Canadian producers working to meet growing overseas demand for 'superfood' hemp seeds

Hemp has many uses, such as clothing and accessories, but it is finding its calling in nutrition.

Infomercials in South Korea bring hemp to store shelves in various forms

Meier, president of Hemp Production Services, says hemp has tremendous benefits when it comes to nutrition. (CBC)

Saskatchewan hemp growers and processors have been working to meet the exporting demand for the multi-use crop.

Hemp is used in all kinds of products from paper to clothing but has found its calling for its use in nutrition and supplements. 

The market has been expanding in Europe and Asia and thanks to some hemp infomercials in South Korea, the product has made its way to the store shelves in various forms. 

With the product being on shelves, it opens up a new range of consumers who don't have time to sit around and watch infomercials on TV, Garry Meier, president of Hemp Productions Services, said of the growth overseas.

Nutritional uses

Meier says there are "tremendous benefits" when it comes to nutrition.

The crop's biggest demand is seen in the sale of hemp hearts, which are just shelled hemp seeds. They can be added to food for an added source of protein, omega-3 and omega-6.

Hemp is also used to make protein powders and as a replacement supplement for fish oil tablets. 

The amino acid and fatty acid composition in hemp has been identified as similar to fish by nutritionists, Meier said.

"The demand quickly outstrips that supply," Meier said of fish market limitations. 

"Hemp is a very, very palatable, tasty way to substitute that, what they view is going to be a missing food group in their diet," Meier said of the expanding demand for hemp in Asian markets. 

The perception of North American food as "pristine" has helped stabilize the flow of hemp products, Meier said. 

"We anticipate that demand is going to continue to grow and we are making movements within the company on our processing side and also on our grower base side to try and grow to meet that demand."

Hemp hearts, shelled hemp seeds, are high in protein and omega-3 and omega-6 acids which make it a suitable substitute for fish oil supplements. (CBC)

Hemp demand

Dr. André Magnan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Regina, is more cautious when it comes to the demand for hemp products. 

Magnan also attributes hemp's Asian popularity to greater global food fads. 

"At the moment, in places like South Korea, people are really looking to the health benefits of hemp seed and this is why there was quite an important sale of hemp products from Saskatchewan to South Korea," he said. 

Magnan classifies the hemp seeds as belonging to a group of "superfoods"— foods that become trendy in different markets such as kale, goji berries and chia seeds.

"Any time there's a big sale or new market opportunity, it's always a positive signal to Saskatchewan farmers," Magnan said.

The challenges of agriculture mean farmers often have to predict a season ahead of time which crop will be in demand, Magnan said.

Hemp hearts, shelled hemp seed, is largely responsible for the bulk of the demand due to its simplicity and diversity. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"They might do that on the hunch this market is going continue to grow but there's no guarantee demand will be as high as one predicts," he said of new products or newer form of production.

Despite the risk, Magnan said he thinks it's still a positive signal. 

Despite being a very tiny part of Saskatchewan's agricultural production, hemp can act as a new tool in the repertoire of farmers.

"I see it continuing to be a small niche but as the market becomes larger and demand increase, I think you'll see that form of niche production growing." 

The numbers

According to Agriculture Canada, hemp exports have been increasing in the west for several years. Hemp exports from Saskatchewan grew by $1.2 million from 2014 to 2015.

Manitoba has been the biggest exporter of hemp. There was more than $67 million worth of hemp exported from Manitoba in 2015.

Saskatchewan exported more than $6 million and Alberta exported more than $2 million. Together, the western provinces made 89 per cent of Canada's hemp exports in 2015. 

Saskatchewan exports of hemp have been up for the second consecutive year, after some down years in 2012 and 2013. The province's hemp exports in 2011 were worth more than $5 million before dipping to $2 million and $1.5 million in those years. They jumped back up to $4.8 million in 2014 and increased again in 2015. 

Magnan says it's not uncommon for niche crops such as hemp to fluctuate in demand.

"Demand is quite unpredictable, even though there are some signals it is increasing," he said. 

With a niche crop, which only accounts for a small fraction of Saskatchewan's production compared with big crops like canola, will see large swings in production over a short period of time, Magnan said.

With files from CBC's Nahila Bendali Amor