Viewpoint on Organic Hemp: a potential alternative to GMO crops?

As consumers wake up to the national debate of GMO labeling, possible links of high-fructose corn syrup to obesity, and larger dead zones caused by chemical runoff, another movement is building in the sidelines: the effort to find and implement new, even revolutionary agronomy practices that can replace current unsustainable systems, and be scaled to meet growing demand for healthful foods, renewable textiles and biomass.

What are those solutions organic farmers will pursue as alternatives to the most chemical-intensive crops grown throughout North America—GMO soy, corn and cotton? One promising alternative on the horizon is organic industrial hemp.

There’s only one major problem—according to U.S. Federal law, industrial hemp is a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance even though it has no psychoactive effects.

Current policy aligns oilseed and fiber varieties of hemp with other forms of cannabis. Despite this, farmers and organic businesses throughout the U.S. recently began to grow and utilize hemp, thanks to the 2014 Farm Bill which authorized institutions of higher education and state Departments of Agriculture to establish industry hemp research programs in states that have created regulations for hemp farming.

Scott Perez, a hemp farmer in Colorado, says of his 2014 hemp crop, It’s history. I learned quite a bit about the many of the uses of hemp and saw research that showed it could be effectively used for land restoration projects. Once I realized the potential value of the plant, it became part of my farming research to discover a cultivar that will grow well in our part of Colorado, the best way to grow it, and to show that our small farmers can make it part of their rotation for land fertility and added income.”

Farmers looking to convert their acreage to organic production are faced with a number of challenges, many of which stem from the need to rotate their crops in an effort to manage fertility and pests and diseases without the tools available to conventional farmers. Rotating crops means finding new markets to ensure continued farm profitability through all years of the rotation. Hemp, in fact, has the potential to play the role of a profitable rotation crop that builds soil organic matter, does not require large amounts of inputs, and can interrupt pest, weed, and disease cycles on organic farms.  

Indeed, added income for farmers is a strong incentive for growing this versatile plant. The U.S. is the biggest market for hemp products in the world, with the 2014 market estimated at $620 million for food and body care products—over a 20 percent market increase from the previous year.

And the demand for organic is real. As Mike Fata, CEO and Co-founder of Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, explains, Organic acres are still a small fraction of overall agriculture acres. As the consumer demand for organic food grows, so does the competition for what gets planted on organic acres.”

Despite this stiff competition, hemp is increasingly a viable contender for those organic acreage opportunities. Hemp seed and oil are a preferred ingredient in organic food and body care products, providing the market-entry key to replacing GMO soy and corn typically used in similar but conventional products. Considered a ‘super food,’ hemp seed’s high nutritional profile containing amino acids, protein, fiber, omega- and heart-healthy fats make it a sought-after ingredient for organic cereals, non-dairy milks, protein supplements, snack foods and culinary oil.

Nearly all hemp grown for food products is imported into the United States from Canada. But as the hemp market grows, producers are finding it difficult to supply enough. Leading organic food manufacturers are already looking to U.S. farmers to meet the demand for organic hemp.

GMO crops are soaked with Roundup and GMO grains contain ‘unknown gene fragments.’ Organic hemp has been a vital part of human nutrition for thousands of years.  Nutiva looks forward to purchasing organic hemp from American farmers. In fact, I traveled to Lexington, KY, in February to speak to farmers on growing hemp,” said John Roulac, Founder and CEO of Nutiva.

Despite hemp’s attributes as a land and water resource-efficient crop, the hemp textile market in the U.S. remains much as it was 100 years ago; idle, with outdated processing technologies and lost cultivation knowledge due to decades of prohibition. Mike Lewis, war veteran and Kentucky farmer who grew an experimental hemp crop in 2014 for fiber production, says of his crop, The bulk of our focus was on the artisan textile markets. Understanding the retting process and the end uses of the crop helped to shape our understanding of how to best process the crop and achieve maximum value for the family farm.”

Organic hemp’s prospects could be bright—it is regenerative, sustainable, versatile and robust. Grassroots advocacy campaigns like Hemp History Week (which will be June 6-12 this year) have generated a profound impact, mobilizing voters to pressure legislators to support hemp cultivation legalization at both the state and federal levels. As of February, 27 states had lifted barriers to hemp farming.

However, in mid-February another obstacle arose—USDA reversed its course on organic certification of industry hemp operations throughout the country.

Organic certification of industrial hemp production at this time is premature and could be misleading to certified organic operations, given that the legality of the various uses of this product has not yet been determined,” USDA’s National Organic Program instructed all NOP-accredited certifying agents.

In its instruction document, NOP noted that the Farm Bill section authorizing hemp research pilot projects leaves open questions with respect to what those pilot programs should look like, as well as the respective roles of USDA and Federal agencies that have jurisdiction over controlled substances. Specific questions remain about the legal uses of industrial hemp, including its use in food and pharmaceutical products.”

Thus, NOP added, Until USDA guidance regarding industrial hemp production under the Farm Bill is completed, NOP-accredited certifying agents may not certify the domestic production of industrial hemp.”

When contacted by OTA about the status of any operations that already have received certification for organic hemp, an NOP spokesman clarified that the latest instruction means certifying agents are not to certify additional domestic hemp producers as organic. “USDA does not intend to take action with regard to current certified operations at this time. Once USDA issues the interpretation on permitted uses of industrial hemp under the Farm Bill, the NOP may review the certification for consistency with the interpretation,” he added.

With the work of farmers like Perez and Lewis, the path toward organic cultivation of hemp is trail-blazed a little further each spring. Yet until we move beyond the pilot programs currently allowed by the Farm Bill and pass comprehensive legislation that legalizes hemp farming in the U.S. once again, NOP will not advance an organic protocol for the crop. That makes the need for the Industrial Hemp Farming Act all the clearer for organic advocates—legalize hemp, certify it organic, and return one of the most versatile, sustainable and healthy crops to the American landscape once again. //

Lauren Stansbury is Director of Media Relations for the Hemp Industries Association.

Photos: Above: Hemp stalks are formed into shocks during the retting” process that helps separate fiber from the stems. (Photo: Colleen Sauve)
Top of page: Hand harvesting of the Lewis 2014 hemp crop in Kentucky (Photo: Colleen Sauve)