Hemp is a plant with the botanical name Cannabis sativa. It is not the same as the
Cannabis or “pot” plant. Instead, it is a crop that can be raised for a wide variety of useful
products. The hype about hemp has given it a reputation of being something of a miracle
plant that can revolutionize the economy. A look at these claims gives us more rational
expectations of what hemp products can do.
Hemp is a fibrous plant that was grown for many uses in China as far back as 2700 B.C.
In the 1500s, Europeans used hemp to make both textiles and food. Hemp was brought to
the New World with the Puritans, who grew it for their basic needs. Even George
Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon. Hemp grows in a shrub form to about 18-feet
tall with different growing conditions and a different harvest time than its marijuana
cousin. The fiber of the plant is similar to flax. The plant is naturally resistant to insects
and diseases, which means that fewer pesticides are needed during cultivation. It is also
drought resistant, which helps to conserve water resources. Almost every part of the
hemp plant can be utilized in some fashion. About 30 countries of the world currently
grow hemp agriculturally, and it is used in a wide variety of products.
Legal Issues of Hemp
Hemp contains much less of the active ingredient delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC,
that produces the euphoria of marijuana. Marijuana generally consists of 3 to 20 percent
of the THC component, while hemp consists of less than one percent. Because of its
similarity to marijuana in chemical composition, hemp growing has been forbidden by
law in the United States since early in the 20 th century. The confusion of hemp with
marijuana has kept it from being a widely grown crop despite its many obvious benefits.
As a farm crop, hemp can produce a higher yield of usable materials than cotton.
One of its most beneficial features is that it is a “nitrogen sparing” plant. This
means that instead of drawing nitrogen from the soil, it actually adds nitrogen to
it. Nitrogen is a critical component for plant growth. Less chemical fertilizer is
needed, which helps to preserve the environment. Hemp can be grown in a wide
range of soil types and climate conditions. It can produce 2 to 3 times more crop
than cotton per acre. Hemp can be used as a fuel, for paper, for clothing, for food
products and for construction material.
As a clothing fabric, hemp “breathes” like linen, which keeps the wearer cooler in
summer. Hemp clothing can be produced without toxic chemicals, thus causing
less pollution. Hemp is naturally hypoallergenic and will not irritate the skin of
sensitive individuals. It is a long-lasting fabric that can even be recycled into
paper products when no longer usable for clothing.
Hemp as fuel is not currently economically viable, but as methods advance, it can
be expected to contribute to “energy independence,” that is, the long-term goal of
the nation’s energy usage. It can be easily produced domestically, pollutes 30
percent less than petroleum products and is not dangerous to store or handle. A
truly “renewable” source of energy, hemp crops can become an economic boom
for farmers across the country.
Hemp seeds provide a nutritious source of protein, carbohydrate, essential fatty
acids and fiber. Hemp seed oil can be made into a number of grades for food,
body care products or for technical uses. Hemp meal, left over after the seed are
crushed and the oil removed, can be make into a non-dairy milk product, flour or
grain base for making beer.
Hemp fiber can be used to reinforce and add flexibility to concrete, or it can be
used directly from the field as a building construction material. Hemp fiber can be
used in plastics and in number of industrial processes instead of mineral fiber.
For clothing, hemp tends to wrinkle much like linen. Its texture can also be
scratchy, depending on how the fabric is blended. Colorfastness and vibrancy of
color can be a problem. Drying in automatic dryers can cause shrinkage.
At the current date, processing hemp for fuel is too expensive, and there is no
technological development that is expected to change this status in the near-term.
Other energy sources such as petroleum, solar and wind power will continue to be
the main sources of cheap energy for the near future.
Using hemp for paper products requires specific harvest times, unlike the harvest
of trees for paper. Storing hemp fiber to prevent spoilage over a period of time
adds additional costs to the production of paper from this material.
Hemps long, strong fibers can be a disadvantage in processing requiring special
techniques and mechanical supervision to avoid tangling of the material.
Though hemp as a farm crop is not a cure-all for modern society’s ills, the facts suggest
that it could be a decisive help in advancing energy sustainability and less pollution to
keep our planet healthier in the years to come. Legislation is currently underway in many
states to remove the restrictions on growing hemp as an agricultural crop.