Energy. Fuel. Food…all are becoming more expensive.
One crop has great potential as a solution to some of our climbing costs and declining natural environments, but only if it’s made legal again.
During my Master Gardner classes last fall, we inevitably talked about crops — which species are best for which soils, how to rotate crops to prevent nutrient depletion, which species produce the most output for the least energy input, etc.
During these discussions, the overall benefit of one plant in particular stood out to me: cannabis.
Industrial hemp, ( cannabis sativa ), has more than 25,000 uses, from textiles to birdseed to health and beauty products. However, in the United States, hemp is illegal to grow, even though our founding fathers grew it and drafted our Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
The reasons hemp is illegal are somewhat disputed. One reason may be because it happens to look like a cousin, which, according to some, endangers human health – cannabis indica, otherwise known as marijuana. Because hemp and marijuana look the same, you can imagine the difficulty faced by federal drug enforcement officers if Americans were allowed to grow hemp but not marijuana.
But what if, say, someone bred a strain of hemp to be purple or orange so it would stand out against its naughty cousin? If the difference was clear, could we not grow it then?
Same Genus, Different Beast There are hundreds of cultivars, or varieties, of the cannabis plant. Though they share common genetics, industrial hemp and marijuana are not the same things.
For starters, to satisfy the United Nations Narcotics Convention, hemp has been bred to contain almost no delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Most hemp has about 0.3%. You could smoke a hemp cigarette every hour of every day and not feel anything. You’d just be tarring your lungs. Marijuana, on the other hand, contains between 6 – 20% THC. Smoke just one marijuana cigarette and, well, apparently it’s a different experience altogether.
Hemp was first lumped together with marijuana when the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act was passed in 1937. Some scholars believe that Andrew Mellon, the United States Secretary of Treasury at the time and investor in DuPont’s new synthetic fiber, nylon, was a major force behind hemp being added to the 1937 Act. The success of nylon, and Mr. Mellon’s investments, relied heavily upon the status of hemp, which was the major source of fiber before Act was passed.
William Randolf Hearst, America’s leading newspaper publisher during the time hemp was prohibited, had many timber holdings and could have benefited from the switch from hemp to trees for making paper. Coincidentally, according to some scholars, Hearst’s newspapers were the ones that published the country’s most sensational stories linking marijuana to acts of violence during the campaign in the 1930’s to spread awareness of the dangers of the “Marijuana Menace”.
Whether or not marijuana actually endangers human health or negatively effects human behavior anymore than, say, alcohol is a debate for another time and place, and one I’m not sure I’m willing to join.
But hemp and its potential for reducing deforestation, carbon emissions, and overall energy consumption, not to mention improving the health of humans and animals when consumed, is something I can devote some time to.
Hemp poses no known danger to human health, and in fact it can do a lot to improve the health of, not just humans, but the planet as a whole.
Industrial Substitute Hemp is the world’s strongest natural fiber. It produces four times as much material for paper per acre than a forest. And while trees take decades to grow, hemp crops required only about 120 days.
According to the World Resources Institute, 47% of the world’s forests have been lost. Only 21% are currently intact, however, everyday more are lost. Loss of biodiversity, particularly in tropical forests, is of grave concern. Once a species is gone, it’s never coming back. With almost half of the world’s forests now gone, what does that say about the loss of our planet’s plant and animal species?
Indigenous peoples living in some forests are being forced to leave their homes and completely change their lifestyles.
Hemp, which can be used as fuel for transportation and manufacturing, has a ton of industrial, commercial, and residential applications. It can be instrumental in providing for our energy and commodity needs while preventing further deforestation.
In 1938, Popular Mechanics wrote that “over 25,000 products can be manufactured from hemp, from cellophane to dynamite.” That was 1938! Since then, technology has flourished. God only knows how many uses the plant could have in the future.
According to the North American Industrial Hemp Council’s (NAIHC) website, “hemp can displace cotton, which is usually grown with massive amounts of chemicals harmful to people and the environment. 50% of all the world’s pesticides are sprayed on cotton.” Because hemp plants grow so tightly together, there’s little need for herbicides to control weeds.
