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Australia, the Hemp Colony?

June 4, 2018

If I’m not reading chemistry I’m reading history so imagine my absolute mind-blowing delight when I can combine both as is the case with Hemp and Australian white settlement…

Being British I can say things like ‘back when Britannia ruled the waves’  with some degree of credibility,  we did have a mighty good navy once-upon-a-time and growing up, it was a source of pride that such a little nation shaped like an old woman riding a pig could have mustered the energy and man-power to conquer anything other than a cup of tea and large slice of cake but we did.   Since my youth, I have,  thankfully, grown up and learned about all aspects of colonisation and as such tend to be less gung-ho (enthusiastic) with my praise for my forefathers but that’s another story.  This one is about hemp.

British naval ships HMS Alexander

Back in the day there were no planes, trains and automobiles to get you around, it really was a case of  hopping in your boat and setting sail if you wanted to get anywhere fast (and/or far away) and as I said, that’s what my English ancestors did.  One such chap was Sir Joseph Banks, someone who I’m sure I’d have paid some degree of attention to had I been alive at that time.  He took part in Captain James Cook’s first great voyage that ran from 1768-1771 and included time surveying the east coast of Australia,  relatively close to where I now live.  During that trip Sir Joseph, who was a botanist and fellow of the Royal Society, focused on charting the many new and potentially useful botanical species he encountered. He was renown for focusing on species that could have a commercial benefit in some way, either as food, medicine or for industrial use.  It was he who famously introduced Eucalyptus, Acacia and Banksia (named after him) to Europe but it wasn’t just a one-way-street for Banks,  he could also see the potential for sending something back to Australia and that something was hemp.

By 1778 Banks was the president of the Royal Society and was charged with advising King George III on the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.  He used his influence, ear of the king and (limited) experience of Australia to suggest that this new colonial outpost be used to grow the empires Hemp crop as a way of solving the growing hemp crisis that was engulfing Britain at that time. Experiments were already going on in Canada and India so why not the vast expanse that was Australia?  Hemp was a hugely important crop during this time as it was used to produce the strong and hardy rope needed to hoist a ships sails – without hemp Britania’s wave ruling days would be numbered.  The king granted permission for Bank’s experiment but it was decided that the operation should remain secret save that any other nation got wind of the plan.  It has since been alleged that the whole notion of Australia being used as a convict colony was really just a cover for the hemp experiment – I’m not sure how much truth is in that but a chap called Dr John Jiggens found it interesting enough to write a whole book about!

Hemp book

Eventually things got moving and by 1840 the first commercially viable Hemp crop was sewn in the hunter valley region of New South Wales – Cannibis Sativa.  Apparently the largest farm was some 400 hectares producing enough to fully rig three English Naval ships but the unfettered joy was relatively short lived as sail made way to steam and then, later to fossil fuelled vessels thus reducing the demand for hemp rope. At the same time, developments in the processing of cotton increased the popularity of that fibre and further eroded the market for hemp.  But hemps popularity never completely disappeared and it remained a viable farming crop until 1937 when the law changed.

Hemp that is used for rope and fabric has virtually none of the psychoactive properties of Marajuana although visually the crops are hard to tell apart.  In 1937 the Australian government passed new legislation banning the cultivation of hemp in a move that echoed what was going on in the USA.  The USA was going through its prohibition era and was looking to formalise and better legislate the pharmaceutical industry.  Up to that point it has been estimated that some 30% of pharmaceutical drugs were based on hemp so in an attempt to get that under control, hemp farming was banned as it was just easier and cheaper to police a complete ban rather than carry out testing to see if a crop was industrial grade, low THC hemp or drug-quality crop.

The ban on growing hemp persisted for a long time and it wasn’t until relatively recently, in 2008 that the Hemp Industry act came into play.  This act introduced a licensing scheme to allow farmers in New South Wales (and elsewhere in Australia with slight variations on the licence laws) to grow low THC hemp crops for finer, seed and oil production.   Low THC hemp is classified as containing no more than 1% THC – Marijuana contains between 4-24% for comparison.

This re-opening up the market has allowed farmers to re-plant crops and start participating in the market for green fibre, cloth and plant-based oil crops but it wasn’t until last year that things got even better still!

In 2017 the law changed again and now hemp can be grown for food use. All hemp growers are required to hold a licence to operate and that licence outlines details of how crops are to be audited and tested for their THC levels.  This is to ensure that hemp food products do not cross over into the therapeutic realm.

Attitudes to hemp as a non-pharmacologically active crop have changed significantly over the last ten years as more and more people have become aware of the environmental impact of different crops on the planet.  Hemp is a good candidate for ‘green’ brands and lifestyle products as it is fast growing,  low-maintanence and is a crop that can be fully utilised with next to zero waste which is highly unusual.   The oil yields between 0.6-2.4 tones per hectare (palm oil can yield as much as 4-5mt per hectare) and it has an almost perfectly balanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 for human nutrition at 3:1. As far as skincare goes, this is a medium-to light weight oil with low shine making it an ideal candidate for facial serum oils and leave-on skincare products.  It is also relatively low-cost to produce due to its fast growing nature and lack of need for pesticides and in some regions it is even possible to produce two crops per year.

I was lucky enough to visit the Hemp Expo in Sydney last month and see and try for myself some of the many products that can be made with this amazing crop!  As you can see from the above, the Australian history of hemp is fascinating and multifaceted but I think it will prove to be nothing compared to its future.  I look forward to participating in the future of the hemp industry here in Australia and am even considering planting a couple of hectares of our property with some low THC hemp to experiment with as long as our soil and rain fall conditions are favourable.  Who knows, maybe I can even grow my own hemp based emulsifiers and surfactants in the future, now wouldn’t that be nice!


So, to all my lovely readers out there keep your eyes peeled for more hemp action in the coming years,  the laws are changing, the public is receptive and the future is reliant on us farming cleaner, greener and more versatile crops so thanks Joseph Banks,  you may have done a few things that I can’t stand by and praise but you did good in bringing Hemp to Australia.

Amanda x







One Comment leave one →
  1. March 2, 2020 1:25 am

    Great article. Thanks for sharing Amanda

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