Hemp is a fast-growing, herbaceous, annual plant. It can grow in height from 1.5 to 5.0 metres, has a stem diameter of up to four centimetres and has a deep tap root. Hemp is believed to have originated in the highlands of the Himalayas, and spread out from this region. China has farmed and cultivated hemp for its strong fibre since at least 8000 BC. Along with silk, hemp was a key textile in China and used by many for clothing because it was less expensive than silk.
Throughout history the term hemp has referred to as many as 22 types (genera) of plants used for fibre production. In this document, hemp or industrial hemp refers to the plant Cannabis sativa. There are over 2,000 different varieties or strains of C. sativa, which are botanically alike but differ in their chemical make-up. The C. sativa plant contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which at high concentrations is a psycho-active or mind-altering ingredient. In 90% of C. sativa varieties, the concentration of THC in leaves and flowering heads is low and deemed harmless.
Prospective hemp growers in Australia need a licence from the relevant state government for cultivation. The cultivation of plants with a THC level of greater than 0.35% in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, and greater than 1% in New South Wales and Queensland, is an offence under relevant Australian state drug laws.
There are three usable parts of the hemp plant: the inner fibres (hurd), the outer fibres (bast) and the seeds. Different varieties are grown for either the fibre or for seed, although there are some varieties that are dual purpose. Production systems for hemp are geared to producing either fibre or seed, but generally not both. Industrial hemp has a wide range of applications including textiles, paper, rope, fuel, oil and stockfeed as well as building materials, cosmetics, inks and pet feed.
The hemp industry in Australia requires an increase in the scale of production, better understanding of the agronomy, more efficient mechanisation for harvesting and processing, and long-term markets to be established before the hemp starts to become a really valuable crop in Australia.
Facts and figures
- Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) is a fast-growing herbaceous plant
- Industrial hemp is grown from Cannabis plants with a minimal concentration of the mind-altering substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
- Industrial hemp can be grown in a number of Australian states, under strict licence conditions
- Industrial hemp is grown for seeds or fibre, not usually both
- There is a wide range of uses for industrial hemp ranging from textiles and cosmetics, to building materials and food
- The estimated gross value of Australian hemp production in 2011–12 was around AU$300,000
- Hemp production in Australia must overcome a number of challenges before the industry can develop
- As of November 2017, the Food Standards Code has been amended to permit the sale of low THC hemp seed foods for consumption.
The largest hempseed producing nations are France and China, while China and the Democratic Republic of Korea are the largest fibre producers. There are also substantial hemp industries in Canada and Europe.
Industrial hemp can be produced in parts of Australia under strict licensing conditions. An estimated 185.5 hectares of industrial hemp were planted in Australia in 2011, most of which was irrigated, producing around 93 tonnes of hempseed. The estimated gross value of Australian hemp production in 2011–12 was around AU$300,000.
There are also Australian imports of hempseed products, particularly from Canada and the European Union. In 2012, Australia also imported 46 tonnes of “true hemp” fibre and yarn, valued at AU$117,500 but there were no Australian exports of fibre or yarn.