By Kim Honan
An Australian producer of hemp foods is predicting a 400 per cent growth in the next year, even though it is still illegal to sell hemp products for human consumption here.
Hemp Foods Australia's chief executive officer Paul Benhaim said the demand was being driven by overseas consumers interested in the health benefits of the seeds, oil and protein.
"They're natural, they're organic, they're high in essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, that is common usually in fish oils, which are really popular in Japan," he said.
While the company exports to numerous countries across the world, Japan is by far its biggest market and growing fast.
"Japan has had really serious issues with a nuclear accident there not so long ago, so certainly the First Lady is very much looking at environmental responses to that particular outcome," he said.
Mr Benhaim recently met with the First Lady of Japan, Akie Abe, at the inaugural Kyoto Hemp Forum.
"It's an extremely large honour to be the presence of someone like the First Lady — let alone to have a conversation — let alone for them to come up and literally have their photo taken with your products, which is quite unheard of," he said.
Designing products for export
To meet the growth in exports Hemp Foods Australia is busy upgrading its factory at Bangalow in northern New South Wales.
Last year it received nearly $600,000 from the Federal Government towards building its $1.178 million state-of-the-art processing facility.
But the company is developing a range of other food products solely for the export market, were hemp foods can be legally consumed.
"It's a little bit confidential that discussion, but we're looking at things like snack bars, we're looking at drinks, we're looking at pastas, we're looking at fibre supplements, we're looking at a whole different range of products," he said.
"People really love Australia and it has a great image. We're really excited because we are growing more hemp seeds in Australia this year than anyone ever has and they're all certified organic.
"We're excited to have a much larger support for our local farmers in Australia, where we can produce more products and keep our overseas markets growing while we wait for the ministerial departments to cross some t's and dot some i's, to allow hemp foods much more widespread in Australia."
Struggling to meet the demand
Mr Benhaim said they needed more farmers in Australia to start growing hemp to help it meet the growing demand.
"We have just hired a very large firm to work with us in our farming who we're in constant discussions with on how to upscale, not just for what we need but for future growth which we see as being extreme," he said.
"That's one the wonderful things about hemp, is that it can be grown in any country around the world and in any place in any country.
"One of the big differences with Hemp Foods Australia is that we focus on certified organic farming techniques only for our crops, so we are one of the only countries in the world that does that."