Forward-thinking people are looking to the past for ways to create a sustainable future for people on this planet. An ancient plant has a long history of use throughout the world for many purposes. This plant, the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.), holds the potential for restoring the earth’s soil and supplying a range of goods for humans and animals in ways far less destructive than current methods. Here’s a look at hemp’s history, its current uses, and the hope possible for our future. First, let’s clarify what exactly hemp is and is not.
Hemp: Cannabis, but not Marijuana
Hemp and marijuana both are cannabis plants. The key difference is the amount of THC, the chemical that produces psychoactive effects associated with a “high.” Hemp is cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent of THC content per dry weight. All parts of the hemp plant can be used, from its chemical components and natural processes to its seeds, stems, roots, leaves, and flowers.
Hemp Production & History
Though hemp is experiencing a surge in popular discussion across the United States, the plant and its many uses have long been known in this country and across the globe. Hemp is literally woven into the origins of the nation, as well as the history of humankind. Below is an abbreviated timeline of hemp through the ages.
- The oldest fabric remnant, a 9,000-year-old hemp-weaved fabric, was uncovered by archeologists in Turkey.
- Hemp was one of the earliest crop plants, grown in China since about 4000 B.C. for textiles and food. Cannabis seeds for food were mentioned in many ancient Chinese texts.
- The world’s oldest piece of paper still intact was made about 150 B.C. in China, completely out of hemp.
- During the Middle Ages and Viking era, hemp was important throughout Europe, used to make canvas sails, ropes, and other textiles.
- In Colonial America, property owners were required to grow hemp in several colonies, and the U.S. Constitution was drafted on hemp paper.
- Hemp production flourished in the United States until Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which made growing hemp expensive for farmers.
- During World War II, the U.S. government organized a “Hemp for Victory” campaign encouraging farmers to grow hemp for the war effort.
- In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act made all cannabis, both marijuana, and hemp, illegal.
- 2018: The U.S. Congress passes the 2018 Farm Bill, removing hemp from the Controlled Substance Act and legalizing industrial hemp production.
Industrial hemp is allowed in most of the country, technically; the laws in all but three states and the District of Columbia allow cultivation of hemp for commercial, research, or pilot programs. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the states are still working on how to permit hemp cultivation practically. Each state is authorized to create a state industrial hemp program, which the USDA must approve. Despite the murky regulatory areas, farmers, researchers, and other growers are embracing the chance to legally grow hemp, for a variety of reasons and uses.
How Hemp Can Help Save the Environment
1. Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture aims beyond just achieving sustainability and farming with organic methods. It is a set of farming principles and practices designed to increase biodiversity, enrich soil, and enhance ecosystems. Hemp is well-suited for use in regenerative agriculture, since the fast-growing and quick-to-mature plants require little water and no pesticides, pull large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, and increase carbon and microbial content in soil.
2. Soil Cleanup
Through a process called phytoremediation, hemp production decontaminates soil. Cannabis plants absorb contaminants through fast-growing, deep roots, which store or even transforms toxins into a harmless substance. The plant draws out harmful heavy metals from the soil, for example, and hemp has even been used to decontaminate soil around the Chernobyl disaster.
Cars with exteriors made of hemp plastic and running on hemp biofuel lessen the human impact on the environment. Driving such a vehicle could be nearly five times greener than a conventional automobile. An acre of hemp can produce power equivalent to 1,000 gallons of gasoline.
4. Paper Products
When hemp is used to produce paper products, the consumer, the company, and the planet benefit. One acre of hemp, grown in about 20 weeks, can produce the same amount of paper as four to 20 acres of trees over a 20-year period. Hemp paper can be recycled up to eight times, while paper from trees can be recycled only three times. Hemp paper is more durable and can be made without the use of toxic chemicals.
5. Building Materials
Made from the shiv, the inner woody stem of the hemp plant, mixed with a lime-based binder, hempcrete forms a lightweight, durable building material. Hempcrete acts as an excellent insulator and soundproofer, plus has the following benefits:
- Non-toxic, with no off-gassing and no solvents
- Mold resistant, with high vapor permeability and humidity control
- Carbon sequestration, storing carbon dioxide rather than releasing into the atmosphere
- Fire resistant
- Pest resistant
Hemp Textiles and Products
Hemp fiber is among the most durable and versatile of all-natural textile fibers. Textiles from hemp:
- Hold shape without stretching
- Are mold-resistant
- Naturally resist UV light
- Are water absorbent, so they retain dye and color better
- “Breath” in warmer weather and retain warmth in cooler weather
Hemp textile production causes less environmental impact than cotton or wool, using significantly less water and pesticides.
7. Livestock Bedding
As bedding for livestock such as horses, chickens, and cattle, hemp hurds (the inner stalks) is longer lasting than traditional straw or wood shavings. Hemp bedding not only is long-lasting, it is very absorbent, produces low dust, controls odor, and is biodegradable.
8. Beauty / Skin Products
Described as the most balanced seed oil, hemp seed oil is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and all 21 known amino acids. Made from cold-pressing hemp seeds, the oil moisturizes well. Hemp seed oil also is antibacterial, does not clog pores, calms redness, and includes some UV protectant. For these reasons, hemp seed oil appears in a variety of skin lotions, creams, serums, and treatments.
Hemp and Human Health
Hemp seeds are nutritious, rich in healthy fats and essential fatty acids. An excellent protein source, hemp seeds also contain high amounts of important nutrients, including vitamin E, potassium, calcium, iron, and zinc.
Hemp flour made from hemp seeds is gluten-free and easily digestible. Grinding hemp seeds with water produces a dairy alternative, hemp milk.
10. Hemp Oil (CBD) for Health
For thousands of years, people across the globe have used hemp plants for medicinal purposes. Research into the health benefits of CBD, a chemical compound extracted from cannabis plants, is ongoing, but preliminary research suggests promising results. Alleged health benefits of CBD oil include:
- Stress management
- Anxiety relief
- Sleep improvement
- Reduction of pain
- Reduction of inflammation
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