Sit with any dedicated cannabis campaigner for a few hours and you’ll likely hear that hemp could solve all the world’s problems, if it wasn’t for the great paper conspiracy. In the eyes of some, hemp has the potential to replace plastic, animal feed, wood, petrol, concrete and pretty much every drug in the pharmacist’s cabinet.
While some of that may be true, the conspiracy against hemp remains questionable at best.
The idea that hemp was criminalised in favour of the paper industry is a theory that stems from Jack Herer’s book The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Herer was a popular and successful cannabis campaigner, and rightly so. His book claims that the hemp ban was the result of a plot by the publishing powerhouse Hearst, which was heavily invested in wood and paper pulp at a time hemp extraction was becoming more efficient. While the claim has been examined and challenged, Herer’s justified popularity among the weed community, plus a synergy between cannabis and conspiracy, means the myth persists today.
Herer’s conspiracy might be loose, but the idea that hemp is an overlooked wonderplant shouldn’t be dismissed as stoner nonsense.
Hemp has been used for thousands of years. Fragments of hemp rope have been unearthed in countless locations, dating back to the Middle Ages, from Viking ships to Roman wells. Hemp use as a foodstuff also dates back millennia, with evidence of both hemp seeds and oils being used in Ancient Chinese civilizations who cultivated the plant as far back as 6000BC.
While it’s true that hemp fell out of favour thanks to the criminalisation of THC rich cannabis strains, the plant is having a resurgence in popularity today, thanks to its ecological credentials.
Hemp the wonder crop
In agricultural terms, hemp is fast growing. In around 3-4 months, hemp stalks will reach full maturity and be ready for harvest. Seeds germinate easily, and in a wide range of soils and conditions, thanks to thousands of years of selective breeding. This means that there are strains of hemp that can be grown in a wide range of countries and climates across the world.
As well as being fast growing, hemp requires little intervention. As a plant with a natural resistance to pests, it needs no chemical pesticides, herbicides or irrigation. Fewer damaging chemicals mean more wildlife, such as bees, insects and birds.
Impressed? There’s plenty more to hemp’s eco-credentials; as well as being easy to grow without chemicals, it also improves the soil it grows in, thanks to its deep reaching roots and the nutrient-rich biomass it sheds. Hemp has also been shown to absorb heavy metals and toxins from the soil, even from the heavily contaminated fields around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Perhaps most pertinent to our current global situation, hemp is also an excellent absorber of CO2. According to a recent study the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at Cambridge, hemp is twice as effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere as forests, with study author Darshil Shah stating that “Industrial hemp absorbs between 8 to 15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare of cultivation. In comparison, forests typically capture 2 to 6 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year depending on the number of years of growth, the climatic region, the type of trees etc.”
We know that hemp is a great crop, but what about the other claims from the cannabis fraternity? Can hemp replace some of our most un-environmental practices? In theory, yes it could.
Beyond the hemp fields
Hemp’s replacement for plastic is already making some serious inroads, particularly in the automotive industry. Luxury car makers such as Polestar, BMW and Porsche have all utilised hemp composites to lighten the load of their cars. Hemp plastics are a godsend for car manufacturers, thanks to their weight and strength, being 3.5 times stronger than oil-based plastics and 5 times lighter all while remaining biodegradable.
It’s not only the production of cars where hemp can help us get from A to B with less impact on the planet. The plant can also be processed into bio-fuel, and used in any diesel engine without modification. By using a crop that sequesters the CO2 it produces through combustion, hemp has the potential to at least stabilise carbon levels in the atmosphere while greener alternatives are found.
Concrete is one of the most prolific building materials across the world, and also one of the most polluting. After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on the planet, and it’s believed to be responsible for 4-8% of global CO2 emissions. But it too can be replaced by hemp. Hempcrete is made by mixing hemp shives, the woody inner parts of the hemp stalks, with lime to create a lighter, less brittle alternative to concrete with incredible thermal properties. As well as being a suitable material for the structure, hemp alternatives to wood, fabric and insulation all exist for the eco-conscious builder.
Even our humble food chain could be revolutionised by hemp in the fight against climate change, thanks to hempseed. Richard Rose has been producing plant-based foods for over 40 years and turned his attention to hemp 27 years ago. He believes that hemp not only has a greater potential to reduce emissions in our food chain, but it’s the industry that would find it easiest to make the switch, as hempseed can be used directly to make dairy-like foods such as ice cream, milk, yoghurt, and even meat alternatives. Unlike most other aspects of hemp, incorporating hempseed into manufacturing processes would be very easy for food producers. Considering estimates place food production at being responsible for a quarter of all green-house gas emissions, hemp based foods have huge potential to curb our impact on climate change.
If hemp has all this potential, why isn’t it being more widely used?
Globally, hemp has attracted a stigma thanks to the fruitless 50 year war on drugs. Because of prohibition, research has stalled and remained underfunded until recent years.
In the UK, the Government’s hemp licencing system is prohibitive for farmers. Punitive restrictions on where hemp can be grown, costly application fees and restrictions on which part of the plant can be used all discourage farmers from growing hemp as a crop, which in turn stifles supply and research.
While hemp has huge potential to reduce our burden on the planet, it isn’t a magic solution to all of our problems, more a vital tool in our kit. It’s careful not to get swept up in the hype, but the government needs to move faster and allow hemp to become a key part of our fight to save the planet. As Steve Barron, Owner of Margent Farm once told us, “Hemp could save the fucking world. If we let it.”