Is Weed the New Kale?
Since the federal government approved the manufacture of hemp seed for human consumption last November, Australian interest is high. But, as a fledgling market, our manufacturers are struggling to compete with the large, established markets of other countries. So, how to even the playing field? The solution, according to one young Tasmanian hemp seed farmer and aspiring health entrepreneur, is to utilise the ancient, medicinal properties of the hemp plant.
While he looks like a regular 23 year-old dude—“I’m the guy wearing a beanie,” he texts me before our interview—Nathan McNiece doesn’t act like one. Instead of boozing on weekends, the dynamic and voluble co-founder of fair foods follows a plant-based diet, and fasts every Saturday night until Monday morning.
Raised in a “particularly health-conscious” and “entrepreneurial” home, McNiece was a 19 year-old law student when co-founder, Tim Crow, said, “Have you heard about hemp seeds?” Hemp seed, they discovered, was already a decent sized industry “everywhere but Australia.” France and China are currently the biggest manufacturers of hemp seed, with decent hemp industries in Canada, the US and Europe.
That was the end of university for McNiece. “I’ve heard that the only way to make it as an entrepreneur is to drop out of college,” he quips. Bankrolled by their supportive families, the pair started growing hemp and when the laws changed (until then they had to sell hemp seed with a label saying ‘not for human consumption’), they were able to hit the ground running. They now have over 120 acres in Tasmania under cultivation.
So, what is hemp? Firstly, hemp refers to the stalk and the seeds, but when we are talking about hemp for consumption, we are referring to hemp seed. Hemp seed—according to this writer—looks like multicoloured quinoa, smells like your cool uncle’s leather jacket (weed, it smells like weed) and tastes exactly like sunflower seeds.
I know this because McNiece encourages me to tip them onto my potato and leek soup. “More,” he encourages. “Be a little more liberal.”
Hemp is one of the many cannabis plants from the Cannabaceae family. “The plant looks essentially the same as the marijuana plant,” says McNiece. But, ‘It’s important to note,’ reads Australian food safety information, ‘that hemp seeds and marijuana are very different. Hemp and hemp seeds contain next to no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the chemical responsible for marijuana's psychological effects.’
So hemp seed can’t get you high (tell that to the people who tried robbing fair’s crops). What it can get you, according to McNiece—and a lot of other advocates—is healthy.
“It’s a very unique plant,” says McNiece. Hemp seed contains 33% protein, the highest protein percentage for a plant-based food and more protein than beef or chicken breast, but also more digestible. It has lots of amino acids, is extremely high in calcium, magnesium, zinc iron, and possesses vitamin D3, which is usually only absorbed from the sun. While we both bristle at the word “superfood”, if there were such a thing as a superfood, McNiece says—hemp would be it.
Agriculturally, it “isn’t as resource intensive” as other crops, and it’s ready for harvest in just 100 days. This is handy for farmers as they “can slot it into their farming rotation,” says McNiece. Cannabis also has “a long unique tap root structure that digs really far into the water table” meaning it needs less irrigation than other crops. Naturally occurring cannabinoids also act as a natural pest-repellent, so there is less need for chemical pest control making it a good crop to be grown sustainably. “Currently only around 1% of agriculture in Australia is organic, so we need to try and scale up organic agriculture,”says McNiece. While Fair’s growing methods are chemical-free—they fertilise with “cow shit, chook shit”—it takes approximately three years to achieve organic certification.
“Be a little more liberal.”
So, if hemp is so great, why aren’t Australian farmers ripping out energy and resource hungry crops like cotton and canola, and planting hemp? “The economics aren’t that attractive for farmers to grow hemp,” admits McNiece. The sheer scale of others countries hemp seed markets mean that its really hard for Australians to compete. According to AgriFutures Australia, “The hemp industry in Australia requires an increase in the scale of production, better understanding of the agronomy, more efficient mechanisation for harvesting and processing, and long-term markets to be established before the hemp starts to become a really valuable crop in Australia.”
McNiece has a more creative solution to add—he wants to extract the medicine from the leaves and the flowers of the plant. “This is an incredibly powerful plant with highly medicinal compounds and a very modest side effect profile.” Currently, these compounds in the plants, “are just going to waste” and being mulched or left in the fields as, legally, they can only be used for “food or fibre”.
So, instead of growing medical marijuana and hemp seed, we could effectively get the medical compounds we are now getting from medical marijuana in the leftover hemp plant? Correct. “This will happen,” says McNiece. “It just depends on how long it takes the Australian government to come to their senses.” Not surprisingly, McNiece is watching the recent legalisation of medical marijuana with interest. “It’s a huge paradigm shift.”
McNiece envisions a future where we eat hemp, we use it as medicine and we smoke it instead of more toxic tobacco. “I love the future,” he says. “It occupies the majority of my day.” But, for fair, hemp seed is only the beginning. Eventually, McNiece wants Fair to be the Apple of the health food industry. “We want to build a culturally relevant food brand,” says McNiece, influencing society until “enlightened eating is the cultural norm.”