Hemp is one of the oldest industries on the planet, dating from more than 10,000 years ago in Central Asia. Still, Rohit Sharma, founder and president of the Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA), believes that it is also an industry of the future.
A leading activist in India and a global ambassador for hemp, Sharma thinks hemp has the power to become an integral part of our international trade network and to change the quality of life of people not just in India, but around the world. Before that day comes, though, there are some things Sharma says need to happen.
“Slowly and gradually people will have to depend on the research of the effects of these products,” Sharma said in a recent interview with Honeysuckle. “People are getting more advanced, more aware and now they have started reading about it. CBD was the big start up. Now, because of CBD, people have started reading about other cannabinoids. I’ve said it will be a game changer when people switch to fiber, seeds, or different kinds of product lines.”
Sharma said the market has grown drastically since he began work in the industry in 2013. Currently, Europe and China dominate the industry, and the 2018 Farm Bill allowed for a small-scale expansion of hemp cultivation in the United States. CBD, derived from the hemp plant, has been a global phenomenon for years. However, there are signs of slowing popularity. Markets that can incorporate hemp seed and fibers, according to Sharma, will have a better chance of competing in the years to come. And as hemp products increasingly appear in worldwide markets through various applications - the plant has over 25,000 known uses - it’s likely it will become an even greater part of our lives very soon.
“People have started understanding that stand-alone CBD doesn't work for them,” Sharma said. “Already this is hitting the CBD market, and the fiber market is coming up because people are venturing into packaging and bioplastics, among other things.”
Sharma added that “in India, cannabis was always there.” Hemp, one of the five most sacred plants referred to in the ancient Indian religious texts, the Vedas, has been grown in India for thousands of years and was historically used medicinally. Today, it is estimated that sixty percent of all Indian districts have wild growing cannabis. As a country that largely still relies on farming, India has some of the most potential to reap the benefits of industrial hemp, both economically as well as environmentally.
Hemp has extraordinary prospects that have yet to be fully unlocked, according to Sharma. The hemp seed is nutritious and contains more essential fatty acids than any other source, second only to soybeans as a source of protein and it’s more digestible. A good source of dietary fiber, hemp could very well pose a possible solution to rampant malnutrition around the world. For medicinal purposes, hemp is organic and poses no harm to the body, including damage to the liver that pharmaceutical medications may pose. Hemp fiber has the potential to replace other less sturdy products like cotton, and it can be grown organically, without pesticides. Hemp is easy to cultivate and doesn’t require a lot of water; it’s also naturally resistant to most herbicides and helps remediate the soil. So why isn’t hemp already everywhere, right now?
The work to integrate hemp into the global economy is hindered by heavy regulations on the processing and use of the cannabis plant that began at the beginning of the 19th century. In all British colonies, including India, cannabis was restricted. What followed in the 20th century was the criminalization of cannabis, when the Indian government passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985, which has become the legal framework under which cultivation of industrial hemp has been suppressed. Starting in the 21st century, organizations including the IIHA worked to reverse the stigma that such government regulations have imposed on the industrial hemp industry while allowing space for legal cultivation of the plant.
“People are always in a hurry to launch a product rather than working on the product quality,” Sharma said. “To make a product quality does not need marketing. Trust factor needs to be centered around all of the hemp products. Quality is a big issue not just [in] India, [but] everywhere.”
Sharma noted that this is not a race. For the IIHA, it’s about how slowly and accurately hemp products can be standardized and brought to the market. Sharma has seen many companies selling products marketed as hemp fiber that simply aren’t hemp fiber. Quality control is a pressing issue for this industry, and it’s not an issue that can be patched over with elaborate branding and marketing.
In India, Sharma wants to ensure that everything leaving the country is one hundred percent genuine quality product. Industrial hemp needs a strong base, developed slowly in order to one day support a global network of products. In Sharma’s words, “If it’s simple, it won’t be hard to sell it.” Sorting out testing and protocol simply takes time, and Sharma is willing to wait.
Part of what Sharma is waiting for is a brand. “There is no brand. Can you think of one name that is a brand in cannabis or hemp?” Sharma said. “There is no quality… People are just jumping to make quick bucks, without testing and proper protocols, because that’s a time consuming process. To make a good quality product you have to invest time, not money. Time.”
Just because there are industrial hemp products on the market now, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily reputable. Using the example of hemp fiber, Sharma shared that some of the branded hemp fiber products that he’s seen on the market aren’t actually even made with hemp. The difference is clearly visible to Sharma, an expert in the field, but it may not be to everyday consumers. Sharma believes there will come a time where consumers will feel comfortable giving hemp products to their grandmother and their children, but to get there, quality control and standardization of the product have to happen first. A market where consumers aren’t inundated with hundreds of brand names and products, (think of the last CBD display you saw at your local corner store) without truly knowing what they’re buying and where it’s coming from, has to be created before Sharma can see the full potential of industrial hemp being fully unlocked.
There are many factors contributing to Sharma's attitude that “slow and steady wins the race,” one being the Indian farmers that produce the hemp. Sharma is insistent about the role these farmers play in the industrial hemp industry, and how important it will be to incorporate them into the expansion process of industrial hemp products. Many hemp farmers live in remote Indian villages, environments not known for their connectivity to the global trade market. Despite this, Sharma is committed to bringing them to the table in order to create a product that everyone can trust. Cutting rural farmers out may seem like an efficient business strategy to some, but for Sharma, the survival of these farmers is essential in building the strong base of trust he believes the hemp industry desperately needs.
Like every other industry in the world, industrial hemp was not untouched by the devastation of COVID-19. Processes of legalization and operation have slowed and communication with rural Indian hemp farmers has been interrupted. Despite this, Sharma believes that overall, the break in the old way of things was good for the industry.
“The momentum and the enthusiasm of entrepreneurship is not lost,” he said.”[The IIHA] made a very independent forum to join together communities and build bigger communities [in India]. Everything related to cannabis starts from the ground [up].”
For him, it all comes back to time. The identity of the IIHA had not been lost in the last year of a world put on pause. If anything, it’s been strengthened. They’re moving forward with the same spirit of entrepreneurship they started with, and this break has given the IIHA more time to envision a future for hemp where quality and trust are at the forefront and a product that all consumers can trust can emerge.
The first step toward that future for the IIHA is to start from the ground up with farmer-backed moves towards legalization in India. Their five-year goal is for 60-70 percent of India to have legalized medical cannabis. One day, this could open the door to more lenient regulations on hemp cultivation in the country as a whole, which could give India an advantage in the global hemp market. This is a place to start to build the vision Sharma has for the future of industrial hemp, one that is data driven and connected to global trade— a future where consumers can trust products enough to give them to their entire families.