Hana Gabrielova is CEO, Hempoint Ltd., a hemp consultancy and one of Europe’s pioneering and most innovative hemp food companies. Hana is a widely recognized expert on everything from hemp farming and product development to Patient Focused Certification (PFC) for medical cannabis, through her affiliation with the Prague-based International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI).
HempToday: You’ve been around hemp for a long time. What’s your analysis of the current situation with hemp food? The European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) says the growth continues. Are you feeling it at Hempoint?
Hana Gabrielova: Yes, the European hemp food market is growing nicely and this will not stop. But we’re still importing around half the seed needed in Europe from China and Canada, which is not environmentally sustainable over long term. So there is obvious demand for locally produced seed across the continent.
And along with growing our hemp fields in Europe, we desperately need to build the infrastructure to be able to harvest and process growing amounts of the crop. A huge effort and a lot of investment is needed, really, to expand hectarage and then process all that material and get it to market.
HT: What does the legal environment look like for the hemp industry around Europe? What are the key advancements that need to be made in this respect?
HG: In many countries around the globe sales of hemp foods is still not legal or is in a grey area. This is also relevant not only to hemp food but also the food supplements made from hemp extracts or CBD. That’s due to the fact that the market growth was so fast and so big that governments were not flexible enough to react in a positive way. So we’re still missing the necessary regulations which will fully, and legally, open those markets.
Standards and quality control in production are key to getting this legislation in place. Without a focus on that we’re not able to produce the products legally in all EU countries because there are no EU-wide guidelines set for THC levels in food products. This is a big problem for all hemp industry players. Some countries are more progressive than others at the national level so the products are more or less accepted. But with zero tolerance products for THC in food in many places — because of antiquated laws and attitudes toward hemp, and a lack of EU guidance — it’s not always easy to put hemp products on the market.
Farmers and others in the hemp industry need to better organize themselves to pressure the EC.
In Europe we are working on strengthening dialog with the European Commission on all issues affecting the industrial hemp industry, but this is a process which can take years. Farmers and others in the hemp industry need to better organize themselves to pressure the EC to do something to advance hemp. Lawmakers still need to be educated about hemp so they can create responsible, progressive laws to support the industry’s growth. Hemp is still an unknown crop for many experts, even in the agriculture industry.
HT: How is the Euro CBD raw materials market looking now? Is it still pretty volatile?
HG: We haven’t yet seen a full bounce back from the hit to demand for green matter caused by the problems in the CBD market the United States suffered and questions raised in the UK last year. That had a really negative influence on the European market and its financial stability. Some farmers didn’t sow hemp in 2016 because they had stocks of hemp flowers piled up from the 2015 harvest. Those who did plant put in less hemp last year because of the instability on the market. We’ll see what happens over the next few months after we see results of the European harvests.
Unfortunately, that blocked the needed investment in infrastructure and temporarily stopped the growth of Europe’s hemp fields, which before that were nicely expanding. The whole matter of imports of hemp extract to the USA from Europe is still open. But here it looks like we’re back on track.
HT: As you mentioned, there’s also an imbalance in the situation regarding hemp seed in Europe, where imports from as far away as China and Canada are required to cover at least 50% of demand. Doesn’t that represent a real market opportunity for certified seed growers?
HG: Of course it’s a great place to start. And Europe should grow hemp for its needs first. But again, we need infrastructure to be able to do it. Farmers need to be educated. Governments need to be educated. There is big demand for organic hemp seeds but we’re missing breeders who can offer hemp seed varieties for organic growing, for example.
HT: Your work with the International Cannabis and Cannabinoid Institute (ICCI) is centered on Patient Focused Certification (PFC). What does that mean? What are the overall goals of ICCI’s PFC initiative?
HG: The concept of PFC started with Americans for Safe Access, an NGO working to provide standards and guidelines for certification programs for cannabis producers which supply those suffering from different illnesses in the USA. PFC audits growers and manufacturing and distribution operations to ensure that their processes deliver safe cannabis products. The goal is to make sure that the whole chain of production is closely controlled in order to ensure the products are safe for human consumption.
