Hemp Facts, Uses & Benefits

Industrial Hemp -A Plant for People, Planet, and Profit

Quite simply, industrial hemp is a miracle plant. The following is only the tip-of-the-iceberg for the upwards of 50,000 uses and benefits of industrial hemp.

Hemp’s Place in U.S. History – Hemp use dates back to the Stone Age, with hemp fiber imprints found in pottery shards in China over 10,000 years old.

From 1776 to 1937, hemp was a major American crop and textiles made from hemp were common. United States Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, used products made from hemp, and praised the hemp plant in some of their writings. Betsy Ross’s prototype American flag was made from hemp fibers. The paper used for the Declaration of Independence was also made from hemp fibers.

Yet, The American Textile Museum, The Smithsonian Institute, and most American history books contain no mention of hemp subsequent to the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The government’s War on Drugs has created an atmosphere of self censorship where speaking of hemp in a positive manner is considered politically incorrect or taboo. The suppression and illegalization of industrial hemp is arguably the result of industrialists concerns of it threatening any number of industries, including paper pulp, petroleum, plastics, and textiles, to name a few.

Industrial Hemp – Varieties

There are broadly two varieties of Cannabis Sativa varieties being cultivated today:

  • Varieties characterized by long stems, little branching, and a THC level of less than .03% are primarily cultivated for their fiber, seeds, and oil, and labeled as industrial hemp.
  • Varieties grown for medicinal or recreational purposes are labeled as marijuana.

Industrial Hemp – How It Stacks Up

Cotton Substitute – On an annual basis, 1 acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as 2 to 3 acres of cotton. Hemp fiber is stronger and softer than cotton, lasts twice as long as cotton, and will not mildew.

Cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires approximately 50% more water than hemp; but hemp is frost tolerant, requires only moderate amounts of water, and grows in all 50 states. Cotton requires large quantities of pesticides and herbicides–50% of the world’s pesticides/herbicides are used in the production of cotton. Hemp requires no pesticides, no herbicides, and only moderate amounts of fertilizer.

Paper & Wood Pulp Substitute – On an annual basis, 1 acre of hemp will produce as much paper as 2 to 4 acres of trees. From tissue paper to cardboard, all types of paper products can be produced from hemp.

It takes years for trees to grow until they can be harvested for paper or wood, but hemp is ready for harvesting only 120 days after it is planted. Hemp can grow on most land suitable for farming, while forests and tree farms require large tracts of land available in few locations. Harvesting hemp rather than trees would also eliminate erosion due to logging, thereby reducing topsoil loss and water pollution caused by soil runoff.

The quality of hemp paper is superior to tree-based paper. Hemp paper will last hundreds of years without degrading, can be recycled many more times than tree-based paper, and requires less toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process than does paper made from trees.

Hemp can be used to produce fiberboard that is stronger and lighter than wood. Substituting hemp fiberboard for timber would further reduce the need to cut down our forests.

Plastic Substitute – Hemp can be used to produce strong, durable and environmentally-friendly plastic substitutes. Thousands of products made from petroleum-based plastics can be produced from hemp-based composites.

Food & Nutrition – Hemp Seeds are a gift of nature. They are the most nutritious seed in the world. Hemp Seeds are a complete protein. They have the most concentrated balance of proteins, essential fats, vitamins and enzymes combined with a relative absence of sugar, starches and saturated fats. Hemp Seeds are one of nature’s perfect foods – a Super Food. This is one of the most potent foods available, supporting optimal health and well being, for life. Raw hemp provides a broad spectrum of health benefits, including: weight loss, increased and sustained energy, rapid recovery from disease or injury, lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced inflammation, improvement in circulation and immune system as well as natural blood sugar control.

Hemp seeds contain a protein that is more nutritious and more economical to produce than soybean protein. Hemp seeds are not intoxicating. Hemp seed protein can be used to produce virtually any product made from soybean: tofu, veggie burgers, butter, cheese, salad oils, ice cream, milk, etc. Hemp seed can also be ground into a nutritious flour that can be used to produce baked goods such as pasta, cookies, and breads.

Fossil Fuel Substitute – Hemp seed oil can be used to produce non-toxic diesel fuel, paint, varnish, detergent, ink and lubricating oil. Because hemp seeds account for up to half the weight of a mature hemp plant, hemp seed is a viable source for these products.

Just as corn can be converted into clean-burning ethanol fuel, so can hemp. Because hemp produces more biomass than any plant species (including corn) that can be grown in a wide range of climates and locations, hemp has great potential to become a major source of ethanol fuel.

Studies have shown that hemp’s biomass can be converted into energy and could replace nuclear power and our current fossil fuels.[Belle, Mika] Just by farming 6 percent of the US’s acreage this could be achieved. “Hemp grown in biomass could fuel a trillion-dollar-per-year industry, while at the same time create more jobs, clean our air, and distribute wealth to our communities and away from centralized power monopolies.” Hemp’s biomass can be converted into gasoline, methanol, and methane at a fraction of the current cost of oil, coal, or nuclear energy.

No other natural resource offers the potential of hemp. Cannabis Hemp is capable of producing significant quantities of paper, textiles, building materials, food, medicine, paint, detergent, varnish, oil, ink, and fuel. Unlike other crops, hemp can grow in most climates and on most farmland throughout the world with moderate water and fertilizer requirements, no pesticides, and no herbicides. Cannabis Hemp (also known as Indian Hemp) has enormous potential to become a major natural resource that can benefit both the economy and the environment.

