Deregulating and Destigmatizing Hemp Fiber and Grain
Many hurdles stand in industrial hemp’s path to becoming a common rotational crop in the United States. Expensive testing, licensing, equipment, and seed costs are a few factors weighing down a producer’s budget. Some of these can be addressed now in the upcoming Farm Bill, such as testing and compliance costs. Many of these things will take time, such as developing reliably compliant and cost-effective genetics but have to be addressed now to expedite the process and ensure successful programs. If the government truly wants to support climate-smart commodities, it must reduce the financial and regulatory burdens they impose on hemp fiber and grain. There are currently two efforts being introduced to address these issues; a fiber and grain exemption and a certified seed program. Both have their merits and would be significant improvements from the current situation.
The fiber and grain exemption (HempExemption.com) would be the widest overhaul of the current regulatory system for fiber and grain. The proposal would lift the current USDA testing requirements for valid fiber and grain varieties. Binding harvest designations would be declared upon registration, followed by geolocating and visual inspection of production. Conditional sampling, testing, and harvest inspection may occur should there be suspicion of inconsistent production. Cannabinoid hemp regulation will persist under the current 2018 Farm Bill, and intentional violations from fiber and grain producers will face crop destruction, program suspension, and appropriate criminal charges.
Industrial hemp fiber and grain possess minimal THC and would be uneconomic to be used for cannabinoid applications. The exception is a dual or tri-crop variety, which would still be regulated as floral hemp. Therefore, the current compliance procedure for fiber and grain operations is unnecessary and is well addressed by the exemption. While PanXchange supports the overarching concepts of the exemption, the federal government will likely maintain their stance on stringent THC compliance no matter the application. The situation with illicit operations in Oregon will be highlighted in defense of existing procedures. They will likely modify the current proposal if they are open to it at all. In the end, a compromise may still be an improvement, and we will have to wait for feedback from regulators to learn more.
The hemp industry is in dire need of effective and economic genetics that are not reliant on THC testing. This is the primary goal of a proposed certified seed program. Certified seed programs are impactful long-term strategies as genetics take time and effort to perfect, and the US system for certified seed has proven effective at ensuring uniformity and quality. Hemp genetics firms are already collaborating with land grant universities and other organizations to certify seed under the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agency’s (AOSCA) standards. The initiative is to expand the production of certified low-THC genetics and transfer the burden of compliance from the farmer to the seed producers. Certified low-THC varieties have already been developed, and expediting that effort will provide many long-term benefits and accelerate the development of US’s industrial hemp industry.
However, they are not without drawbacks, as they can impose short-term costs without support and careful execution. For example, fiber variety seed is costly to produce due to its nature of dense populations of tall stalks, longer time to seed, and lower yield. Without support from regulators and extension, the short-term costs may be too much for genetics companies and growers to bear. It is important to remember that the loss of a genetics firm results in a significant loss of data and progress. Also, certified seeds are currently geographically limited as hemp is photosensitive and there are only so many certified varieties available. Ironically, this is the very need for certified seed programs. Exceptions for circumstances of limited certified seed availability must be granted for fair access to grow hemp fiber and grain. Over time, these exceptions must be reevaluated as regions gain access to accredited varieties tailored for their growing region. In all, there is a significant risk for genetics companies and the growers that rely on them in the future, and we must manage this risk to ensure the long-term prosperity of our climate-smart industry.
Both proposals would be massive steps forward for industrial hemp fiber and grain, and we await how our industry and regulators respond. A fiber and grain exemption may have the most widespread and immediate impact. However, genetics is not a factor we want to underestimate its importance. Should genetics firms be left to fend for themselves, the cost of slower variety development will eventually be the limiting factor to prosperity and market growth. However, the short-term costs must be subsidized, and growers must still be able to operate in areas with limited certified varieties. These proposals are also correlated in that the prevalence of certified seeds bolsters the government’s faith in THC compliance without farmer testing. Ideally, we prefer both proposals to be adopted and think they will benefit each other, but we may have to accept any improvements from the current system