Better tracking of global trade in hemp can help developing nations, UN study says

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Inconsistencies in trade data are hampering global business in hemp products, holding back the economic and environmental benefits for developing nations, according to a new global study.

A more systematic approach to measuring world trade in hemp products would bridge the gap between international and national classifications for hemp outputs, UN economist Marco Fugazza wrote in the study, from UNCTAD (United Nations Trade and Development), the UN forum for trade, investment and sustainable development.

“This disparity not only distorts our understanding of global trade dynamics but also hampers the ability of policymakers to formulate targeted strategies for harnessing the economic potential of industrial hemp,” Fugazza said. A global effort to measure trade flows in hemp could especially benefit countries in South America and Asia, where the hemp industry is “existent but incipient,” the report concludes

Misleading numbers

Combined national customs data showed the export value of hemp products at roughly $213 million in the sample year 2022, according to the report, “Measuring global exports of industrial hemp products: Insights from national product classifications.”

However, UN commodity statistics (Comtrade), which use international classifications for hemp products, recorded trade worth only $46 million in 2022. That’s because the Comtrade figures cover only raw and semi-processed hemp fiber and yarn, ignoring finished fiber products as well as food made from hemp grain, for which national export figures recorded trade worth $112 million in 2022.

“The true scale of the global industrial hemp market remains underestimated because the international harmonized system of classification does not include a substantial portion of tradable items,” UNCTAD said in a press release introducing the study.

Sustainable outputs

While national product classifications for hemp are broader, their coverage also has limitations – failing to account for hemp outputs with high sustainability potential, such as hurd for hempcrete, a nature-friendly building material, and hemp biochar, which contributes to sustainable agriculture by improving soil health and absorbing carbon dioxide.

Canada leads in global exports of hemp grain while France, Spain and the Netherlands dominate exports of raw and semi-processed hemp products, and China is a major player in the hemp yarn market, according to the UNCTAD study.

Other findings from the study showed that:

  • Roughly 60 total countries reported hemp exports between 2019-2020.
  • A third of those countries were developing economies.
  • In total, EU countries, Canada and China dominate global hemp exports.
  • Despite national product classifications including more products, they do not represent the full range of hemp outputs that can be traded on the global market.
  • In addition to gaps between global and national product identification, classification codes for hemp products do not align across individual countries.

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