing link since 1998,” said Aaron Barr, chief executive of Canadian Rockies Hemp Corp., which recently started decorticating hemp in Alberta.

Most farmers till or burn their hemp stalk because there are not many decorticating companies operating, meaning producers miss out on this additional revenue stream. But the supply chain bottle neck in Canada does not stop here. While the hemp fibre industry is mature in Europe and Asia, it is in its infancy in North America, resulting in very little demand by North American manufacturers. As a result, Mr. Barr expects sales for his company’s first year will be largely exported.

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Already, some farmers have started harvesting hemp before it seeds in order to sell premium-quality fibre. Though hemp is touted for its multiple uses, and consequently various revenue streams, from the same crop, there are increasing signs that producers are looking to optimize the quality of one byproduct of the plant while sacrificing other aspects, in order to fetch premium prices for a single commodity.

Single-use plastic bans could be a boon for Canada’s budding hemp fibre industry

“Due to legislation, the single-use industry is in a panic. This is such an imminent threat to their business they’re willing to pay a premium,” said Jason Finnis, chief technical officer for Bast Fibre Technologies Inc., a hemp and flax fibre supplier based in Victoria.

Mr. Finnis was referring to legislation by several countries to ban single-use plastics, and manufacturers are looking for alternatives.

Hemp fibre can be used to replace many items that rely on plastic sources, such as baby wipes, he said.

Bast Fibre sources most of its supplies from Europe.

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“We want to supplement our supplies with Canadian supplies,” Mr. Finnish said, adding that decortication facilities need to first be in place here.

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