The subcommittee of Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held a hearing on the Examination of the USDA Hemp Program on the 28th of July 2022. This summary will highlight key points brought upon by the witnesses that testified. Ms. Stacey E. Plaskett, Chair, open remarks mention the industry’s volatility and encouraged the USDA to continue supporting the farmers and its expansion.
Witnesses’ Testimony Highlights
Assistant Professor Dr. Brandy Phipps represents Central State University in Ohio, the only Historical Black University in Ohio and an 1890 land-grant University.
Timestamped at 8:53-12:55
Dr. Phipps and her team were rewarded with the SAS grant for their 5-year project on aquaculture and hemp grain as feed for fish through the Sustainable Use of Safe Hemp Ingredient (SUSHI) Project. In her 5-minute testimony, she mentions sustainable nutrition science and finding holistic solutions related to human health. She emphasizes in order to slow the rise of chronic heart disease, strategies to increase and produce heart-healthy foods such as hemp grain and fish are critical. Hemp grain feed has the potential for domestic feed for livestock due to the easily digestible protein, omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, and essential amino acids. Incorporating hemp grain as animal feed will diversify the hemp market and provide another revenue source to the hemp sector. And most importantly, adding hemp grain as domestic animal feed may give animals key improvements to their health, thus enhancing human health.
Executive Director of the Hempstead Heart Project and Vice-Chair of the NHA’s Standing Committee of Hemp Organizations, Marc Grignon gives his testimony.
Timestamped at 13:12-18:32
As an educator in the hemp industry, Mr. Grignon gives an analogy of the difference between hemp and marijuana by comparing it to the pepper family. “With peppers, you have habanero, chipotle, ghost pepper, jalapeno – these peppers are what I would call high-grade marijuana. Whereas green, yellow, and red bell peppers, as I would call it your hemp. Both peppers are part of the same family, but distinctly different.” He then states historical facts about the vitality of the American hemp industry and gives an excerpt from articles related to hemp from the National Agricultural Library.
As a hemp researcher for the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin, he shared his personal farming experience and the DEA’s unlawful raid of their farm in October 2015, where the agency took their crop during harvest season and their topsoil seized by a bulldozer. After the raid, they never received lab test results from the DEA determining that the crop they grew was over the THC legal limit. Because of this experience, his primary focus was advocating for tribal nations throughout the country to make hemp cultivation legal without federal interference, which he was successful in doing.
He continued to highlight the barriers we face as an industry and suggested: a definitive separation between floral cannabinoid hemp and industrial hemp for fiber and grain, making banks and insurance more accessible to hemp operations, businesses, and processors, and a USDA stamp of approval of hemp being shipped in various jurisdictions which will help with any issues that arise with interstate commerce.
Eric Wang, Chief Executive Officer of EcoFibre discusses genetics and regulations surrounding CBD
Timestamped 18:43- 24:00
Eric Wang gives the background of his company, EcoFibre. This vertically integrated company is divided into three categories: hemp grain for food, floral hemp for CBD, and hemp stalk for high-performance industrial uses. For 20 years, EcoFibre has developed the largest and most diverse hemp genetics and has planned on sharing these genetics with farmers and universities across the United States for the 2022 and 2023 growing season, supporting 24,000 acres of industrial hemp for commercial and research purposes.
Though EcoFibre has been operating in Australia since 1999, EcoFibre has invested 90% of its capital in the operations in Kentucky and North Carolina. He states, “I have disproportionately invested into the US due to the tremendous potential of the industrial hemp market but more importantly the bipartisan support that I’ve seen for developing a new highly sustainable agricultural crop for US farmers. Secondly, I’ve seen significant support for introducing new US manufacturing industries to take advantage of the multitude of uses for industrial hemp, and finally there’s an opportunity for net-zero carbon solution via industrial hemp.”
He then stated the struggles of the industry, particularly the cannabinoid sector. After the 2018 Farm bill and Congress’ intent to support the production and sale of hemp and hemp derivatives, thousands of US hemp farmers grew mostly for cannabinoids. But due to the FDA stating that it is unlawful to sell ingestible CBD products, it caused a disruption in the industry. Due to the economic loss and profit potential, farmers and businesses have pivoted to another development of hemp products, products with intoxicating compounds from hemp that can negatively affect minors. The FDA’s ability to regulate CBD is limited due to the current language in the 2018 Farm Bill. Eric Wang suggests a new language in the 2023 Farm Bill to allow the FDA to regulate CBD and other intoxicating hemp derivatives such as dietary supplements. In closing, he wants regulatory clarity for CBD to help create positive momentum in the US.
Ryan Quarles currently serves as the Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture and was the former president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture from 2020-2021.
