According to the non-profit trade group Hemp Industries Association sales of hemp food in 2015 reached $89.5 million with sales of hemp CBD close behind at $65 million and supplements at $47.1 million. And based on new hemp product launches since then, as well as growth by category players such as Evo Hemp, which says it is growing more than 300% year over year, the ingredient is continuing down a path for greatness.
But to really take off and recognize its full potential, industrial hemp needs to overcome significant barriers in the US, including consumer confusion about the ingredient’s safety, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s stubborn refusal to remove the crop from the list of controlled substances and limited production of the ingredient in the US.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Chad Rosen, the founder of Victory Hemp Foods, who recently presented at FoodBytes! New York City pitch slam. He explains what hemp is all about, as well as how his company is helping to create a new economy in Kentucky and provide nutritious food for Americans, all while also creating an environmentally sustainable new commodity crop.
He explained that Victory Hemp Foods launched in 2014 in direct response to the 2014 Farm Bill, which was ground breaking in that it allows hemp to be grown in 28 states as long as it is industrial hemp and cultivated for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research.
“The 2014 Farm Bill was largely written by politicians from Kentucky,” because leaders in the state were looking for ways to introduce more profitable crops given that “we have been really suffering with the price of corn dropping below $4 a bushel, tobacco is going the way of the dodo since the tobacco buy-out … and there just aren’t many great solutions on the horizon for large scale commodity crops that farms can actually search for price parity on.”
But hemp could be an answer “because of its diverse revenue stream. We just do grain [at Victory Hemp Foods] but there is also fiber, high revenue that can be derived from the crop in nutraceutical and medicinals” and others, he said.
The struggle to remove industrial hemp from the DEA list of scheduled drugs
While there may be a lot of political support in Kentucky for industrial hemp, there is a lot of political controversy about it elsewhere – including with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which as Rosen explains through a wrench in the 2014 Farm Bill works when it declared the legislation did not apply to the flowers of the crop – and as such, it would not remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances.
“There are some hang-ups on what part of the plant are being considered industrial hemp. The way that they defined it in the 2014 Farm Bill was very intentional. They said any plant in the cannabis santiva family that is less than 0.3% THC, which is to say no THC, is industrial hemp,” Rosen said. But, he added, “when agencies like the DEA said well the Farm Bill wasn’t intended to pertain to the flowers, it was just to pertain to the seeds and the stalks, that caused a lot of confusion.”
In an effort to clear up confusion and bring the DEA on board, Congress currently is considering the Industry Hemp Farming Act, which seeks to remove from the Controlled Substances Act industrial hemp as defined as anything with less than 0.3% THC – which is what gives people a high from marijuana.
Even though similar legislation has been introduced and failed in the past, Rosen is confident that this time supporters of the bill will see victory.
Consumer confusion cuts two ways
Descheduling industrial hemp would go a long way toward clearing up confusion about the ingredient, but according to Rosen, a lot of education still needs to be done at the consumer level to assure shoppers that eating a granola bar with hemp hearts will not cause them to fail their next drug test.
“I would say 50% of our sales come from educating a consumer. We rely on that a-ha moment when people get over the snickering joke of ‘Am I going to fail a drug test if I sample your product,’” Rosen said. “The collective consciousness of the population is quickly coming around. You educate one person and that one person now goes and educates five or 10 people,” which will eventually help hemp go mainstream.
At the same time, Rosen says a lot of consumers initially are attracted to hemp because they see it as forbidden fruit. But, he adds, once they pick it up and see its nutritional value they realize it is good for them and that drives repeat purchases.
A commodity crop on the horizon
With so many major trends and benefits pushing hemp forward, along with the economic potential it offers rural communities and farms, Rosen predicts it is only a matter of time before hemp becomes a commodity crop that will attract large corporations.
“Once it falls off the Controlled Substance Act, I think that is when we will see the major corporations who are involved in commodity agriculture and industrial agriculture and major food companies begin to include it in their products and begin to take a serious look at … this amazing plant,” Rosen said.
And while many people might shy away from such competition, Rosen says he is embracing it because he believes the benefits of hemp for the health of people, the economy and the environment are worth it.