HT: What other issues is ICCI addressing? What are the organization’s other key initiatives and goals?
HG: ICCI also works on meta analysis regarding clinical studies of cannabis — to continue the process of discovery among all the compounds of cannabis and the many positive benefits the plant offers. The Institute has a strong working background in data analysis that can yield very important conclusions. ICCI is also connected to many research institutions and universities which participate in new clinical trials and research that can speed up the process of getting cannabis into the medicinal mainstream.
HT: How do you see hemp fitting in as an engine for economic development?
HG: This is the most powerful argument for developing the hemp industry, but we need to grow big amounts of hemp to fully realize its potential to positively impact the economy — and human health. Why are we still importing other materials that could be replaced by hemp? Hemp can give us everything from paper — which will reduce deforestation — to healthy buildings with lower energy consumption. It’s a proven material for producing hemp plastics which are fully biodegradable instead of the petroleum-based plastics which fill our oceans and create a huge environmental problem. Eating hemp foods can prolong our lives and save our health.
We have to overcome the mentality that comes from 55 years of prohibition.
More importantly, hemp is a perfect engine for local economic development. It can help revive the small, agrarian economic model if we set up systems in which the hemp is grown, processed and goes to market as close to the fields as possible. Look at what our friends at SHIV in Nepal are doing – using naturally occurring “wildcrop” hemp to make all kinds of great products, and giving shelter to people who are desperately in need. That’s what hemp can do. It could create a vast number of jobs.
But we have to overcome the mentality that comes from 55 years of prohibition. That limits the economic development hemp promises — and it still leaves hemp with a cloud over it because of the drug war that made people think of hemp and marijuana as the same thing. We also have to create strong lobby groups which will explain to policymakers the importance of creating hemp regulations that will help establish stable markets.
HT: What’s your analysis of the current market for certified organic hemp products? Is there a growing demand for organic hemp products in Europe?
HG: I would like to see all hemp food production made organic. The reason is simple. Hemp is often planted for phyto-remediation — as a method of cleaning up polluted land. That means as it grows it’s absorbing heavy metals, pesticides, etc. from the earth. So if we want to eat healthy hemp food, it should not be grown in a conventional way because it’s impossible to ensure the highest quality. This is just part of the reason the demand for organic seeds is growing much faster than the demand for conventional seeds. Also, of course, more and more people are becoming aware of a sustainable, more healthy, organic lifestyle. Organic hemp foods are an important part of this vision.
HT: What will Hempoint look like five years from now?
HG: We’ll be aggressively expanding our research, and broadening our footprint in hemp education. We have a great model in professional education in which people not only gain knowledge but also strengthen business bonds and expand their networks – often leading to partnerships and other deals among some really exciting companies.
We started as a producer of food. That’s still at the heart of Hempoint.
We also begin to talk with universities about creating education programs about hemp cultivation, processing and product development for students and young entrepreneurs. We want to get young, creative people to study the potential of the plant, to research all forms of cannabis, and to turn their knowledge into practice – with all the implications that carries for the future of the business.
Just this past 12 months, we’ve started to study the hemp construction and textiles markets, with initiatives under way in both of those sub-sectors.
Finally, we started as a producer of food. That’s still at the heart of Hempoint. That means we’re constantly in product development mode. And we’re also always looking to create new niches and product categories in food.
HT: What would be your advice to a young entrepreneur who is interested in starting a hemp business?
HG: Study it first, and study it deeply. Then get the experience. Go to work at a hemp farm even if you have to do it as a volunteer. Get close to hemp products by eating hemp food, and wearing clothing made of hemp materials; attend some of the great hemp building seminars that are out there. Share your experience with others and spread the word. Then think about what you like to do, what’s your background and how you could build a hemp business based on your skills, strengths and interests.