Commissioner Quarles opened his testimony by sharing his professional and political background experience in agriculture. He stated that due to his role in agriculture, he learned more about hemp and its benefits that helped support Kentucky farmers and US agriculture. In Kentucky, a state with a rich hemp history, Commissioner Quarles shares his tie with the plant within his family’s history, where his great-grandfather grew hemp on the banks of the Kentucky River. In 2016, Kentucky decided to take advantage of the 2014 Farm Bill through the authorization for state departments to research hemp under section 7606. He proudly displays hemp products from companies here in the States: hemp hearts by Victory Hemp Foods, hardwood flooring from HempWood, and other hemp products.
He mentioned the expansion of hemp acreage grown from 2015-2019 and then a rapid decline the next year in 2020. After the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp farmers jumped on board, but eventually, the supply outweighed the demand, thus creating a surplus of cannabinoid products on the market. He continued to share some issues in the hemp industry, including the FDA’s inaction in developing a regulatory pathway for the CBD industry. With no direction from the FDA, retailers are hesitant to carry hemp-derived CBD products, and businesses are reluctant to move forward with development.
In closing, he thanks hemp farmers and universities for their continued support of this crop.
Kate Greenberg, Commissioner of Colorado Department of Agriculture
Commissioner Greenberg’s opening testimony stated the shocking number of hemp acreage grown in Colorado after the 2018 Farm Bill – 87,408 acres in 2019. Five years prior, in 2014, less than 2,000 hemp licenses were registered. Unfortunately, after 2019, the number of hemp acreage had declined to 3,700. She stated the rapid decline was most likely due to multiple factors:
- The oversaturation of CBD in the market
- The financial burden on hemp farmers which included higher sampling and testing fees and background checks
- Duplicative FSA acreage reporting
- Producers would feel more encouraged to continue to grow if the THC legal limit rose to 1%
She mentioned that Congress could support federal agencies to allow greater flexibility and improvement of state-run hemp programs. She recommended five ways the committee can consider: “The first one is to remove DEA requirements for testing labs. Our state-of-the-art laboratory began the process of obtaining DEA registered certification in 2019; however, as of this hearing, we still await their approval. This unnecessary burden can be removed with the help of Congress. Number two, allow the use of certified seed as an alternative to the strict testing requirement. We believe there is much to learn in this regard, and Colorado is a willing partner to explore what is possible. Number three, remove background checks requirements; hemp should be treated like the agricultural commodity it is, and producers should not be treated as potential criminals for the production of a legal hemp crop. Number four, establish a federal grant program to support state hemp programs. A grant program would help states continue to manage their own hemp programs while taking some of the burdens off of USDA. And lastly, number five. Support federal agencies, particularly the FDA, in accelerating the regulatory process to allow the use of hemp as feed.”
In closing, she sees a promising future for hemp, and to achieve that future, we need a stable and sound regulatory environment that will foster diverse and sustainable market opportunities.
In this hearing, diverse perspectives illustrated the groundwork and effort that public officials, farmers, business persons, and researchers have pushed. All testimonies had talking points that can be relatable in some shape or form. Dr. Brandy Phipps’s perspective role was represented as an academic researcher and a grant recipient. As a grant recipient of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems award, her team was able to start researching hemp grain as feed for fish. Their research project, SUSHI, in which NHA sits on the external advisory board, would essentially be able to provide science-based evidence that hemp grain can be suitable as feed for livestock. Previous studies on hemp grain as animal feed have shown improved livestock health and, in theory, would benefit humans.
The testimonies mention that hemp grain and fiber should be exempt from current regulations, which supports the core mission behind the Hemp Fiber and Grain Exemption. A definitive separation between a floral and horticulture crop and an industrial crop will treat industrial hemp like a commodity crop. A commodity crop can be used as a rotational crop or grain for feed or industrial and technical uses, opening up more industrial hemp opportunities. Commissioner Quarles endorsed hemp food and industrial uses by promoting hemp heart products and hemp hardwood flooring.
Key points brought up the hardship and deterrent of growing this multi-faceted crop: Equitable access to banking and insurance, financial burdens due to high sampling and testing fees, and uncertainty for the cannabinoid sector due to lack of authority from the FDA. Raising the legal THC limit to 1% to prevent producers from disposing of their crops was echoed, which the NHA supports. Certified seeds were mentioned as a suggestion to the committee as well. Certified hemp seeds are still a wild card as this is a nascent industry in which certified seeds may perform well in one region and not in the other. Research in multiple states, microclimates, and regions should be thoroughly tested before certified hemp seeds are considered. If these issues aren’t addressed, it’ll be difficult to have a stable and secure market for this industry.
Overall, we thank Chairwoman Plaskett, Ranking Member Baird, and the subcommittee of Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research for holding the first type of hearing for hemp. Most importantly, we thank the diverse panel of witnesses who testified on behalf of the industry.
To view the full hearing, please click here.
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Anna Chanthavongseng – Assistant Executive of National Hemp Association