(First published 2007, last updated May 2017)
The word ‘hemp’ for many people still conjures up images primarily related to the mood altering drug, marijuana.
While cannabis sativa subsp. indica is certainly used extensively for medicinal, illicit and ‘recreational’ purposes; industrial hemp (cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa var. sativa) is a different strain containing very little of the psychoactive substance found in marijuana. You simply cannot get high on industrial hemp.
Industrial hemp is an extraordinarily useful plant that can provide more environmentally friendly food, fiber, fuel, medicinal and building products.
Hemp is incredibly robust to the point in some places it is invasive and is considered a noxious weed. Some varieties are very hardy and able to thrive in saline and heavily degraded soils. It’s these characteristics that make it a great candidate to replace pesticide and herbicide dependent crops such as cotton. Hemp is also a water miser and can be processed into useful products with little energy and without requiring toxic chemicals in processing.
Some additional fascinating facts about hemp:
- Hemp produces impressive yields of material – up to 25 tonnes of dry matter per hectare per year
- It can be used as a fodder for stock
- Hempseed has high levels of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, essential fatty acids and trace elements.
- Hempseed oil comprises nearly a third of the seeds’ weight; making it a viable source for cooking oil, lighting and bio-fuel.
- Hempseed oil is also beneficial as a body care product and can be made into soaps, conditioners and lotions.
- The stalk provides a very strong, durable and rot resistant fiber that has been used in the shipping industry for centuries. As hemp can grow over ten feet tall, the long fibers are perfect for rope.
- The short fibers of the stalk can be used in textiles as a replacement or blender fiber for cotton.
- The core of the stalk can be used to make paper and organic plastics.
- The woody core, known as hurds, can be mixed with lime, sand, plaster and cement to create a very strong concrete or building bricks.
- The core fiber can also be utilized in producing a fiberboard that is twice as strong as wood-based fiberboard.
- The stalk can be used to make methanol and ethanol
- Hemp can be planted as a crop for restoring the fertility of fields in the process of stock rotation.
- Given its fast growth (up to 13 feet in 90 days), hemp may also be useful in carbon sequestration – taking carbon out of the air and putting it back into the earth.
- Hemp is a great insulation material that can be applied in the wall cavities and roof spaces of houses as a replacement for fiberglass batts.
- The flowers and leaves are used to make medicines for treating many ailments such as glaucoma and cancer sufferers can be prescribed it to ease pain.
.. and that’s just a short list. So given that industrial hemp is so useful, why is the cultivation of it generally banned or severely curtailed in some places? Most hemp products we buy in Western countries are imported.
Hemp was one of the world’s most widespread textile fibre until the invention of the cotton gin (a machine that separates cotton fibers from it’s seeds) in the 19th century. This invention, and the lack of similar equipment for hemp, saw the cotton industry become very powerful, very quickly
However, the cotton industry still saw hemp as a threat. Add to that the confusion with marijuana and it wasn’t too difficult to demonize hemp and consequently have legislation in place to ban its cultivation.
Thankfully, this is changing; but the changes are too slow.
Hemp is truly an amazing plant that Western society should be making far more use of in an effort to reduce our impact on the environment. Hemp products such as some of those mentioned above aren’t outlawed, so we should be doing more to help farmers grow it in our own countries.