Industry Leaders’ hemp vision for the 2023 Farm Bill falls far short

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With the hemp industry in a deep trough, the U.S. Farm Bill now before Congress is an opportunity for a desperately needed reset. But if a recent Farm Bill position paper “Endorsed by Industry Leaders” is any indication, they won’t be the ones to lead us out of the ditch.

A nearly $1 trillion spending package, the Farm Bill authorizes agriculture and food policies ranging from crop subsidies to nutrition assistance programs. With a politically divided Congress, this year’s bill represents one of only a handful of measures nearly guaranteed of passage. It’s a once-in-five-year chance to advance hemp industry goals.

Way back then

A lot has happened since 2018, when that year’s Farm Bill set a landmark for industrial hemp by removing it from drug status, making legal “any part of that plant, including the seeds and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

Recognizing the potentially thorny problem of CBD, the 2018 legislation held that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “retains its authority to regulate hemp products, including CBD (a cannabinoid) products.” But since that time, “retain” is about all the FDA has done aside from warning some operators over marketing claims and raising red flags about product quality and consumer safety.

Despite the uncertainty, hemp producers rushed almost exclusively into CBD. That means industry association memberships are overwhelmingly made up of CBD-related companies, and therefore no surprise that CBD is front and center in “Hemp Industry Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill.”

As the FDA failed to put the brakes on early by writing rules, the CBD market skyrocketed before quickly – and spectacularly – crashing, exacerbated by the greed and missteps of the middlemen and opportunists who cast CBD as the “Next Big Thing” while largely ignoring the rich range of all things hemp can be.

The CBD obsession

Although income from flowers grown for CBD plunged last year by more than 70% compared to 2021, the subsector dwarfed all other hemp categories, bringing in $205 million, or 85% of the total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The industry groups rightly suggest that regulations for CBD from the FDA are desperately needed to shore up the expiring Farm Bill. While stakeholders may get more than they bargain for, clear rules would go a long way toward protecting consumers against the many potentially unsafe CBD products now on the market under no safety or other rules, and establish a clear playing field for growers and processors.

The paper also calls for an increase in THC levels allowable in hemp from 0.3% to 1.0%, suggesting farmers need relief from the worry that their crops will go “hot,” or over the limit, making them useless. While that’s clearly a justified objective, the greater purpose here is also about CBD production. The recommendations don’t point this out, but the level of CBD in hemp plants is directly proportional to the amounts of THC. Higher levels make processing more efficient.

Priorities, omissions

In other key priorities, the groups call for more USDA funding for state hemp programs, opening up hemp to subsidies other crops enjoy, repealing a ban on felons operating in the industry, promoting research, permitting hemp grain for animal feed, and generally reducing red tape.

That’s all well and good, but “Hemp Industry Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” is more notable for what it does not address.

First, conspicuously absent is any mention of delta-8 THC, a downstream synthetic CBD-based product that imitates the “high” of marijuana. The unregulated – and therefore often unsafe – products have flourished at a frightening pace as growers of the flowers needed for CBD production desperately search for a lifeline amid the ongoing downturn.

The omission is particularly odd because the Hemp Industries Association, the most prominent trade group among the 31 signatories to the recommendations, already has a firmly-stated position that holds delta-8 THC is not a controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and should simply be regulated. Others in the industry disagree, the most likely reason the subject is avoided in the paper. But either way, the failure to address this critical issue as a united industry front is irresponsible and shows a lack of concern for public health.

The biggest miss

Even more disappointing is that the industry’s “leaders” miss the bigger picture when it comes to hemp, falling short of recognizing this amazing crop’s long-term potential beyond CBD.

It starts with hemp as one answer to urgent environmental challenges – which are drawing a lot of attention in 2023 Farm Bill discussions.

According to the USDA, farming accounts for as much as 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But farming, especially growing industrial hemp, can also play an important role in reversing climate change in the food and land use sectors, most importantly carbon removal efforts. Hemp is unrivaled as a planet-healing crop. Aside from direct carbon capture achieved through farming, products such as building materials result in permanent carbon lockup. Growing hemp is also good for the soil.

Several independent consortia have already received grants for hemp projects from USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, which offers a variety of incentives to farmers who adopt environmental practices. But the mere $35 million represented by these initiatives is just over 1% of a total $3.1 billion investment USDA has earmarked for the overall program. Hemp deserves more.

Yet “Hemp Industry Priorities” is missing any references to: “climate change,” “greenhouse gas,” “CO2,” “carbon dioxide” or any similar terms commonly associated with hemp in the context of the environment, and lacks any discussion or proposals that would capitalize on hemp’s possibilities in carbon trading markets, a potential boon to growers.

Food and nutrition

The Farm Bill could also help improve grain producers’ fortunes by steering more funding into promotional activities that could incentivize farmers to grow hempseed food and expand the domestic market, which is now served almost exclusively by imports.

There’s also an argument to be made for seed-based outputs in the context of nutrition, always a key foundational element in the Farm Bill, which funds programs that promote healthy food.

Yet “food” is only mentioned once in the recommendations – in the context of dietary supplements and beverage additives made from . . . CBD.

Try again

Hemp’s current troubles cannot be overestimated. With prices for once-lucrative CBD flowers at a fraction of previous highs, and the lingering questions over the safety of end products, hemp has lost its flashy marquee (good riddance). And the knock-on effect has delivered all but a knock-out punch to hemp fiber and grain, both of which contracted significantly in 2022, and can also be considered on the ropes (Fiber income dropped more than 30% and grain dipped 40% in 2022 according to USDA’s year-on-year figures).

Industrial hemp has consistently enjoyed strong bi-partisan support in the U.S. Congress due to the power of farm-state representation. That means hemp provisions in the upcoming Farm Bill can expect little pushback. The door is open to relaunching industrial hemp through a creative, robust vision of a future in which this miraculous crop makes a significant contribution to the global economy and the environment, creates jobs, and improves human health and well-being.

By overemphasizing CBD and giving short shrift to hemp’s other possibilities, “Hemp Industry Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” instead clings to the past. Those who compiled it should go back to their keyboards and make another stab at it. Fast.

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