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Hemp: A growing market with many questions and how biopesticides can help meet crop protection challenges

April 1, 2020
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By Jeremy Adamson, Product Manager, Certis USA

The Emerging Market

A new Federal Farm Bill legislation comes along every five to six years, most of which are met with a mild response as it relates to production agriculture and crop acreage. There are a few exceptions throughout recent history, but most notable is the recent 2018 Farm Bill, which delivered a new growth opportunity in farming for the future.

The $867 billion Bill passed with bi-partisan support and included language that opened a major pathway for commercial agriculture - the legalization of hemp and its derivatives as a crop commodity.

The Market

Hemp is far from a new crop. In fact, it was grown in the U.S. for generations before the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act classified all Cannabis sativa materials as marijuana and subjected them to tax and drug enforcement laws. As a result, by the late 1950’s, hemp production in the United States was nonexistent.

Long dubbed the “crop with a thousand uses,” hemp truly does seem to have near limitless capability for market opportunities. Textiles and fiber are heritage uses of the crop’s stalk and plant materials. Wood-like products for interior design are also currently being made from the crop.

Perhaps the market with the most growth, and the most controversy, is the production of cultivars for cannabidiol (CBD) and their potential pharmaceutical benefits. Users of CBD hail the supplement’s benefits for neuroprotective, antiepileptic, antipsychotic and anti-inflammatory purposes. It is sold in oil form, in creams and lotions, in gummy chewables, and in bath bombs and salts.

Markets & Markets projects that the hemp market will grow from $4.6 billion in 2019 to $26.6 billion by 2025.

Growers Meeting Demand

The emerging hemp market is being met by an energized agricultural industry that is eager to seize the market opportunity and meet consumer demand. This is reflected by the thousands of growers across 36 states who immediately leapt into hemp production – most of which with limited knowledge or experience with commercial-sized hemp production. These findings are quantified by the last two years of hemp production data from Vote Hemp, an advocacy group that annually tracks hemp production statistics from state agriculture department records:

In 2019, U.S. farmers were licensed to grow 511,442 acres of hemp, a 455 percent increase over production numbers in 2018, which reported only 78,176 acres grown.

This production increase was met with growers having a limited set of solutions that were permissible to be used in hemp production. Coupled with most growers having limited experience in growing the crop, the ability to meet commercial demands and the production of a bountiful crop would prove to be challenging.

The Challenges

With nearly half a million acres licensed for production in 2019, hemp was grown across 36 states under outdoor and indoor growing conditions – both of which gave way to an abundance of pest, disease and weed pressure.

It has been reported that growers of hemp found corn earworm to be one of the most significant issues that they are combatting. Other reported issues included sucking pests, such as hemp russet mite, cannabis aphid and Eurasian hemp borer. Many species of caterpillars, grasshoppers and beetles were also present and caused damage to foliage. Stink bugs and Lygus bugs have also been an issue as they feed on the seeds of plants.

The challenges on the disease spectrum were also widespread, with many proving to be particularly challenging for growers to combat including powdery mildew, botrytis and phytophthora.

It remains unclear what level of economic damage these pests caused in 2019, but it was enough to demonstrate the need for solutions.

The Biological Approach to Hemp Production

Since many of the growing markets for the crop include human consumption, there are major concerns and unknowns as it relates to what residues are safe on hemp products. With this significant unknown, growers were initially limited to a small list of minimum-risk pesticides, such as hydrogen peroxide, that the EPA previously deemed exempt from registration and are also residue exempt, meaning they can be used in or on food products without the need for an established maximum residue level.

This is where biologicals are an ideal solution as most are exempt from residue tolerances. Biologicals also hold several other attractive traits that makes them a great fit for use in hemp, including:

  • Broad spectrum activity against numerous pests and diseases

  • Safety for non-target organisms,

  • Proven, effective control across similar cropping systems

  • Low REIs and PHIs, resulting in worker safety and flexibility

  • Approved for most uses in sensitive areas where the use of conventional chemistries are restricted and/or prohibited.

  • For this market, the approval for use in organic production characteristic of many biopesticides is also considered beneficial.

These benefits were paramount in the EPA’s decision to register an initial list of 10 products for hemp in December 2019 - nine of the 10 were biologicals (6 biochemical and 3 microbial pesticides). Since then, several additional biologicals have been registered on hemp and more likely will follow in the days and months ahead for use in the upcoming growing season.

While the 2020 hemp growing season will offer some uncertainty as federal regulations for CBD products remain in limbo, growers can be certain that biopesticides will be play a pivotal part in providing approved, trusted solutions to combat the challenges that they encounter.

This article appeared in the April 2020 issue of CAPCA Adviser Magazine. You can read the original here.

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