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Production of hemp was banned in the United States in 1937 under the Marihuana Tax Act.
A strain of Cannabis sativa, its low concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) mean it won't get you high. The internet is abuzz, though, with claims that it's a green fix for a host of environmental ills.
Last year, the U.S. legalized hemp production under the 2018 Farm Bill and now farmers can finally grow their crop on an industrial scale. But can it really revolutionize everything from the textile industry to construction?
Researchers suspect some of the hype originated with a hemp lobby that's been sloppy with the science in its struggle to get the plant legalized. Still, studies also suggest that, with investment, it could replace some less sustainable materials.
So which claims stand up and which fall flat?
Claim one: Hemp was the first crop grown over 12,000 years ago.
Most evidence suggests humans first started domesticating plants around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, but there isn't much evidence that hemp was grown quite that early.
Still, the history of humans and hemp is indeed long and intertwined. Archeological findings suggest it was grown in China more than 4,000 years ago to make paper, cloth and rope, and also for its oil.
Claim two: Hemp could be used in 25,000 products. Hemp is certainly a versatile plant in that the various parts, from the stem to the flower, can theoretically be used "to house and clothe yourself," according to Lawrence B. Smart, a professor at Cornell University's School of Integrative Plant Science in New York State who is researching the potential of cultivating the plant on an industrial scale.
It's also a great gluten-free and soy-free source of protein, and full of omega 3 and 6 oils usually found in fish, making it suitable both as a dietary supplement for vegans and as animal feed, Smart added.
"I think that claim of multiple uses including fiber and medicine is valid," he told DW. The question is whether those are "more cost-competitive or better or more sustainable than the ones in the market we're currently using."
Claim three: Hemp biofuels could power a green transport revolution.
Hemp as a biomass crop — its stems are high in cellulose — or hemp oil as biofuel, could compliment other renewable energy sources. But like other energy crops, there are inherent problems with growing on a mass scale. Despite claims that it doesn't need fertilizer, hemp, like corn, would require a lot of nitrogen.
"I just don't think we've done the proper life-cycle assessments to say hemp offers any advantages over using corn biofuels," said Smart. "It does produce a reasonable yield per acre but other crops are far more sustainable."
Smart's research group at Cornell is looking into a number of potential bioenergy crops. So far, their research suggests that willow, a perennial plant, could be more sustainable than an annual like hemp. That's because it can be planted once and then harvested for wood chips without disturbing the soil for 25 to 30 years. Every time a field is tilled or plowed, it releases carbon into the atmosphere.
The oil crushed from hemp seeds can go into everything from salad dressings to biofuels.
Claim four: Hemp grows in poor soil and doesn't require pesticides.
Another common claim is that hemp essentially grows itself. But because it wasn't cultivated on a large scale during the 20th century, there are few studies to show whether or not it grows easily in poor soil.
Initial smaller-scale tests in Italy and the U.S. show promising results on hemp extracting toxins from soil. Researchers also say because of its fast growth — when planted in the right conditions — it doesn't necessarily need herbicides.
Hemp also contains cannabinoids and terpenes, compounds that may deter insects. But Smart says people should be wary of claims that pesticides are never required.
"We've found a number of insect pests that will damage [hemp] and quite a few diseases, including some new species of fungi that are being defined," Smart said. Pennsylvania State University's agricultural analytical services lab also found that pests like aphids, mold and slugs can damage hemp.
"If you plant a little 20-by-20-foot garden plot, it's very unlikely that you'll experience the full range of pests and pathogens that you would expect on 20,000 acres," Smart added. Industrial farming of any monoculture crop leads to environmental problems, so it also comes down to how a crop is grown.
Claim five: Hemp could replace oil-based plastics and we could live in hemp houses.
Companies like Australian-based Zeoform and Kanesis in Italy are producing small amounts of hemp bioplastic. But right now, producing hemp plastics is complicated, energy-intensive and expensive, so it isn't going to usurp the petroleum-based varieties in the near future.
