Industrial hemp; the misunderstood cousin of marijuana. This crop once dominated the landscape of American agriculture with upwards of 25,000 uses. Now, its cultivation is banned in the U.S. But what caused industrial hemp to become the black sheep of American agriculture?
In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively began the era of hemp prohibition. Tax and licensing regulations, misplaced fears that industrial hemp is the same thing as marijuana, and targeted harassment by law enforcement made hemp cultivation difficult for American farmers. By the 1970s, the Controlled Substances Act formally prohibited the cultivation of industrial hemp, which was lumped in with marijuana as a controlled substance.
On an annual basis, 1 acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as 2 to 3 acres of cotton. Hemp fiber is stronger and softer than cotton, lasts twice as long as cotton, and will not mildew. It takes years for trees to grow until they can be harvested for paper or wood, but hemp is ready for harvesting only 120 days after it is planted.
As one of the world’s oldest domesticated crops, hemp has been used for thousands of years to produce paper, textiles, and cordage, dating back to 8000 B.C.
In the U.S., industrial hemp was a prominent raw material in the 19th century, used to make everything from sails on ships to the canvas covers of pioneer wagons. Even the U.S. Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.
Through the years, this renewable resource has been developed around the world into more than 50,000 products, including health foods, body care, clothing, construction materials, biofuels, plastics and more.
So what is hemp, and how does it differ from the psychoactive cannabis consumed medically and recreationally? Let’s break down industrial hemp so you can understand this incredibly versatile resource.
What is industrial hemp?
Cannabis plants come in many varieties. Hemp, or industrial hemp, refers to the non-psychoactive varieties of cannabis, which contain less than one percent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While both industrial hemp and marijuana are derived from the same plant, they are distinctly different genetically and can be further distinguished by chemical makeup, usage, and cultivation methods.
What can hemp do?
Industrial hemp is one of the most versatile raw materials known to man. This hardy, low water input crop can be grown almost anywhere and the entire plant can be utilized.
Nutrition rich hemp seeds are mainly used as dietary products. The seeds are often hulled and can be eaten raw, ground into a meal, made into milk, and are even used to make protein powder. Hemp seeds can also be pressed and made into oil. Hemp seed oil can be used as salad dressing, paint, ink, and is a core ingredient in many body care products. Rich in healthy fats, protein, and various minerals, hemp seeds are a true superfood.
Inside the stalk of industrial hemp, you can find a long, string-like fiber, which runs the length of the plant. This is known as bast fiber. When harvested correctly, the fiber is actually stronger than steel. The stalk and its fiber are used predominantly in clothing, construction materials, and paper. Other uses of hemp stalk include apparel, bags, rope, netting, canvas, and carpet.
Between the bast fiber and the hollow core of an industrial hemp stalk, there is a woody section known as the hurd. Hemp hurd is highly absorbent and rich in cellulose, which gives it great thermal and acoustic properties. The hurd can be used in a wide variety of industrial and everyday products, such as cement, insulation, and paper. It can also be used to make biodegradable plastics that can be easily broken down and recycled.
So what’s next for industrial hemp?
Major companies, such as Ford Motor Company and Patagonia, still use sustainable hemp seed, fiber, and oil to produce a variety of products. However, these and other manufacturers are forced to import their raw hemp materials from growers in Canada, China, and Europe because American farmers are prohibited from growing this low-input sustainable crop.
But industrial hemp might be making a comeback. The 2014 Farm Bill, which allows states that have passed their own industrial hemp legislation to grow industrial hemp for purposes of research and development, has encouraged farmers to reacquaint themselves with this environmentally friendly crop. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his intention to introduce “The Hemp Farming Act of 2018”, which will delist industrial hemp as schedule one narcotic. If the federal prohibition is finally lifted, industrial hemp will once again be available to American farmers, and from there the possibilities are limitless.