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What’s next for hemp?

Dustin Sawyer for Progressive Forage Published on 30 October 2020

It’s been a long time since the USDA added a new plant to the list of official agricultural crops. That’s exactly what happened with the 2018 Farm Bill, when hemp became officially separated from its less (or more) desirable cousin, marijuana.

The result was an explosion of hemp acreage in the U.S. for the 2019 crop year. Tales of $100,00-per-acre profits fueled interest from the small backyard gardener to major seed companies. Though the initial boom of plowing and sowing seems to have settled down for now, the 2020 crop year still saw a significant hemp acreage with near 200,000 acres planted in the U.S. There is no question hemp is not a flash in the pan. After its nearly 45-year absence from the agricultural landscape, it is back to stay.

Hemp is not, however, like any other plant the agricultural community knows. It produces a chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), that is still a Schedule 1 narcotic. How is one to deal with this plant as it becomes more ubiquitous in our industry? It helps a lot to understand the plant and its surrounding regulations at the 10,000-foot view. Here are some key points.

Hemp is not marijuana, except when it is

Both hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa; they’re just selectively bred to serve different needs. This is the same as how Holstein, Brown Swiss, and Black Angus are all the same species, Bos taurus, but each is bred for a different purpose. Traditionally, Cannabis sativa has been bred to serve two purposes: to provide fiber or grain and to produce cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are organic compounds the plant produces and secretes as a sticky, oily substance on the surfaces of leaves and flowers. The most famous cannabinoid, THC, is the cannabinoid that causes psychoactive effects, and is still a Schedule 1 narcotic, though it is only one of 113 cannabinoids that have been identified to date.

The plant is inherently very tall and fibrous, so centuries of selective breeding has deselected cannabinoid production in favor of fiber and grain production. The resulting cultivars of fiber and grain hemp are quite reliable in their inability to produce THC or other cannabinoids. People who wanted to exploit cannabinoid production were equally successful over the same centuries, and a clear delineation was created between hemp and marijuana. The delineation was codified in the U.S. under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, where marijuana was legally defined as Cannabis sativa that contains more than 0.3% THC. This definition worked perfectly, up until now.

As stated earlier, there are 113 cannabinoids discovered so far. Only one of them is known to cause psychoactive effects, but the human body has reactions to most, if not all of them. This led to a new kind of hemp that is being cultivated for cannabinoids but not THC. Where selective breeding before acted like a hatchet and knocked out all cannabinoid production, breeders are now trying to use the scalpel to knock out the production of one specific cannabinoid. This is a very new field of hemp production, and the genetic stock is being brought from the illicit side of the family (because the fiber side of the family can no longer produce cannabinoids), so there is a very real possibility the hemp being grown for cannabinoid production can exceed the 0.3% THC threshold and become marijuana.

Hemp falls under several jurisdictions

This is where hemp gets weird. Because hemp is an agricultural crop, regulation of its production falls under the jurisdiction of the USDA. The fact that the plant can produce a Schedule 1 narcotic means that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has a hand in testing, possession and transport. As of autumn 2020, the two agencies are trying to co-develop regulations that will satisfy both of their needs without becoming a major hindrance to the industry. Because it’s the government, progress is slow.

After harvest is when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets involved. By now most people have heard of CBD. The term “CBD” is an abbreviation for cannabidiol, and cannabidiol is one of the cannabinoids Cannabis sativa produces. It is, in fact, the primary cannabinoid of interest in most modern hemp production. The human body reacts to CBD in a number of ways that are still being studied, but CBD products are marketed to relieve stress, alleviate pain and help with any number of ailments. One ailment that CBD has been legitimately (as in through FDA trials) proven to treat is seizures. In fact, CBD is a patented drug, marketed under the trade name Epidiolex, that is approved for treatment of multiple syndromes that cause seizures in people.

The jury is out on feeding hemp to livestock

This powerful plant, Cannabis sativa, really is amazing when we view it through the lens of the law. It produces food, fiber, a patented drug and an illicit drug. That means if an animal is being fed hemp or hemp-derived material, that animal is being medicated. In partnership with the FDA, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates what can and cannot be fed to animals. AAFCO’s official guidance states, “As of April 2019, hemp and hemp products may not be used in animal feed or pet food in the United States. The 2018 Farm Bill did not grant the right to use hemp and hemp products in food for humans or animals.” That being said, several researchers are working out exactly how to feed hemp once legal hurdles have been cleared.

Hemp cultivated for cannabinoids needs to go through an extraction process to separate cannabinoids from the plant material. This extraction process results in two products: cannabinoids and spent biomass. The spent biomass, now stripped of its valuable resource, has potential to be used as an additive in livestock rations, not unlike how distillers grains are currently used. Using spent biomass this way brings up one final note of caution. Most, but not all, extraction facilities use organic solvents like ethanol or butane to liquify the cannabinoids as part of the extraction process. These solvents can persist in the spent biomass and can have health implications for livestock. When considering whether to feed spent biomass, it’s important to know how the cannabinoids were extracted. If organic solvents were used, proceed with caution.

Hemp is not new to humans. We’ve been cultivating it for food and recreation for centuries. Federal regulation of Cannabis sativa over the past 50-plus years has prevented researchers from looking into the potential this plant may hold for humans and animals alike. Indeed, it’s state-level decriminalization of marijuana that led to hemp being written into the 2018 Farm Bill.

The mother of a child with epilepsy in Colorado, a legal state, sought help to alleviate her daughter’s violent seizures. Cursory research led her to discover that marijuana had been used to treat seizures in the past, and the mother had the ability to gain hands-on experience. Thus, in 2011, the entire CBD industry was born. Viewed within the time frame that humans and Cannabis sativa have had a close relationship, hemp is not the newcomer. The newcomer is the laws that try to regulate it. There is hope, though. Our lawmakers are listening and interested in removing impediments to this plant’s potential. When the silliness of all this regulation gets to be too much, it’s important to know that hemp has only been back in our fields for a few years. In a few short years, the silliness will have abated and hemp will likely be a staple in livestock rations.  end mark

Dustin Sawyer
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