Still, hemp is proving a popular alternative to fiberglass for use in compressed panels — carmaker BMW is using hemp in its door panels — and as a sustainable building material.
The deceptively named "Hempcrete" isn't a replacement for concrete but an insulation material suitable for timber-framed houses. Most popular in France, it's pricier than conventional alternatives, but Pete Walker, a professor at the University of Bath's civil engineering and architecture department, says it has advantages.
"It's a renewable resource," Walker said. "You can grow the hemp in four months and then you're taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and locking it in this plant material." Its breathable structure also regulates a building's temperature and humidity, reducing energy consumption, he added.
Claim six: Hemp consumes a quarter/half the amount of water cotton does.
Recent comprehensive studies on cotton versus hemp are difficult to come by. One of the most extensive reports, which was published in the Stockholm Environment Institute in 2005, compared the two natural fibers with polyester, a synthetic material.
The study concluded that cotton needs around 50 percent more water in a growing season than hemp. Unlike hemp, cotton requires a lot of irrigation and is most frequently cultivated in parts of the world that are water-scarce, like Uzbekistan.
But it's not as simple as swapping one fiber crop for another. Hemp, while extremely durable, is also expensive and energy-intensive to work into a soft, wearable fabric. And its long fibers mean the process is completely different from working with short-fibered cotton, so the industry would essentially have to "retool" to make the switch.
Claim seven: The U.S. constitution was written on hemp.
The National Constitution Center and fact-checking website Politifact both completely refute one of the quirkier claims about hemp circulating on the internet. The U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are all written on parchment, which is treated animal skin.
But Constitution Center says drafts of these documents might well have been made on hemp paper, as the plant was widely cultivated in North America for rope and sails at the time. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and the country's president George Washington grew hemp.
Can Hemp Become a 60 Million Acre Crop and Billion Dollar Industry? https://t.co/xGGxagwFmS— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) October 4, 2018
Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.
By Betsy Mason
For decades, climate scientist David Keith of Harvard University has been trying to get people to take his research seriously. He's a pioneer in the field of geoengineering, which aims to combat climate change through a range of technological fixes. Over the years, ideas have included sprinkling iron in the ocean to stimulate plankton to suck up more carbon from the atmosphere or capturing carbon straight out of the air.
Solar geoengineering would involve injecting reflective aerosols from high-altitude planes into the layer of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere, which stretches between 10 to 50 kilometers (6 to 31 miles) above Earth's surface. The idea is that the aerosol particles would reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
The planned Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment will send a balloon carrying scientific instruments in a gondola into the stratosphere. The instruments will release a small amount of material — likely ice or mineral dust — to form a kilometer-long plume of aerosol particles (left). Modified airboat propellers will allow the gondola to maneuver above the plume (middle) and lower instruments into the plume to take repeated measurements of how the particles spread through the stratosphere (right). ADAPTED FROM J.A. DYKEMA ET AL / PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A 2014
David Keith envisions using multiple approaches to combat climate change. The red line shows how the impacts of climate change would worsen with a business-as-usual scenario of unabated burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressively cutting emissions bends that curve, and removing carbon from the atmosphere offers further cuts, but there are still consequences from the already high levels of carbon dioxide. In this scenario, solar geoengineering would lessen the impact from existing atmospheric carbon dioxide, effectively carving the top off the curve.<p>Some people think we should use it only as a get-out-of-jail card in an emergency. Some people think we should use it to quickly try to get back to a preindustrial climate. I'm arguing we use solar geoengineering to cut the top off the curve by gradually starting it and gradually ending it.</p><p><strong>Do you feel optimistic about the chances that solar geoengineering will happen and can make a difference in the climate crisis?</strong></p><p>I'm not all that optimistic right now because we seem to be so much further away from an international environment that's going to allow sensible policy. And that's not just in the US. It's a whole bunch of European countries with more populist regimes. It's Brazil. It's the more authoritarian India and China. It's a more nationalistic world, right? It's a little hard to see a global, coordinated effort in the near term. But I hope those things will change.</p>
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