Launching a New Frontier: The Global Hemp Innovation Center

The economic and scientific opportunities with a material that has been illegal for the past 80+ years is nearly immeasurable.


“Why ‘Global’?”

T

hat’s one of the first questions Dr. Jay Noller, the director of the recently launched Global Hemp Innovation Center (GHIC) at Oregon State University, is asked.

The answer is rooted in both fact and vision.

First, it is “global” because it represents research that is taking place in four countries in North America, Asia and Europe. The GHIC is the epicenter of some of the world’s leading pioneers in the science of hemp.

Second, and maybe more importantly, it is a nod to the future of hemp and its potential to solve a host of global challenges — in healthcare, food production, the built environment and more. The economic and scientific opportunities with a material that has been illegal for the past 80+ years is nearly immeasurable.

The GHIC is based in the College of Agricultural Sciences, but it includes more than 40 researchers representing 19 different discipline areas in research, teaching and Extension. From food innovation and pharmacy to public health, policy, business and engineering, hemp has created a wave of excitement across the campus.

It is rare that a new material is launched into the entrepreneurial and scientific ecosystem along with all the limitless potential it represents. While that reality is ripe with possibility, it also means there is a lot of work to be done in research.



Starting from Ground Zero

According to Noller, the great challenge of hemp is taking it out of what was largely a black market system into the scientific and commercial realm.

“As much as anything, our role is to lead a fundamental cultural shift in how we understand and talk about hemp,” he said. “While legal, it’s still not entirely comfortable for people who are unfamiliar with the plant and who may exclusively consider it in terms of its psychotropic properties, which are only a fraction of the application of hemp.”

Another aspect of starting from the beginning in research, includes the development of terminology and processes that we take for granted with other agricultural crops.

“We don’t even have an agreed upon term for measuring hemp fiber,” Noller added. “We may know what bushell of wheat is, but there is no common word or standard measurement yet for hemp.”

The exciting part of getting in on the ground floor of hemp for OSU and its partners, is it provides the University an opportunity to bring together top-tier research, teaching, and outreach that is integral to its land grant mission.

According to Dean Alan Sams of the College of Agricultural Sciences, “the potential to be a part of defining the future of an entirely new agricultural commodity, in partnership with other disciplines and colleges across the university and partners around the world, is truly unique and exciting.”

As the research begins, the 1,342 from around the state are eager to see the University take this leadership role as well.

Justin Bordessa, from Hemp Ag Solutions explained, “It’s going to take years of research and development from a University to get the hemp industry on the same level of all the other industries.”

Why Now

Oregon State’s decision to launch the new hemp center follows Congress’ adoption of the 2018 Farm Bill that removed hemp from the list of controlled drug substances and initiated the creation of a framework for hemp to become a fully legalized commodity in the future.

“Hemp has incredible potential across several industries and sectors, including in food and health products and as a fiber commodity in many products,” Sams said. “We believe that Oregon State University is uniquely positioned to serve the global need for research-based understanding of hemp as a crop and for its use in new products.”

According to the Brightfield Group, an analytics firm that tracks the cannabis industry, the hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) market is expected to grow from $618 million in 2018 to $22 billion by 2022.

In addition to the research taking place, the GHIC will also serve as the state’s only seed certification service for hemp, providing a valuable service to farmers. While it currently certifies seeds for as many as 48 agricultural commodities grown in Oregon, it is the only University in the nation to certify seed for hemp.

When asked what his immediate goals are for the research and outreach, Noller further explained that the Center would initially be focused on how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp for seeds, for hemp fiber materials that can be used in textiles and construction materials as well as hemp essential oils that have popular health and wellness uses, and hemp grain for use in foods and feed.

As a newly legalized crop, there remains much to learn still about the potential it offers. According to Noller, hemp is a unique agricultural commodity because the entire plant can be harvested and put to use.

“I like to imagine that one could sit in a house made of hemp, eating food made out of hemp, taking medicine made of extracts from hemp, wearing clothes made of hemp,” Noller added with a smile.

In the beginning

While enthusiasm for new hemp research is creating buzz in Oregon, Noller and his team have been researching hemp across the globe for more than four years. He has specifically been targeting locations that share Oregon’s 45th parallel — prime conditions for hemp production — in countries like Serbia and China that have fewer legal constraints on hemp cultivation and production.

In Serbia, for example, Noller has been able to plant thousands of acres of hemp. Within an acre, there’s approximately 200,000 plants. With numbers like that, the margin of error in calculating the differences between different hemp trials is negligible.

“We have learned a lot already,” Noller added. “Enough to make us keenly aware of the fact that we have much yet to learn.”

Here in Oregon, the GHIC is conducting hemp trial research at 10 experiment stations across the state. The trials serve two key functions.

The first is to develop a foundation for future hemp research at these stations so that the plant breeders, agronomists, and others already working there have the opportunity to gain familiarity with the plant. It’s as much of a cultural learning curve as a scientific one, since hemp has to-date been off-limits.

Second, with these trials underway, the university and its experiment stations will be better equipped to take their science to the farm – helping growers on their properties better understand challenges they face growing in different soils and climates much as is done with other types of crops.

“We can’t just turn on a switch and have the infrastructure to conduct hemp research like we do other plants,” Noller said. “This first year is very much about culturally and structurally setting us up for success so that we can truly make a difference in this new field.”

While the research is in its beginning stages, other areas of the college and university have also been looking into hemp. The food science and technology department is working with hemp essential oils, the college of engineering is starting to look at different delivery systems for those oils, and the food innovation center in Portland has already started working with food entrepreneurs on products that contain hemp seed.

OSU research hemp plants in the Corvallis campus greenhouses.
OSU research hemp plants in the Corvallis campus greenhouses.

I just have one word for you

With all the potential and enthusiasm for hemp as a new product with seemingly limitless potential, I cannot help but be reminded of a famous scene in the 1967 classic “The Graduate.”

Benjamin Braddock, played by a young Dustin Hoffman, is trying desperately to escape the college graduation party his parents are hosting. Suffocated by the well-meaning but overbearing friends of his parents, pressured to answer the question looming over every graduate’s mind — “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” — he attempts to duck out when one of his parent’s friends, a Mr. McGuire, pulls him aside:

Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word to you. One word. Are you listening?”

Ben: “Yes, Mr. McGuire.”

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”

While time has shown that plastics may not have been the perfect product with some significant unforeseen environmental repercussions, one cannot deny the pervasiveness with which they overtook society since the 1960s. So maybe, if The Graduate were to be redone today, Mr. McGuire would have a different word.

And that word would be hemp.


By Heidi Happonen

 

Update: The GHIC recently received its first private donation – a $1 Million gift from Oregon CBD biotech company for research in hemp genomics.

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