AgriFutures Hemp Industry researcher profile: Dr Bronwyn Blake

10.12.20

Hemp is an emerging industry in Australia and has enormous potential as a value-added crop. But to date, regulations do not permit livestock which have grazed on hemp to enter the food market. The AgriFutures Australia project Opening the gates to hemp grazed livestock in Australia is seeking to understand tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) metabolism, nutritional value and performance and meat quality of sheep fed hemp forage. The project is being led by the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) in partnership with Charles Sturt University (CSU) and ChemCentre WA. For DPIRD animal nutritionist Dr Bronwyn Blake, the project offered the perfect opportunity to combine her personal and professional passions.

Bronwyn Blake hemp researcher for the AgriFutures Industrial Hemp Program

Why did you get involved in this project?

My professional background is in animal nutrition. I am also a hemp advocate – my husband and I have a hemp foods business – Vasse Valley Hemp Farm.  Through my knowledge of both the livestock and hemp industries, I noticed a significant gap and decided to start investigating.

There was a turning point for me early in 2019 when I attended a hemp industry roundtable and one of the main discussion topics was using hemp as animal feed. Further investigation revealed absolutely no published data on hemp forage as a feed for livestock. Then I thought, why not do it? I had the time and network available, so I started making phone calls and things started happening.

As a researcher, it’s extremely exciting to be involved in world first research. This project, which will finish in 2022, may throw up more questions for more researchers across Australia to answer. Hopefully, Australia will become a world leader in this research.

What is so good about hemp?

I am passionate about hemp for so many reasons. It’s extremely fast growing and can replace most timber-based products. If you are growing it for fibre, it can grow up to a height of 4 metres in 90 days. It can be used as a soil remediator to remove heavy metals and pollutants from soil. In fact, it can be used in building, clothing, paper, textiles, medicine and food. It could play a significant role in a sustainable future.

As a food, it’s the seed that is consumed and it’s highly nutritious. The seed contains 26% protein, including every essential amino acid. It also has a superior fatty acid profile in terms of the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids, which is the ideal ratio for human requirements. Hemp seed also makes a great animal feed and there is plenty of scope for research in this field too.

Based on research into cannabis, we believe hemp may contribute to appetite stimulation, improved meat quality, and reduced stress during transit.

 

Why is this project important?

As with most crops, farmers usually clean up any residue after harvest using livestock. Current regulations prevent this practice with hemp. Farmers who grow hemp and raise livestock have to be careful to keep them totally separate.

Industrial hemp contains very low levels of THC, and the THV levels as residues of meat is largely unknown. While grazing hemp is permitted, the onselling of livestock production that have grazed on industrial hemp is not permitted under present legislation. We don’t know exactly how much THC transfers to the meat if animals graze hemp. That’s what we are trying to find out – how much, if any, transfers to meat and how long it remains in animal tissues; if it does transfer across, we need to establish a pre-slaughter withholding period.

We are also trying to determine the nutritional value. If it is safe to feed to sheep, what is its value compared to other forages? Does it affect growth or meat quality?

How will it benefit the hemp industry?

If the results are positive, this information will add further value to the crop as a livestock feed. Feed is an expensive resource, particularly if it needs to be brought in during the dryer months.

Hemp is a summer growing plant, and if it can successfully be used as a forage crop, it could be used as a summer-crop to fill the summer-autumn feed gap.

Will this research have benefits beyond the hemp industry?

Adding value to the hemp industry could help the industry to expand, and that has potential flow-on benefits. Hemp has more than 25,000 different uses including paper, housing, plastic, food, medicine, clothing and biofuels.  It grows quickly and can be grown with low chemical inputs so can have a low environmental footprint.

If hemp proves to be nutritious, safe and leads to production or meat quality gains, this could also benefit the livestock industry.

What have you learnt about the industry from the growers involved?

I am a grower myself, which has been highly beneficial for the research because I am so well connected in the hemp industry. I’ve had to be extremely transparent about any conflicts of interest between being a grower and also being paid as a researcher.

It’s very exciting to be involved in a new and emerging industry.

Editor’s Note: Bronwyn’s business Vasse Valley, which is the first Western Australian paddock-to-plate hemp foods business in the Margaret River wine region, has also been named as one of ten Australian businesses selected to join the 2020 Farmers2Founders Bootcamp Program. Bronwyn is being sponsored by AgriFutures Australia. The Program is a six month journey for participants to grow their business and create greater impact for Australian agriculture.