When most people think of hemp, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t a practical, easy-to-grow, affordable industrial fiber. The Cannabis sativa plant remains closely tied in the public imagination to hippies and patchouli, drug-fueled festivals, and, more recently, a widespread battle for legalized medicinal and recreational ingestion. However, the history of the plant is far greater than that of marijuana.
Hemp, like marijuana, is a species of Cannabis sativa. Unlike marijuana, however, it contains very low concentrations of the chemical THC – tetrahydrocannabinol – which is responsible for the “high” users experience when smoked or ingested. Hemp is also a thicker and more deeply-rooted plant that, as you can see here, offers an incredible variety of industrial uses.
The benefits to growing and using industrial hemp are vast, but, until recently, its cultivation has remained illegal in the United States. In this article, we’ll explore some of the history of hemp cultivation, as well as its environmental benefits.
Hemp Cultivation: A Brief History
Hemp has a global cultivation history that dates back thousands of years. The strong, durable fibers were used for rope, paper, and fabrics throughout history and landed in the United States in the early days of the colonies. In Jamestown, Virginia, farmers were actually required to grow the crop, which was used to make sails, clothing, and, later, even the plastics in cars.
However, as recreational use of its cousin, marijuana, rose, so did the fear. Although hemp is not psychoactive, its close association with marijuana was enough for lawmakers to ban its cultivation in the United States in the 1970’s under the Controlled Substances Act. Since then, farmers, ecologists, and legislators have pushed to decriminalize its production once again.
Currently, several states in the U.S. and many other countries allow production of industrial hemp. These products are used for everything from food to fuel and from clothing to construction materials. Although it remains illegal to grow in many places, its use as a raw material is gaining increasing momentum.
The Environmental Benefits of Industrial Hemp
Hemp is a practical crop that grows quickly, withstands tough environmental conditions, and has many uses. Its chemical isolates, like CBD, are also gaining public attention and popularity and even major companies like Coca Cola are considering its benefits as an ingredient. In addition to its usefulness as a resource, the cultivation of hemp offers many benefits to the environment as well.
One of the oldest applications of hemp is papers. The pulp offers an excellent alternative to wood-pulp paper that can vary just as much in thickness and quality. Hemp-pulp paper can be used for computer and copy paper, finer print papers, and cardboards without the toxic bleaching process. Hemp paper can be recycled over and over again – more than wood-pulp paper.
What’s more, hemp is a fast-growing and renewable resource compared to the evergreen trees usually used in paper making. Using the pulp from hemp for paper making can help significantly reduce deforestation globally.
A more recent application of hemp is in biofuels. The hemp species of Cannabis has shown promising use as an alternative fuel with limited emissions and excellent power for its mass. While the economic and criminal concerns surrounding hemp make it an unrealistic large-scale option for fuel now, hemp is an even better biodiesel than canola or soy oil – two of the most popular biofuels in use today.
Fabrics and Textiles
Like paper, fabrics are one of the oldest known uses of the hemp plant. The fibers, isolated from the tall, woody stalk, can be sewn into thin, breathable fabrics or tough, hearty canvases. These textiles have a range of purposes – sails and industrial canvas as well as clothing. Hemp-made fabrics are one of the most durable varieties in existence and they’ve been used by humankind for thousands of years.
The soft-fiber fabric produced by hemp is likewise environmentally friendly. Hemp takes up less space to grow than cotton and requires almost no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Cotton, on the other hand, requires constant pesticide use. Additionally, synthetic fibers often leave harmful by-products during production and linger in the environment after use – hemp fabrics do not have toxic production by-products.
Building Materials and Plastics
Another of the more recently-developed uses for the hemp plant is in building materials and plastics. Although not as effective in wet conditions as traditional concretes, hemp-based mortars have been found to be sturdy, lightweight, and cost-effective building blocks for many homes. The material leaves a small environmental footprint.
Similarly, hemp-based plastics offer an alternative to synthetic plastics that can have a much more disastrous environmental impact. Hemp cellulose can be used to create a biodegradable material that retains the sturdiness of traditional plastics – without the level of pollution.
Finally, industrial cultivation hemp offers an excellent source of food for both people and animals. Like soy, hemp seed contains a complete protein that makes it an ideal ingredient in animal feed. The lack of pesticides required to grow it on a large scale help keep the environmental cost low – and keep harmful chemicals out of the larger agricultural food chain.
As a source of human sustenance, hemp seed and oil also offer a relatively cheap-to-produce food with a high level of nutrition per weight. Unlike corn and wheat, which have incredibly versatile uses but relatively low nutritional value, hemp is packed with vitamins, essential omega fatty acids, and protein. Widespread cultivation of this crop can help impact the nutritional needs of the larger population while taking up relatively little space.
The Potential of Industrial Hemp
The industrial cultivation of hemp certainly has the potential to change the environment. By limiting the use of pesticides, offering affordable, durable materials, and encouraging alternatives to environmentally damaging products, the use of hemp may very well hold part of the key to changing the global condition. As the global agricultural community continues to push for its use and dispel the negative myths that surround it, we can expect to see the Cannabis plant make its way into more and more products – each with a little less environmental impact.
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