by Katie Hunholz, Somervell County Master Gardener Intern
Hemp is a plant you probably have heard about before, but maybe not referred to in the most positive light. So, what is the big deal with this plant? Why is the planting of hemp so strictly regulated in the United States (in case you didn’t know it is actually illegal to plant or harvest hemp unless you have a permit from the government to do so)? And yet, many people strongly promote the growth of this plant and the changing of the strict laws concerning it. In fact, current research -and past history- have shown that hemp has amazing potential as a sustainable plant, being used to make numerous products with a smaller ecological footprint than plants being currently used. Hemp is an ingredient in many products produced in the United States- products which are not illegal. It is only the farming of hemp that is illegal, not its use in industry, nor its presence in products sold in the U.S. However, in order to use hemp to make a product, it needs to be imported from another country- most likely Canada or China.
Taking a brief look at the use of hemp throughout American history, illustrates the importance that this crop has had on our country. In the past, hemp was used for making paper (used for the Declaration of Independence), car parts (by Henry Ford, himself), clothing (including the first pair of jeans), and rope. After cotton became easier to harvest, the popularity of hemp in the U.S. greatly declined. However, the production and use of hemp increased from 1 million pounds per year to 150 million pounds per year during World War II, with the need for war materials made in the U.S. After the war, production of hemp decreased to only 3 million pounds; a decrease which continued until the eventual outlawing of production. But, obviously hemp was an item that was greatly valued at one time- a value that has begun to increase throughout the past few decades.
The green potential that hemp could provide in the future seems somewhat endless. If you refer to the attached diagram, you can see the many uses for hemp in the production of numerous products. Such products include food, flour, fuel, paint, cosmetics, shampoo, fabric, carpeting, and building materials. There are numerous advantages to using hemp in these materials. Paper made with hemp is resistant to mildew, while the amount of pulp produced by hemp is more per acre than that produced by timber. Hemp oil is extremely nutritious, having high amounts of essential fatty acids (which our bodies do not produce), B-vitamins, dietary fiber, and protein. In fact, only soybeans have a greater amount of protein than hemp, and hemp is more easily digested than soybeans. With only eight species known to naturally prey on hemp, hemp can be organically grown- free of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. It even makes an ideal rotational crop for farmers since it is a natural weed suppressor. Hemp is a very rapid grower which can be harvested only three months after being planted. The possibilities for hemp are extensive, yet despite its usefulness, there remain numerous objections to its legalization as a crop.
What are these objections, and why are hemp’s adversaries so adamant against it? The issue actually lies with a different cultivar of Cannabis sativa- marijuana. Despite the fact that hemp contains less than 1% of the chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive element that marijuana is known for, and that it has an entirely different genetic make-up, both varieties are able to cross-pollinate, and they are the same species. There are several distinct characteristics- beyond the presence of THC- that set hemp apart from its close relative. Hemp is grown as a tall, single stalk, with the plants being grown close together. Marijuana is a much shorter plant, in which bushy leaves and branches are encouraged, and the spacing between plants is less dense than hemp. Therefore, it is the fear of marijuana, hemp’s ‘brother’, that deters the planting of hemp and its legalization.
With the United States being the only industrialized nation that does not permit the production of hemp, and several states within the U.S. already making hemp’s production legal within their state, it seems inevitable that industrial hemp may soon become a common crop within our nation. In fact, recent regulations have passed through Congress that permit the production of hemp for strictly research/educational purposes within higher education institutions. Whether the legalization of hemp is a positive or negative direction for our nation, is a question that soon will be answered.
- Hemp Industries Association. (1994). Facts. (online). Available: http://www.thehia.org/facts.html
- Johnson, R. (6/2013). Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity. Congressional Research Service. (online). Available: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32725.pdf.
- Laws, B. 2012. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. New York. Firefly Books.
- Holleman, J. (2/2014). Industrial hemp farming wins first approval in S.C. Senate. Herald online. (online). Available: http://www.heraldonline.com/2014/02/20/5698639/industrial-hemp-farming-wins-first.html.