As crazy as it may seem, it wasn’t that long ago it was illegal to sell hemp seed as food in Australia.

Hemp has a long history in Australia, dating back to the First Fleet. Cannabis sativa seeds were brought here by European settlers as hemp was used widely for cordage and other fibre purposes. Seed was also supplied to subsequent early settlers to promote cultivation of the crop.

Cultivation Ban

Cultivation of hemp in Australia was banned from the late 1930’s, the result of a sustained campaign demonising cannabis originating in the USA that spread across much of the world. Those behind the campaign didn’t know or chose not to recognise the major difference between hemp and marijuana. What differentiates the two is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – an intoxicating cannabinoid. Hemp plants are so low in THC that they have no recreational value and the seeds have even less than the rest of the plant.

Fibre Industries Threatened

The failure to differentiate may not have been just a case of ignorance, but a wilful move. Hemp posed a major threat to competing fibre industries; both natural and the emerging synthetics industry.

Once the cultivation ban was in place, it would then take decades to get through the skulls of lawmakers and bureaucrats in various countries that hemp was not marijuana – and the skulls appeared to pretty thick in Australia.

Australian Hemp Foods Ban

The demonising of hemp didn’t stop with cultivation. While imported hemp fibre products continued to be available here, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code prohibited all species of cannabis from being added to or sold as food in Australia (although in New Zealand, the sale of hemp seed oil was able to continue). The fines involved for doing so in Australia were huge – up to $40,000 for an individual and up to $200,000 for a corporation.

However, hulled hemp seed (seed without its shell) could continue to be sold for non-food purposes and it was an open secret that many who purchased this hemp seed were doing so for personal consumption. It appears there was a loophole – while seed couldn’t be sold as food, it wasn’t illegal for a buyer to add it to their own food.

The Battle For Hemp Seed Food

Advocates struggled to lift the ban on hemp seed as food in Australia for many years.

For example, in July 1998 an application was made to the Australia New Zealand Food Authority to permit its use. In a final report on the application in 2001, the recommendation was removal of prohibition.

But it wasn’t to be.

In May 2002, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Ministerial Council rejected the recommendation on the grounds the use of hemp in food may send a “confused message” to consumers about the acceptability and safety of cannabis. The Ministerial Council also expressed concerns about law enforcement, particularly potential issues relating to distinguishing between high and low THC varieties of cannabis.

In 2009, another application was made and an updated Food Standards Australia New Zealand investigation in 2011 concluded (again) that hemp foods were safe for human consumption.

But at a 2015 Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation meeting, Ministers formally rejected a draft variation of the Food Standards Code that would have permitted the sale of foods derived from the seeds; still clinging onto concerns of more than a decade previously.

From the time of applications to decisions in each case turned out to be years and by 2015, Australia was the last country in the world to have an existing ban on all forms of these foods, including hemp seed oil.

Finally, Hemp Seed Foods Legal In Australia

It wasn’t until April 2017 when Ministers supported a draft standard allowing “low-THC hemp seeds” to be sold as a food. This still indicated a level of ignorance as the term “low-THC hemp seeds” is a bit like saying “wet water”.

The ban didn’t quite end here. It would then take until November 2017 when changes to the Food Standards Code came into effect and finally hemp seed and derived products could be openly promoted, sold and bought as food in Australia.

A Few Of The Rules

Standard 1.4.4, Prohibited and restricted plants and fungi, notes Cannabis sativa seeds may be a food for sale or used as an ingredient in a food for sale in Australia if the seeds contain not more than 5 mg/kg of total THC, the seeds are non-viable and hulled (shells removed). Cannabidiol (a non-intoxicating cannabinoid) must not be present in any food for sale at a level greater than 75 mg/kg.

Labels for hemp seed foods cannot include an image or representation of any part of the Cannabis sativa plant other than the seed.

A New Generation Of Hemp Foods

While it’s a terrible shame (and rather embarrassing) Australians were deprived of this superfood for decades, in countries where hemp could be grown great strides were made in developing grain varieties that would pack an even bigger nutritional punch.

At the time of writing, it’s been 4 years since the ban was lifted. If you haven’t eaten hemp seed foods before or it has been some time since you’ve done so, the new generation of food products are certainly worth a try. They don’t just taste great, but can play an important part in supporting good health + wellness.

Here at Byron Bay Labs, we’ve combined the nutritional goodness of hemp seed with Australian native superfoods, as well as offering premium quality seed-only products. Check out Byron Bay Labs unique range here, learn more about the benefits of hemp seed and the seed we source.