And consider the following facts:
Rudolf Diesel designed the diesel engine to run on hemp oil;
Hemp can be used to make molded plastics, livestock feed and bedding, building and construction materials, clothing and other textiles, essential oils, medicines, paper products such as toilet paper and magazines, and tasty yet nutritional food products;
Hemp seeds contain all the essential amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary to maintain healthy human life. You can buy hemp seed oil in almost any health food store in America;
Most birdseed in the United States has hemp seed in it, since it is high in protein.
You can sell hemp products in America, you just can’t grow it. Or can you?
According to the NAIHC’s website, though “it is theoretically possible to get permission from the government to grow hemp, DEA would require that the field be secured by fence, razor wire, dogs, guards, and lights, making it cost-prohibitive.” It’s much cheaper and less stressful to just buy hemp from Canada, which legalized industrial hemp in 1998 after 50 years of prohibition.
According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp Report of 2010, Canada regulates industrial hemp through the legislative body Health Canada. (What’s hemp got to do with health again? Oh yea, it’s healthy.)
The report describes the regulatory process in Canada as follows:
Anyone who wants to grow, import, export, sell, transport, or possess industrial hemp must apply to receive a valid license, permit or authorization from Health Canada. The application requires each person to submit their name, address, phone number, date of birth, the address of each place where industrial hemp is to be stored, sold or provided, the approved cultivar to be sown (from Health Canada’s official list of Approved Hemp Cultivars), the number of hectares to be cultivated for seed, grain, or fiber, the number of acres cultivated for industrial hemp in the previous two years, the Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of cultivated sites and an accompanying map showing the site locations in terms of their legal descriptions, a statement that the applicant is the owner of the land to be used for cultivation or a statement, signed by the owner of the land, indicating that he or she consented to that use, and the address of any property where the applicant will retain records, books, electronic data or other documents required by the IHR.
So Why Not Here, Eh? So why can’t we grow hemp in, say, Minnesota, or any other state for that matter? One of the reasons hemp prohibitionists use when advocating against the legalization of hemp is that fields of it can be used to hide marijuana plants. But according to the NAIHC, “if hemp does pollinate any nearby marijuana, genetically, the result will always be lower-THC marijuana, not higher-THC hemp. If hemp is grown outdoors, marijuana will not be grown close by to avoid producing lower-grade marijuana.”
Several states, including Minnesota, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Maryland, Arkansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and (of course) California have all put legislation in place to allow the experimental growth of industrial hemp to determine the potential economic (and environmental, in some cases) benefits the crop can bring.
Colorado passed legislation most recently, Bill HJR10-1027 in 2010, recognizing “industrial hemp as a valuable agricultural commodity, and, in connection therewith, urging Congress to clarify the federal definition of industrial hemp, facilitate domestic production of industrial hemp, and remove barriers to state regulation of the production of industrial hemp.”
With rising costs in energy, food, and things in general, the United States would benefit from changing hemp’s status back to what it was in the days when Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin found it of immense value.
Alternative Energy Natural gas drilling is touted as a bridge to energy independence. Natural gas is said to be much cleaner than coal. But is it as clean as alternatives?
Hemp is renewable and sustainable. Natural gas is not.
Because we depended upon hemp in the past, we already know that we can grow the hardy plant successfully and manufacture it at great economic and environmental benefit.
It costs a lot of money to convert a coal burning power plant to natural gas. Penn State University is spending millions to convert one of its Main Campus plants to natural gas. But when the gas is no longer viable, how many more millions of dollars will be spent converting to the next fuel source, to one that is sustainable and renewable?
“Wait, what’s that you say, little birdie? Why not just convert straight to the fuel source that’s already renewable and sustainable?”
Well, I’m not really sure. Here’s where you come in. Let us all ask someone who may be able to answer — someone who can advocate for real change in our state’s policies…maybe even work toward applying the benefits of agricultural hemp
Happy Earth Day, everyone. Remember to give alms to your planetary mother.