Concrete Substitute – 70% of the Cannabis Plant total weight is made up of the ‘hurd’ or woody inner core. This part of the plant is THC free (i.e. Hemp) and is used in housing construction. The silica leached from the soil by the plant combined with unslaked lime forms a chemical bond similar to cement. Marketed as Hempcrete, this building material has many advantages compared to concrete, that include being: light weight, highly–insulative, fireproof, waterproof and windproof, breathable, resistant to pests (particularly termites) and mold, environmentally friendly by absorbing high volumes of CO2, non-hazardous to produce and handle, recyclable, durable, and made from a renewable and sustainable plant. Compared to concrete, which is in the top 5 of the world’s highest energy intensive (CO2 producing) industries, Hempcrete is simply a mixture of the hemp stalk, lime, and water, requiring virtually no energy to produce.

Fiber Uses – Until its rediscovery in the late 1980s, the use of hemp for fiber production had declined sharply over the past decades, but hemp still occupied an important place amongst natural fibers as it is strong, durable and unaffected by water. The main uses of hemp fiber were for rope, sacking, carpet, nets and webbing. A hemp clothing industry was reborn in the West in 1988, and hemp is being used in increasing quantities in paper manufacturing. The cellulose content is about 70%.

Industrial Hemp – Major hemp producing countries

From the 1950s to the 1980s the Soviet Union was the world’s largest producer (3,000 km² in 1970). The main production areas were in Ukraine, the Kursk and Orel regions of Russia, and near the Polish border.

Other important producing countries were China, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, France and Italy.

Canada, United Kingdom, and Germany all resumed commercial production in the 1990s. British production is mostly used as bedding for horses; other uses are under development. The largest outlet for German fiber is composite automotive panels. Companies in Canada, UK, USA and Germany among many others are processing hemp seed into a growing range of food products and cosmetics; many traditional growing countries still continue with textile grade fiber production.

Future of Industrial Hemp

In the last decade hemp has been widely promoted as a crop for the future. This is stimulated by new technologies which make hemp suitable for industrial paper manufacturing, use as a renewable energy source (biofuel), and the use of hemp derivatives as replacement for petrochemical products, including plastic.

The increased demand for health food has stimulated the trade in shelled hemp seed. Hemp oil is increasingly being used in the manufacturing of bodycare products.

THC Factor and Regulation

Hemp contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive ingredient found in hashish. THC is present in all hemp varieties to some extent. In varieties grown for use as a drug, where males are removed in order to prevent fertilization, THC levels can reach as high as 20-30% in the unfertilized females which are given ample room to flower.

In hemp varieties grown for seed or fiber use, the plants are grown very closely together and a very dense biomass product is obtained, rich in oil from the seeds and fiber from the stalks and low in THC content. International regulations limit THC content to 0.3% in industrial hemp.

On October 9, 2001, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ruled that even traces of THC in products intended for food use would be illegal as of February 6, 2002. This Interpretive Rule would have ruled out the production or use of hemp seed or hemp seed oil in food use in the USA, but after the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) filed suit the rule was stayed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 7, 2002. On March 21, 2003, the DEA issued a nearly identical Final Rule which was also stayed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 16, 2003. On February 6, 2004 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision in favor of the HIA in which Judge Betty Fletcher wrote, “[T]hey (DEA) cannot regulate naturally-occurring THC not contained within or derived from marijuana-i.e. non-psychoactive hemp is not included in Schedule I. The DEA has no authority to regulate drugs that are not scheduled, and it has not followed procedures required to schedule a substance. The DEA’s definition of “THC” contravenes the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and cannot be upheld”. On September 28, 2004 the HIA claimed victory after DEA declined to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States the ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals protecting the sale of hemp-containing foods. Industrial hemp remains legal for import and sale in the U.S., but U.S. farmers still are not permitted to grow it.

The DEA’s strong opposition to a chemical widely thought to be less addictive or harmful than legal nicotine or alcohol leads some of its critics to charge ulterior motives such as protection of the synthetic-fiber, wood pulp, petrochemical, and pharmochemical industries. The position has been an occasional embarrassment to the US government, as when they ignored their own arguments and grew it large-scale in Kentucky and Wisconsin for World War II.  Critics of the HIA, however, argue that the necessities of the war and the unavailability of adequate synthetic substitutes outweighed the social, health, and public safety risks of producing hemp. Today, they assert, those risks are substantial, according to many experts, because hemp resembles crude marijuana and there is no visual way to distinguish the two. This, alone, would make enforcement of the marijuana laws by federal and state authorities all but impossible if hemp were legalized. The critics of HIA often allege that it is the HIA that may have an ulterior motive in promoting hemp for economic reasons while really seeking to legalize marijuana for recreational use. They add that if the federal government were to authorize the production of industrial hemp, it would likely require registration of farmers, inspections and audits of farms, and a “strict liability” clause in the law to allow administrative seizure of all land parcels upon which any crude marijuana is grown or where hemp with a THC level above one percent is found. This would discourage farmers from trying to use hemp to circumvent the law’s prohibition of marijuana while still protecting the public’s right to produce industrial hemp — a compromise that would satisfy all but those with the aforementioned hidden agenda.

The presence of (some) THC in hemp varieties and the fear that THC could be extracted from industrial hemp for illegal purposes has hampered the development of hemp in many countries. Since the early 1990s, however, many countries, including Canada, Australia, the UK, The Netherlands and Germany, allow hemp plantings and commercial scale production. Plant breeders are working on the development of new varieties which are low in THC.

In 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill with an amendment to allow industrial hemp research at the states level with pilot programs to become the first step in restoring American hemp agriculture and manufacturing industries.