As the third iteration of the IHEMP Summit 2023 gets underway in Christchurch, a burgeoning industry steps into the spotlight - industrial hemp.
Richard Barge, Chair of the NZ Hemp Industries Association and a keynote speaker at the Summit told REX host Dominic George, that while industrial hemp is often mistaken for its high-THC cousin, marijuana, the two are quite different.
"We are not marijuana, we are not high THC medicinal cannabis, we are industrial hemp. So it's just another arable industry," he said.
Barge’s clear distinction aims to shed the lingering stigma around the plant, making way for a robust discussion on its potential benefits for New Zealand's primary industries.
New Zealand, with its rich agricultural history, could be on the cusp of embracing a new primary industry. Hemp, as Barge explained, not only has the potential to rejuvenate soil and lift heavy metals but also opens avenues for sustainable product manufacturing.
"You start looking at the products that you can make in a sustainable way.
"It really is a great opportunity and that diversity of end-users makes it very attractive to a number of sectors."
Major car manufacturers like Mercedes and BMW are already substituting plastic for hemp-based products. This is driven by a shift towards full life-cycle consideration in product design, where hemp's recyclability comes into play.
"They like the idea of using hemp fibre in their internal panels because it's a sound insulation, it's lightweight, it does the job they want but it's recyclable at the end of life."
The rich historical tapestry of hemp also underscores its potential. From its instrumental role during World War II, when patriotic farmers grew hemp to aid in the production of essential goods, to its importance in societal evolution, the plant's versatility is indisputable Barge explained.
"The history of hemp is really quite intertwined with society and the development, especially as far as sails and that sort of era."
However, the road to hemp industry maturity is fraught with regulatory challenges. The lingering misconception around the plant’s drug content poses a hurdle to its acceptance and understanding.
"People understand the virtues of hemp but then will say, oh, I'm not gonna eat the hemp seed, I'm thinking that they're gonna fail a drug test at work or something like that."
In response, the IHEMP Summit aims to break down these barriers and raise awareness around industrial hemp. Barge believes that the Summit will not only solidify the products that hemp can produce but also help scale the industry to break into other sectors in the New Zealand economy.
"We want to take off those rose-tinted glasses and get away a little bit from the hype and drill into the detail and come up with some really workable business plans that can take us into that taking action phase."
Listen to the full chat between the Chair of NZ Hemp Industries Association Richard Barge and Dominic George above.