In December 2018, a landmark Farm Bill was approved by Congress that removed Hemp from the U.S Controlled Substances Act and allowed for nation-wide production of the plant.
Hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant, is defined by regulatory standards as containing no more than 0.3 percent delta-9 THC, a psychoactive cannabinoid, and is often higher in CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid linked to health benefits related to epilepsy, anxiety, and chronic pain. It’s a versatile plant that grows quickly and is touted as an eco-friendly solution for many industries. It can grow in a variety of climates and soil, taking only four months to reach maturity.
That’s why passage of the Farm Bill has come at such a watershed moment in a time when eco-friendly solutions are desperately needed to combat the increasing effects of climate change. Here are some ways Hemp could help pave the way toward a greener future.
1. It can replace cotton as the world’s main fiber.
The United States is a major consumer and producer of cotton, coming in third behind China and India. In 2016, the U.S. grew 17.1 million bales of the plant. Unfortunately, it’s far from a sustainable crop. Growing cotton can have a severe impact on the soil, leading to expansion into new fields and needless destruction of habitats. It also requires fertilizer and pesticides, which can affect biodiversity in areas surrounding the fields, the health of farmworkers, and contaminate nearby lakes and rivers. Meanwhile, hemp doesn’t require any chemicals to cultivate and actually improves the quality of soil it’s planted in. Hemp also takes half as much land and water to produce as cotton. Plus, depending on how it’s processed, hemp can turn out three to eight times stronger than cotton, leading to longer-lasting products. Cotton wasn’t always on top, either. Hemp once dominated the textile industry, especially during the 1920s when 80 percent of clothing was made of it.
2. It can also replace trees as a paper source.
In fact, it was once the main fiber used for paper in 150 BC China. The world’s oldest texts are Buddhist writings made on a combination of bark and hemp rags. But in the 1930s, synthetic textile companies and newspapers lobbied to prohibit hemp and it was criminalized with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Now that hemp prohibition has ended, it would behoove us all for the paper industry to make the switch. One acre of hemp can produce four times as much paper as one acre of trees and it grows at a much faster rate — trees take 20-80 years to grow, while hemp takes only four months. Using trees for paper also leads to deforestation, which results in habitat loss for many species and helps accelerate the effects of climate change.
3. Hemp absorbs CO2.
According to a 2011 report “The Role of Industrial Hemp in Carbon Farming” commissioned by the Australian parliament, hemp is the “ideal carbon sink.” It can absorb 22 tonnes of CO2 per 100 acres, which will come in pretty handy seeing as we need to remove nearly 700 gigatonnes of it from our atmosphere to avoid a climate disaster.
4. We can use it for fuel.
One of the biggest drivers of climate change is fossil fuels, like coal and oil. Not only is the burning of these fossil fuels leading to an increase in CO2, but it’s also resulting in oil spills and air pollution. We’ve known fossil fuels to be a problematic source of energy for some time now. So why do we continue to use it? Well, politics. That’s the main reason. But also because we haven’t found a fuel source that’s just as cost-efficient and easy to process as fossil fuels.
That’s where hemp comes in. Two types of fuel can be made from the plant — biodiesel, made from pressed hemp seeds, and methanol, made from fermented hemp stalk. It’s safer to transport, as it’s biodegradable and 10 times less toxic than table salt. It can also be stored anywhere petroleum can be, and the exhaust odor is much more pleasant.
5. We can build homes with it.
Hempcrete, a building material made from hemp stalk, water and powdered lime, has been receiving a lot of attention lately. It’s rightly deserved, seeing as hempcrete is sustainable, non-toxic and resistant to fire, mold and insects, making it the ideal building material. The stalk, water and lime are mixed together and left to dry, forming a durable and rock-hard brick. It can be used for everything from wall construction to flooring to roof installation. Hemp Technologies, a North Carolina-based company, has already started constructing eco-friendly homes with it.
Regardless of anyone’s stance on the legal status of cannabis, innovations involving hemp undoubtedly have the capacity to curb the effects of climate change, the single biggest challenge of our generation. It’s important to recognize the urgency and the opportunity we have to embrace a much-needed tool in the work ahead.