Measuring trade in hemp products: Why it matters and what needs to change

15 May 2024

New analysis highlights ways to better gauge global exports of hemp products, which is key to unlocking the crop’s economic and environmental benefits for developing nations.

A farmer harvests industrial hemp crops.
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© Shutterstock/24K-Production | A farmer harvests industrial hemp crops.

Hemp, or industrial hemp, is among the fastest-growing and most versatile plants on Earth.

Although it’s part of the cannabis family, hemp is a non-intoxicant crop that can be used to make a wide variety of products, ranging from biofuel and textiles to auto parts. Between 2019 and 2022, some 60 countries reported exports of industrial hemp products.

However, a new study by UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD) flags striking discrepancies in export data, highlighting the need for a more systematic approach to measuring world trade in hemp products.

For example, the UN commodity trade statistics (Comtrade) database, which uses international classifications covering only the raw and semi-processed fiber and yarn of industrial hemp, recorded trade worth $46 million in 2022.

But this is only part of the picture.

When data from national customs offices, which encompass broader coverage but are not globally comparable, are combined, the recorded export value in hemp products more than quadrupled to a whopping $213 million for the same year.

UN Trade and Development economist Marco Fugazza, lead author of the study, spotlights the urgent need to bridge the gap between international and national classifications.

“This disparity not only distorts our understanding of global trade dynamics but also hampers the ability of policymakers to formulate targeted strategies for harnessing the economic potential of industrial hemp,” says Mr. Fugazza.

International classifications need to widen product coverage

The true scale of the global industrial hemp market remains underestimated because the international harmonized system of classification does not include a substantial portion of tradable items.

For example, by adding national estimates, hemp oil seed, rich in nutrients, emerged as the most valuable hemp product, with exports reaching approximately $112 million in 2022.

The value notably outstrips that of hemp fiber and yarn, the sole products currently represented in international trade statistics.

Addressing sustainability concerns

While national classifications include a broader set of hemp products, their coverage also has limitations.

For example, national classifications don’t account for items with high sustainability potential, such as hempcrete, an eco-friendly construction material that is easy to transport and adaptable to all climate zones.

Similarly, national classifications do not include hemp-char, or bio char from hemp plants, which contributes to sustainable agriculture by improving soil health and absorbing climate-warming carbon dioxide.

Opportunities for developing nations

Currently, Canada leads in global exports of hemp oil seeds.

France, Spain and the Kingdom of the Netherlands dominate exports of raw and semi-processed hemp products, while China is a major player in the hemp yarn market.

But combining data from both UN Comtrade and national sources reveals that between 2019 and 2022 about a third of hemp product exporting countries were developing economies, mostly from Asia and South America.

By fostering a coordinated effort to expand product coverage and improve data accuracy, developing countries can boost global market access and industrial hemp value chains.