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$620 Million Reasons to Legalize Hemp

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Hemp truly is a cash crop. The total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. last year has been tallied, and the multipurpose plant brought in a stunning $620 million, according to estimates from the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), a non-profit trade association representing hemp companies, researchers and supporters.

Hemp foods and body care took in $200 million in retail sales the U.S. last year, a 21.2 percent jump compared to the year prior.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The figure is based on sales of clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products. Total retail sales of hemp foods and body care alone totaled approximately $200 million, according to the HIA.

Mary Jane's non-intoxicating cousin had been stymied by a federal drug policy until last February when President Obama signed the Farm Bill which contained an amendment to legalize hemp production for research purposes. The bill also allowed states that already legalized the crop to cultivate hemp within the parameters of state agriculture departments and research institutions.

Currently, 21 states may grow hemp thanks to the Farm Bill, including California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. More states are moving to legalize industrial hemp farming as well.

“Eleven new states have passed legislation and new businesses are rapidly entering the market now that American farmers in a handful of states are finally beginning to grow the crop legally," said Eric Steenstra, executive director of the HIA. "Challenges remain in the market and there is a need for Congress to pass legislation to allow farmers to grow hemp commercially in order for the market to continue its rapid growth.”

There's also been increasing grassroots pressure on the Feds to allow hemp to be grown domestically on a commercial scale. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in both the House and Senate earlier this year. If passed, it would remove all federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp, and remove its classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. (In case you didn't know, hemp was banned alongside marijuana during the "Reefer Madness" era in the 1930s because, um, what if someone grew pot and tried passing it off as hemp?)

The bill was introduced by Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Kentucky Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner decided last week to co-sponsor the bill, and said in a media release: "Industrial hemp is a safe substance with many practical commercial applications. Removing it from the Controlled Substances Act is a common sense move which would create jobs and get the government out of the way of farmers and our agricultural industry."

The $620 million figure from was gleaned from natural and conventional retailers, excluding Whole Foods Market, Costco and certain other key establishments, who do not provide sales data, which means the true sales figure could be much higher by at least two and a half, the HIA said.

Hemp retail sales in the U.S. just keep growing. According to data collected by market research firm SPINS, combined U.S. hemp food and body care sales grew in the sampled stores by 21.2 percent or $14,020,239, over the previous year to a total of just more than $80,042,540. Sales in conventional retailers grew by 26.8 percent in 2014, while sales in natural retailers grew by 16.3 percent.

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Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

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The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

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