(This article was originally written for the Autumn 2019 Issue of Green Living PDX.)
Hemp Throughout The Ages
It may come as a surprise to many Americans that hemp (Cannabis Sativa) was once a central agricultural crop in this country. This forgotten plant shares millennia of synergy with humans. In fact, hemp was one of the earliest domesticated plants, dating back to the Neolithic age in China. In the 1700’s, American colonists were required to grow hemp. Hemp was even used to pay taxes for a time. Its uses included rope fiber, textiles, lamp fuel, and paper, and made hemp invaluable for farmers who required renewable resources while becoming established on new land.
Over time, the use of industrial hemp has expanded into numerous industries which include: health food, organic body care, clothing, biofuels, construction materials, plastic composites, and more. Some researchers have estimated that over 25,000 products can be made from hemp. Shoes, shirts, car parts, ethanol, skin salves, fiberboard, protein supplements, and CBD tinctures are just a few examples of these products.
We are living in pressing times. Climate change has reached undeniable extremes, and the global conversation around climate stabilization is centered on human behavior. Humans are being called to task around our consumption of the planet’s resources. The United States is the largest consumer of resources on this planet, and 70% of our economy is based not on producing, but on purchasing goods. We need solutions for meeting our basic needs while radically reducing and reversing our environmental impact. Hemp promises to play a key role in this shift and the recent legalization of US hemp farming is a pivotal shift towards a more sustainable and regenerative future for us all.
The Plant That Does It All
Hemp is easy to grow and highly productive. In a side by side comparison, hemp outcompetes several commonly used materials: cotton, wood, concrete, and petroleum based plastics.
On an annual basis, one acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as two to three acres of cotton. Hemp fiber is stronger and softer than cotton, lasts twice as long, and will not mildew. Hemp is frost tolerant, requires only moderate amounts of water, and can be grown in all 50 states. While cotton requires massive quantities of pesticides and herbicides (50% of the world’s pesticides and herbicides are used in the production of cotton), hemp requires neither of these, and only moderate amounts of fertilizer. Switching to hemp clothing helps dramatically reduce the pesticides and herbicides collecting in our air, soil, and waterways from cotton farming.
It takes years for trees to grow until they can be harvested for paper or wood. Hemp, on the other hand, is ready for harvest only 120 days after planting. Hemp can grow on most farmland, while forests and tree farms require large tracts of land available in few locations. Harvesting cultivated hemp rather than wild forests would also eliminate erosion due to logging, thereby reducing topsoil loss and water pollution caused by runoff.
Hemp is a building material upgrade. Several common building materials can be replaced by hemp. Hemp fiberboard is stronger and lighter than wood. Substituting hemp fiberboard for timber can help curb deforestation. Hempcrete is another promising material. The hurd, or woody inner core of the hemp plant, makes up 70% of its total weight. Hemp plants absorb silica from the soil, and when this silica-rich hurd is combined with unslaked lime, it forms a chemical bond similar to cement which is fire resistant and waterproof.
Hemp can be used to produce strong, durable, and environmentally-friendly plastic substitutes. Thousands of products made from petroleum-based plastics can be produced from hemp-based composites. Imagine biodegradable, compostable plastics replacing the single-use, trash-producing containers that are so pervasive today.
These examples only scrape the surface of what is possible with hemp. Hemp also provides cleaner fuel; the seeds and stalks contain oils which are used as a biofuel, and the fibrous stalks can be processed into ethanol more efficiently than corn. Hemp is a phytoremediator; phytoremediation is the method of using plants to repair damaged lands. In one season, hemp can purify soil by absorbing heavy metals and other contaminants, putting decommissioned land back into production. As the human population grows and topsoil becomes a more precious resource, preserving and remediating our existing farmlands helps provide healthier, more productive soils to meet our future needs.
More Than A Commodity
The promise of hemp, along with other sustainability crops, is only one side of the coin. Recovering from the disastrous effects of human consumption on this planet requires, first and foremost, a pause for reflection followed by a radical shift in our habits. Bioplastics are not the remedy to our overconsumption and single-use, disposable lifestyles. Hemp fabrics will not cure us of our collective addiction to wearing new clothes every season. Biofuels will not remedy our fast-paced lifestyles or our impulse to tread on every patch of pristine wilderness left standing.
Change begins at home. Each of us must examine the ways we participate in not only climate change but also climate solutions. We must also engage on the local and national level to support movements toward cleaner energy initiatives and away from fossil fuels. We must move our spending habits away from accumulation of material things and invest in that which brings us true satisfaction: good health, freedom to live in peace, and a sense of belonging in our communities. It is no coincidence that what is healthy for us is also healthier for the planet. We are a part of the natural world; we are not separate from it.
Hemp is more than a resource to be harnessed and commoditized. Hemp is a botanical ally with a great deal to teach us. It is essential that we treat this astounding plant with mindfulness and respect and expand that way of relating to the natural world at large. This is a rare opportunity. We have a chance to reacquaint ourselves with a plant that offers us so much: food, shelter, clothing, energy, and medicine. Our collective healing requires renewed understanding of our connection to the natural world, and the generosity of hemp affords us an opportunity to begin that work.
Until Next Time,
All Of Us at Frogsong Farm
Becca Recker is Director of Communications for Frogsong Farm. With a background in organic farming and permaculture design, Rebecca has been writing about soil health and local food access for nine years. The author of several blogs, she has contributed to articles for Oregon Leaf and Green Living PDX magazines, as well as the following websites: Civilized, Splimm, Miss Grass, and Flowertown. She has been a featured guest on the Periodic Effects and Your Highness podcasts.