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Cannabis has "blazed" a trail into the national spotlight thanks to the legalization battle and provocative new studies on its health benefits. Mounds of research and media events like Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN Special Report WEED have shed light on cannabis’s potential to treat cancer, seizures, multiple sclerosis (MS), glaucoma, pain and other ailments. However, the entire conversation still revolves around marijuana, the high-THC strain of cannabis that makes you hungry and "high." Little attention has been paid to hemp, the low-THC, high-cannabidiol (CBD) strain that not only has substantial health benefits, but also has enormous potential to benefit our environment.
Hemp has been used for centuries to make rope, textiles, foods, personal care products, construction materials, paper and, more recently, automotive parts.
Yes, it turns out that some of the best uses of cannabis require no baking supplies or bongs. Hemp has been used for centuries to make rope, textiles, foods, personal care products, construction materials, paper and, more recently, automotive parts. Hemp only became a controversial substance in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s, and its production was first restricted with the passage of the 1937 “Marihuana Tax Act,” which defined hemp as a narcotic drug and required farmers to obtain federal permits to grow it.
Even still, Popular Mechanics dubbed hemp “the new billion dollar crop” in 1938, claiming that it “can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to cellophane.” And when World War II demanded the full industrial might of the U.S., hemp restrictions were temporarily lifted and production reached its peak in 1943 when American farmers grew 150 million pounds of hemp. It was manufactured into shoes, ropes, fire hoses and even parachute webbing for soldiers fighting the war. After 1943, production plummeted and the anti-narcotic regime kicked back into effect.
The good news is that hemp production continued throughout much of the rest the world, including Europe and East Asia. If we substitute hemp for many of the industrial materials we use and take for granted today, the environmental benefits are impressive. Here, I’ll focus on four environmental benefits that are well established in academic and government research.
1. Forest Cover and Biodiversity
Although more than 95 percent of paper is made from wood pulp, hemp can play the same role. It can be recycled twice as many times as wood pulp, it can produce three to four times as much fiber per hectare as typical forests and even twice as much as a pine plantation. These abilities discussed by Dr. Ernest Small, Principal Research Scientist at the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada, suggests that more reliance on industrial hemp could reduce dependence on old growth forests, which host the world’s greatest concentrations of biodiversity and absorb carbon dioxide. Forests can’t keep up with the pace of deforestation, but hemp could keep up with our appetite for paper products.
2. No Pesticides and Herbicides Required
The USDA reports that in 2007, roughly 877 million pounds of pesticides were applied to U.S. cropland at a cost of roughly $7.9 billion. Yet recently, the World Health Organization’s cancer research wing deemed the world’s most popular weed killer, glyphosate, a “probable carcinogen” linked to cancer. Yes, what a surprise that the active ingredient in Monsanto’ Roundup, and other weed killers worth over $6 billion in annual sales actually aren’t good for us. While genetically modified crops (GMOs) typically require pesticides, herbicide and synthetic fertilizers to survive, hemp does not. It can grow organically almost anywhere. By substituting hemp for industrial GMOs (e.g. cotton, corn, soybean, etc.), we can we reduce damage to our health and the ecosystems we depend on.
3. Lower Carbon Emissions
According to the UK Department of Business’s 2010 report on low carbon construction, hemp can play a role in slashing carbon emissions. While producing one metric ton of steel emits 1.46 tons of carbon dioxide, one square meter of timber-framed, hemp-lime wall stores 35.5kg of CO2 and will not be released unless the material is composted or burned. Hemp can also be used to make “hempcrete,” a concrete alternative, as well as plastic-like products that replace fiber glass and other environmentally unfriendly materials.
Using hemp as a biofuel could improve carbon efficiency, too. In testing, Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut, found that hemp converts to biodiesel at a 97 percent efficiency rate and can burn at lower temperatures than any other biodiesel on the market. Hemp is a far better alternative to growing GMO cash crops that make less efficient biofuels.
4. Soil Protection
Researchers at Nova Institute, an ecology R&D group based in Germany, found that hemp has a “favorable influence on the soil structure” because it curtails the presence of nematodes and fungi, and it has a high shading capacity that suppresses weed growth. In one study cited by the researchers, a hemp rotation was found to increase wheat yields by 10 to 20 percent. Hemp can also grow in the most inhospitable and otherwise useless soils, such as those polluted by heavy metals. Grown alone, used in rotation or planted on abandoned farmland, hemp is an environmental win.
For Future Generations
The internet is filled with claims about hemp that are suspicious and often impossible to substantiate. These four benefits reflect insights from academia, government and professional research firms. More than a few peer-reviewed studies support these claims.
With policy reform, hemp has the potential to preserve biodiversity, reduce pollution, cut emissions and protect cropland throughout the world. That’s impressive for a crop that has been unfairly branded as a dangerous gateway drug. With hemp plants able to mature for fiber production within 60-90 days and 90-120 days for grain, it’s possible to build a ‘hemp economy’ very quickly. By relying on renewable, clean hemp, we can grow our economies more mindfully and leave our planet in better shape for future generations.
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