Asia is well positioned to embrace hemp in an innovative and unique way, with stakeholders only beginning to capitalize on the rich genetic diversity of the hemp plant across the continent.
That was the key finding from the first-ever Asian Hemp Summit held earlier this month in Kathmandu, Nepal as more than 100 stakeholders from 25 countries across the globe convened to survey opportunities in Asia’s potential powerhouse hemp nations.
And innovation is happening in both big and small enterprises – among new-era stakeholders ranging from giant industrial consortia in China to nascent startups in India and beyond.
Many valuable traits, such as improved yields, improved fiber quality, improved seed oil/protein content, disease resistance and attractive cannabinoid profiles are already being discovered within Asian hemp populations.
These varieties are being grown because they are high-quality, high-yielding crops with a long history of cultivation, despite their more “colorful” cannabinoid profile.
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Though the modern hemp value chain necessitates creating improved varieties, Asia’s historic varieties can easily be used to kick-start hemp industries across the continent, with native landraces offering the enticing potential for producing varieties well-adapted to local conditions and domestic production.
Collecting these varieties and establishing well-managed gene banks will be critical to conserving cannabis biodiversity and valuable traits as Asian industrial hemp revives its history and culture around the plant going forward.
Other findings from the summit:
Despite its severe drug laws, Chinese authorities are turning a blind eye to some production areas so that the People’s Republic can rapidly become the world leader in hemp.
Through international partnerships and government programs, the Chinese are creating new hemp varieties with modern breeding and their extensive genetic resources, creating high-yield varieties that perform under a diverse array of conditions.
At the same time, Chinese hemp concerns are intensively researching cultivation, harvesting methods and equipment, and applications ranging from nano-technology to building materials.
But China is also somewhat of a mystery, delegates to the Summit agreed. The Chinese hemp industry is notoriously secretive and delegates concurred that for China to better integrate itself into the industry globally, more transparency is called for.
Also, some concerns were raised by attendees over the use of genetically modified hemp seeds in China as well as the lack of intellectual property protection in the country.
Despite those drawbacks, delegates agreed that the exceptional knowledge and research within China could be beneficial for the wider hemp industry if meaningful collaborations can be arranged.
While it’s only possible to know a snippet of what research and development is being conducted in the country, glimpses reveal that these efforts are well funded, forward-thinking and progressing rapidly – with many Summit attendees expressing surprise at the scope and pace of progress.
Indian stakeholders are determined to recover their country’s rich hemp history, and capitalize on the plant’s potential for economic development. There is a lot of interest among entrepreneurs, and the urge among these startups to work hemp into broader initiatives that help people is very strong in India.
But there was broad consensus among Indian delegates to the Summit that their country needs to operate differently than other parts of the world. The abundance of raw materials offers real potential to develop rural economies in India, however the current difficulty in accessing raw materials was highlighted by a number of speakers and attendees.
In the process of legalization, India is at a place right now where the U.S. and Europe were couple of years ago – giving the country an opportunity to learn from their experiences setting frameworks for the industry. There’s also a vast gap in knowledge of the processes involved in bringing products to market.
Investors in Indian hemp can see returns from ventures in cultivation, research and other fundamental areas initially.
There are Indian entities looking into every application of industrial hemp including health and medical products such as CBD. But there are still a lot of loose ends, and there is still not much of a support system in place for Indian hemp enterprises.
Despite its modest potential for production, there is growing enthusiasm for hemp, an ancient crop in Japan. Stakeholders see massive potential in the consumer market, projecting a need for significant imports as awareness of hemp products grows – especially food and medical hemp. Current day enthusiasts are working hard to pass along hemp traditions and to bring young entrepreneurs into the fold.
Hemp cultivation in Kazakhstan continues to expand, and last year the Agriculture Ministry said around six square kilometers of hemp were cultivated in the southern Almaty region. The hopes are to increase that to 40 square kilometers this year. Currently, harvested seeds are exported to the Netherlands while fiber is exported to Russia and China, although Kazakhstan officials hope to open new markets.
The Mongolian government is developing a strategic plan for agriculture to create an economic growth model – and hemp fits in perfectly. The new policies, aimed at creating scalable employment and diversifying the country’s economy by focusing on sustainability, innovation and new technologies, are driving public finance programs – and giving the agricultural sector momentum. With engineering and agricultural knowhow in a rapid development phase in Mongolia, early entrants can tap into a rich pool of human resources coming out of the country’s historically strong educational system.
In Nepal they are building houses from shivs produced from their own local cannabis “wild crop,” using the technical fibers in textiles, and seeds to produce hemp oils and extracts in cosmetics.
In Pakistan, they successfully produce quality hemp seed oil from high-yielding but under-domesticated varieties, with an appreciable amount of oil – up to 31.5% – from wild hemp growing in the mountainous regions, and filled with protein comparable to the best of “industrial” (read: low THC) hemp. It’s of course difficult to quantify their yield/hectare, as very rarely have these varieties been grown in strict agricultural trials.
Imports to the Asian nation are rising rapidly as South Korean consumers have swiftly taken to hemp foods as a replacement for fish oil, and spurred by consumer uptake of hemp foods driven primarily by their entry onto tele-marketing programs. Along with foods, hemp has been a source of fabric for Korea since ancient times.
With the Thai government now allowing the cultivation of hemp for research purposes, entrepreneurs are incorporating the multipurpose plant in their products and exporting them around the world. While hemp fields are still heavily regulated and for government purposes, that’s expected to change, first to meet local demand for hemp fabrics.
There is a great need for the hemp industry to collaborate more by sharing ideas and knowhow around the world. Matchmaking among parties with common interests – from farming to technology to marketing and communications — can raise the water for the entire industry. And the industry has a particular responsibility to foster development of hemp as an economic driver in challenged nations.
Delegates expressed concern that the current boom in CBD has brought a growing presence of questionable operators peddling inferior products. This, in part, calls for further development of third-party product analysis to insure product safety for the consumer along with reasonable regulatory oversight. These unscrupulous operators also should be identified publicly when possible, and associations and other organizations should be active in helping to sort out the dishonest players from the legitimate ones.
The Summit also found that there continues to be confusion over “marijuana” and hemp around the globe and called for a greater industry effort to overcome the historical injustice implied.
Hemp’s profile is rising fast, driven primarily by media in the USA where the plant’s potential is being touted by local farm community newspapers and websites as well as major TV business networks and other national media outlets. This popularization can spread to other nations around the globe but local-language information sources are needed.
Media assets of hemp industry stakeholders are generally weak, and this is particularly true among small and medium enterprises who need to understand we are living in a “media-first” world. Enterprises that are to succeed in the industry will take advantage of this situation and develop rich content for greater engagement in the marketplace.
Delegates to the Summit expressed frustration over the banning of advertising for hemp products on major social media platforms. Many entrepreneurs feel this is limiting their reach and the opportunities to grow their businesses across the sectors in which hemp can compete.