After Three Years, NIHC Leaving a Global Impact

Since the opening of global travel, NIHC has been traveling and speaking internationally to promote hemp. This summer and spring, NIHC’s leadership, board members, and staff have been to Costa Rica, Germany, and Italy. Domestically NIHC has traveled to Pennsylvania and Oregon to name a few states, promoting the hemp industry and listening to our members to understand the priorities for American hemp operators.

But this week, we caught up with NIHC President and CEO, Patrick Atagi, to check in and write an update on NIHC’s latest initiatives as NIHC passes its third birthday. 

“I can’t believe it’s been three years since NIHC was founded,” said Atagi. “To think this was a dream of mine three years ago and turning it into a reality has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my life.”

Over 20 years ago, as a young staffer for his home state, U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) Atagi began to take an interest in the prospects of industrial hemp. However, from the late 80s to the mid-1990s, Congress didn’t have much of an appetite for repealing the prohibition on cannabis. Legislation regularly came across Atagi’s desk as the Senator’s agricultural legislative aid.

“The Senate, in particular, had so many other priorities like nuclear weapons treaties and the Gulf War that cannabis was cannabis, and cannabis was thought to be a drug,” said Atagi. “When Republicans finally took control of Congress in 1994, there were too many other priorities. But I still kept watching hemp because people in Oregon were talking about it.

“Today, we’ve done a complete 180,” Atagi notes and points to the bevy of legislation before Congress on hemp and hemp-derived cannabinoids. He also notes the shift of cannabis becoming a more bipartisan issue. 

“Donald Trump, as a Republican, signed into law the 2018 Farm Bill that made hemp a legal commodity. And he bipartisan support in both houses of Congress,” Atagi noted. 

Atagi points out that it’s not just the laws that have changed since he first became interested in industrial hemp, but that the government has begun investing in the industry through NIHC’s participation in the USDA Market Access Program. Atagi says USDA helps promote U.S. hemp exports to other countries and their investment in hemp as a specialty crop, too, through two different TASC grants given to the NIHC. 

“Over the course of the last year, the USDA has given the NIHC $1.1 million in grants to the NIHC to develop or promote the domestic hemp industry,” Atagi says. “But it’s not just the financial support we’re getting, NIHC has a seat at the table on two different committees that advise the Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative on technical trade barriers.”

Atagi says he maintains an overall day-to-day focus on building NIHC while also looking for opportunities to expand the U.S. hemp market and promote consumer safety and education about hemp. 

“I believe consumer safety and education about hemp go hand in hand,” Atagi said before elaborating. “It’s not just general consumers, but it’s policymakers and regulators. Hemp may be legal, but a lot of consumers don’t know enough to differentiate between higher-THC cannabis and hemp and that’s because popular culture has always used the terms marijuana, cannabis, and hemp interchangeably. We want to change that.”

In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, NIHC announced a hemp checkoff plan for research, promotion, and consumer education of hemp. Like other checkoff programs for more well-established commodities like milk (“Got Milk?”); beef (“It’s What’s for Dinner”); and pork (“The Other White Meat”) a hemp checkoff program would be funded and run by the collective industry – not the NIHC. But, provide the critical piece of what’s missing that can make hemp a commodity of the future – industry collaboration. 

“We’re all in this together,” says Atagi referencing other hemp trade organizations. “Every time the New York Times or Rolling Stone writes a story about hemp-derived cannabinoids getting people high, we all lose. A check-off program helps in two ways, it educates the general public about the safe uses and the benefits of hemp as a climate-smart crop, and it brings money directly back to the farm.” 

Atagi points to a study by Texas A&M University that says check-off programs bring $3 to $17 back to the farm for every one dollar invested. That’s money that can be used to improve the industry’s supply chain, conduct research for things like hemp as an ingredient for animal feed, and run promotion campaigns that promote the use of hemp. 

Atagi also notes that NIHC is working diligently to promote the safe use of hemp cannabinoids with the NIHC Verify program. 

Unveiled at the NIHC 2022 Business, Research, and Farm Summit, the NIHC Verify Program would certify labs are taking the appropriate steps, under the ASTM guidelines, to test hemp derivatives. Without any guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on CBD and states taking their own actions that require product QR codes that show certificates of analysis (COAs) on product packaging it’s hard for consumers to differentiate what’s safe and what’s not. 

“We’re not intending to certify products,” Atagi says. “Our goal is to certify the COA on the side of a product label.”

Too many companies are lab shopping their products so it’s hard to know which products have COAs that you can trust, Atagi says. Working with ASTM’s D37 committee to verify third-party testing laboratories is a way to boost consumer confidence and signal to regulators that the hemp industry takes consumer safety seriously. 

“Think about it for a moment,” says Atagi. “Many states are requiring QR codes on product labels. But do consumers even understand what they’re reading? NIHC verify puts our name and ASTM International on the line that says we vouch for these results because we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the lab that tested that product was certified to the ASTM’s highest safety protocols.” 

But it’s not just hemp derivatives for human consumption, but safety also includes hemp as an ingredient in animal feed. NIHC just hosted a webinar for state regulators along with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) which had over 1000 registrants and over 700 people online watching. Along with representatives from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the USDA, ASTM, and animal feed officials from around the country and moderated by Agri-Pulse, it brought new light and a new level of dialogue around animal feed that Atagi believes will be beneficial to the industry. 

“We were beyond thrilled with the attendance,” Atagi said of the joint webinar with AAFCO. “Think about it for a second: 700 people including state regulators, veterinary industry stakeholders, and the livestock industry were interested enough in hemp as an animal feed ingredient to tune in and listen to what we had to say. It was a great step forward and we’re excited about the future of hemp feed.”

Speaking of the future, Atagi says 2023 will be a year NIHC along with the entire ag industry will be consumed by the debate on Capitol Hill on the farm bill. 

“I’ve been on all sides of a farm bill debate. I’ve been a Congressional staffer, worked in the Administration at USDA on a farm bill, and been on the outside lobbying.”

However, Atagi notes that NIHC is in a strong position with its Government Affairs Committee most of whom attended the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) annual meeting last year at the request of the Senate Ag Committee staff to develop a list of priorities for the U.S. hemp industry. NIHC members will also attend NASDA’s meeting on September 26 in New York next week. Atagi notes that the Government Affairs committee continues to fine-tune the organization’s priorities. 

“We’re a member-driven organization and our members who serve on the committee are doing a great job prioritizing issues that reflect the will of the entire industry like raising the THC threshold to one percent total THC,” says Atagi. 

Later this fall, Atagi plans to travel to Canada to participate in the first annual meeting of the newly formed Federal of International Hemp Organizations (FIHO) where he currently serves on the interim board as Treasurer. 

He remains optimistic about the U.S. hemp industry noting the growth potential in hemp fiber as the future of U.S. industrial hemp. 

“Cannabinoids have their place in the hemp economy, but the true future of the market as it sits now is in fiber and animal feed because of all of hemp’s different applications in manufacturing, textiles, and housing, and animal feed as a partner with traditional commodities for feed,” Atagi says.