Ecology, Economy, Sustainable Industries, Industrial Hemp

Industrial Hemp: A Win-Win For The Economy And The Environment


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Logan Yonavjak Logan Yonavjak, Contributor

Logan Yonavjak (@Loganyon) makes a case for allowing farmers in the United States to grow hemp.

Industrial hemp was once a dominant crop on the American landscape. This hardy and renewable resource (one of the earliest domesticated plants known, with roots dating back to the Neolothic Age in China) was refined for various industrial applications, including paper, textiles, and cordage.

Over time, the use of industrial hemp has evolved into an even greater variety of products, including health foods, organic body care, clothing, construction materials, biofuels, plastic composites and more (according to one source, more than 25,000 products can be made from hemp).

In the U.S., the first hemp plantings were in Jamestown, Virginia, where growing hemp was actually mandatory. From then on hemp was used in everything from 19th century clipper ship sails to the covers of pioneer wagons. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, and even the finest Bible paper today remains hemp-based.

English: Cultivation of industrial hemp for fi...

Industrial hemp being grown for fiber and grain in France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the early 20th century, hemp-derived cellulose was promoted as an affordable and renewable raw material for plastics; Henry Ford even built a prototype car from biocomposite materials, using agricultural fiber such as hemp.

After that things started to go downhill. In 1937, the passage of “Marihuana Tax Act” occurred, and, despite the U.S. government’s “Hemp for Victory” campaign during World War II, misplaced fears that industrial hemp is the same as marijuana combined with targeted harassment by law enforcement discouraged farmers from growing hemp. The last crop was grown in Wisconsin in 1958, and by 1970 the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) formally prohibited cultivation (although the state of Hawaii is home to the first industrial hemp crop to be cultivated since the passage of the CSA).

The Situation Today

Sustainable hemp seed, fiber and oil are still used in raw materials by major companies, including Ford Motors, Patagonia, and The Body Shop, to make a wide variety of products. However, most hemp product manufacturers are forced to import hemp seed, oil and fiber from growers in Canada, Europe, and China because American farmers are prohibited by law from growing this low-input sustainable crop.

In 2012 the U.S. hemp industry was valued at an estimated $500 million in annual retail sales and growing for all hemp products, according to the Hemp Industries Association, a non-profit trade organization consisting of hundreds of hemp businesses.

Not only can hemp be used for an astonishing number of products, its net environmental benefit is impressive. Among the more salient features, hemp grows in a variety of climates and soil types, is naturally resistant to most pests, and grows very tightly spaced allowing it to outcompete most weeds. A natural substitute for cotton and wood fiber, hemp can also be pulped using fewer chemicals than wood because of its low lignin content. Its natural brightness can obviate the need to use chlorine bleach.

Why is this incredible plant illegal?

Because it is erroneously confounded with marijuana, and many policymakers believe that by legalizing hemp they are legalizing marijuana, which is not true. Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, along with over twenty other countries, cultivate and process industrial hemp without affecting the enforcement of marijuana laws. (More common misperceptions about hemp and factual rebuttals.)

In fact, industrial hemp and marijuana are different breeds of Cannabis sativa; hemp has no value as a recreational drug. Actually smoking large amounts of hemp flowers can produce a significant headache, but not a high.

To delve further in the details, in most western countries industrial hemp is distinguished from marijuana on the basis of THC (the chief intoxicant in marijuana) content, which allows the growing of industrial hemp for fiber and seed. Regulations in the E.U. and Canada (31 countries currently grow industrial hemp) limit THC levels in hemp flowers to 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively, and prevent attempts to camouflage marijuana in hemp fields. Comparatively, THC levels in marijuana flowers are generally between 3 percent and 15 percent.

A hemp revival is beginning to gain momentum. Perception is beginning to shift in the U.S. Over the past several decades, there’s been a resurgence of interest in hemp by a diverse but increasingly politically influential and unified group of businesses, farmers, nutritionists, activists, and green consumers.

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