What is hemp? A key part of our sustainable food future.
What is hemp, and how does it fit into the future of our food supply? Here’s a primer about hemp production and the benefits of this amazing plant.
Hemp seems to offer a world of promise for the future of food, fuel, and sustainable agriculture, but can hemp production in the US really thrive? We’ve written a lot about hemp, and since I’m a former farmer and everyday foodie, I have a fairly good understanding of the benefits of this awesome plant, and think it offers a lot of promise.
What is hemp?
Hemp is a plant that can be grown for food, oil, fiber, building products, and fuel. It really does seem to be the all-purpose plant, and yet it’s mostly illegal to grow it here in the United States because of its botanical relationship to marijuana. The only provisions for hemp farming is in partnership with a university or state agricultural department.
But to anyone in the know (not the government), we know hemp is different from marijuana. With zero THC, hemp has none of the psychoactive components of marijuana, and would likely make you sick if you smoked it. And yet hemp production in the US is still mired in controversy, despite the fact that it could be VERY profitable.
The Growth of the Hemp Industry
But there are so many reasons to reconsider hemp.
According to this post on Grist: A real hemp industry could be as much as 10 times bigger than legal marijuana, which is already a potentially $1 billion industry in Washington and$200 million in Colorado. It can produce 250% more fiber than cotton on the same amount of land with little or no pesticide use, as I wrote in a recent post on Eat Drink Better. The Hemp Industry Association reports that hemp is a $620 million dollar industry despite restrictions.
And yet hemp cultivation is not growing as rapidly as it should. A recent article on Civil Eats examines the first two years of U.S. hemp production, and addresses what the future of the crop might hold.
Firstly, farmers are having a hard time getting seeds, and many of the farmers are totally new to this crop, and are thus having a bit of trial and error.
Another challenge is the legal vortex in Oregon, which allows industrial hemp, recreational cannabis, and medicinal cannabis to be grown, each with their own set of laws. Lindsay Eng, director of market access and certification for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), is quoted in Civil Eats saying, “the complexity of law and regulations about three different types of cannabis production do provide some challenges for growers and agencies to navigate.”
So growth has been slow. Civil Eats reports that “in 2014, only 125 acres total were planted in Colorado, Kentucky, and Vermont, according to the Hemp Industries Association. The organization doesn’t have numbers yet for 2015, but Kentucky alone reports 922 acres planted versus 33 in 2014.” So even though 26 states allow hemp production trials, only seven states planted the crop in 2015: Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont.
Of these, Hawaii seems poised to make some substantial headway with field trials. As the Maui sugar lands are shut down, some state representatives are looking to move the research permits to Maui (currently they are with the University of Hawaii on Oahu), where truly large scale production can happen, hopefully setting some standards for the hemp industry as a whole.
4 Reasons to Rethink Hemp
1. Sustainable, Affordable Building Materials
Hempcrete is made using the woody, balsa-like interior of the Cannabis sativa plant (the fiber for textiles comes from the outer portion of the stalk) combined with lime and water. Though it lacks the structural stability its name might suggest, hempcrete does provide natural insulation that is airtight yet breathable and flexible. It is free from toxins, impervious to mold and pests, and virtually fireproof.
Best of all, hempcrete is a sustainable building material because hemp can be grown and replenished relatively quickly. Hemp based building materials could usher in a new era of “green” building products, according to the New York Times. Hemp fiber has excellent sound-proofing qualities and is extremely water resistant, giving it many applications in the building industry. The stalks can be made into plywood and chipboard, leading to potentially building homes with hemp products!
2. Healthy, Sustainable Food
Hemp has good fats with a balance of omega 3 and 6 fats; hemp seeds also are a great protein source. Hemp protein is very digestible and seems to be easier to assimilate than other plant-based proteins, and contains all 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) our bodies cannot produce. Check out my collection of hemp recipes: great hemp recipes like these Creamy Almond-Hemp Dressing, Hemp Cookies, Strawberry Fruit Milk, or Hemp Protein Bars.
3. Great Raw Material to Replace Plastics and Synthetics
The GoGreen blog notes that Hemp can replace most toxic petrochemical products. Research is being done to use hemp in manufacturing biodegradable plastic products like, plant-based cellophane, recycled plastic mixed with hemp for injection-molded products, and resins made from the oil. It can also make soft stuff too: according to Nomads Hempwear, hemp is the most durable of natural fibers: 3.3 times more durable than cotton. The extended life of hemp means that if everyone wore it, we could reduce by one third the resources needed to clothe the planet. It’s also UV protective!
Hemp can also be made into paper. According to The Dirt, Hemp yields four times as much fiber per acre than timber and so is a viable replacement for tree paper. As hemp is naturally low in lignin, which has to be removed to make paper, it’s easier to process and. It is also naturally creamy white in color and does not require as much (if any) bleaching.
4. Great for Sustainable Agriculture
Hemp grows easily in variable soil conditions, and uses low amounts of chemical and water inputs. Hemp is also a great cover crop, helping with phytoremediation of damaged soils, or simply to improve and aerate existing healthy soils, helping to reduce the presence of nematodes and fungi. Hemp is often considered a very drought-tolerant plant, making it suitable for many types of climates, but I could not find a legitimate research based citation for this.