Benefits of Hemp

By A. Alikhan, T. O’Connell, B. Rubino, B. Shaul, &  B. Spergel of Cornell University

Before considering the benefits that hemp has to offer, one should first have a clear understanding of the relationship between hemp and marijuana. Although hemp and marijuana are varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa, hemp has an insignificant amount of THC, the psychoactive chemical that is responsible for marijuana’s euphoric and medicinal properties.  Smoking marijuana will get an individual “high,” but smoking hemp results in a headache.

Spanning well beyond the fact that industrial hemp cannot be used as a drug, we see that the plant has much potential to improve our society in numerous ways. Hemp is possibly one of the Earth’s most lucrative biomass resources, producing approximately 40,000 kilograms per hectare (USDA 2002). Due to its high cellulose content, hemp lends itself as a good biomass fuel. Hemp can be processed into charcoal, methanol, methane, and gasoline through pyrolysis. It can also be converted into ethanol, producing more ethanol than maize. Hemp charcoal as a biomass fuel can be burned in today’s coal-powered generators. The environmental benefits are clear, as hemp fuel does not contribute to global warming or acid rain (Marcus and Smalls 2002). Although the use of hemp as fuel is by no means a panacea to fossil fuel problems, implementing hemp fuel, as well as other alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind power, could help the United States towards becoming less energy dependent on other nations and would allow our country to abandon our reliance on fossil fuels before they are all consumed.

Along with using hemp as fuel, the plant proves to be a nutritious food source.

The hemp seed is approximately 30-35% oil by weight and can be used for both human consumption and industrial applications. The oil is over 70% polyunsaturated (cholesterol fighting) fatty acids, the highest of any seed oil. It contains the two essential fatty acids (linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid) plus various others (Vantreese 1998). Additionally, the hemp seed is unique in that it contains these essential fatty acids in the correct proportion that humans require (linoleic and alpha-linolenic in a ration of 3:1) (Marcus and Small 2002). The hemp seed contains 25-30% protein, with 20% of it being high-quality digestible complete protein; all eight essential amino acids are present, as well as others (Vantreese 1998). Although the oil is very healthy, this high percentage of polyunsaturated fats also makes hemp seed oil somewhat unstable and thus subject to fairly rapid rancidity unless preserved (Vantreese 1998). However, the longevity of the oil can be prolonged with the addition of anti-oxidents. Currently a wide variety of foods are made with the hemp seed, including snack bars, bread, cookies, milk, beer, pasta, salad dressing, and yogurts (Marcus and Small 2002).

The fiber in hemp could potentially serve many needs in our modern society. One acre of hemp can produce as much useable fiber as four acres of trees or two acres of cotton. The hemp stalk is composed of 70-80% hurds, the inner portion of the hemp stalk that is separated from the hemp fiber. These hurds are composed of 50-77% cellulose, making them ideal for use in paper and plastic products (Vantreese 1997). Using hemp to make paper products has many advantages over using trees. Hemp grows significantly quicker than trees (can be cultivated in as little as 100 days) and the resultant paper is stronger and longer lasting, while also being acid-free and chlorine-free. Moreover, hemp paper can also be recycled more than paper made out of wood (Marcus and Smalls 2002). Higher-quality paper as well as the prevention of deforestation and loss of biodiversity would be significant benefits from using hemp. Hemp likewise shows various advantages over cotton, as it is warmer, stronger, UV resistant, and more water absorbent and durable (Marcus and Smalls 2002). Even more, hemp requires minimal, if any, biocides, pesticides and/or herbicides and can grow in a multitude of different climates (Vantreese 1997). In addition to these aforementioned benefits, there are approximately 25,000 other known uses, including biodegradable plastics, building materials, textiles, and personal care products (Marcus and Small 2002).

 U.S. Opposition to Domestic Hemp Cultivation

Industrial hemp growth in the United States, as discovered in the video surveys conducted for the project, is not a widely recognized or hotly contested environmental issue among the public.  Many citizens are not aware of the myriad of sustainable uses for the hemp plant, and one theory asserts that this perception emerged from the influence of profit-conscious corporations during the 1930s.  Historically, hemp was a widely cultivated and manufactured crop in the United States.  Thomas Jefferson reportedly told people to “Make the most of the hemp seed, sow it everywhere” (Woyano, 2008).  In the early 1930’s, William Randolph Hearst held a monopoly on paper supplied from timber and felt threatened by hemp paper’s efficiency per acre compared to timber production.  His newspapers negatively publicized the hemp plant and connected this useful crop with its psychoactive relative, marijuana.  The media also manipulated American racism toward minorities in “yellow journalism”, as well as fears of violence and rape to place a stigma on marijuana (Hartsell, 1999).  In “Reefer Madness,” an exploitation film from 1936, tragic events befall several high school students who are lured into trying “marihuana,” such as a hit and run accident, manslaughter, suicide, and rape.  Lammont DuPont, owner of the largest petrochemical company in the nation, also contributed to banning marijuana and hemp.  DuPont’s company developed and patented many synthetic products that were to replace hemp, as well as several processes for the manufacture of pulp paper.  DuPont lobbied the Chief Council of the Treasury Department, Herman Oliphant, for cannabis prohibition, insisting that synthetic processes would take the place of the hemp seed oil marketplace (Hartsell, 1999).  Although these inferences are based on speculation rather than a documented connection, the negative influences of these companies toward hemp helped lead to the 1937 Prohibitive Marihuana Tax Law.

When marijuana was outlawed, opponents of the drug forced Congress to make hemp illegal along with it because they said it was difficult to distinguish from illegal marijuana plants and that regulation of such a crop would be costly.  However, growing industrial hemp and marijuana adjacent to each other would cause cross pollination between the high THC marijuana and the low THC hemp, inevitably resulting in low potency, low grade marijuana for which there would be no market (West 1997).  Marijuana plants are also grown to be an all-female crop to increase THC levels, and any interaction with hemp within several miles could potentially result in a lower market value, as well. Another reason why it is unlikely that hemp farmers will hide marijuana plants within their fields is because hemp and marijuana are markedly different in appearance, are grown differently, and are even harvested at different times (Vantreese 1997).

Case Study: Hemp Farming in North Dakota

             Although the farming of hemp is illegal in the United States, according to federal drug regulations, there are 28 states which have introduced legislation regarding hemp, seven of which have made production and research feasible, including Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Even though these states have made specific laws, no actions regarding hemp may be taken unless they also comply with federal laws, making the actions of the states effectively useless. This difference between state and federal law has caused an interesting legal situation for two farmers in North Dakota.

In January of 2007, Rep. David Monson and Wayne Hodge, two farmers in North Dakota, applied for licenses to be allowed to grow hemp on their farms. After acquiring these permits, the two farmers needed to also gain permission from the federal government to be able to begin farming hemp. In February of the same year they applied to the U.S. DEA for their licenses, requesting a decision by April 1 so that if approved, they would be able to plant the seeds by the end of the season (Smith, 2007). With no decision by the DEA and the loss of the planting season, Monson and Hodge filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota in an attempt to legalize the production of hemp in the country (Davey, 2007). This lawsuit led to a long legal battle that as of yet has not resulted in any good results for Monson and Hodge. They have not stopped fighting; instead they continue to pour time and money into the eventual federal legalization of hemp farming.

North Dakota is a state whose economy relies heavily on farming. There are major issues associated with other crops that have been grown in the area, which would not affect hemp. The fungus Scab, also known as Fusarium, made its way into the state in 1993. This fungus had a major impact on the wheat crop in the state, leading many farmers to burn their fields, in attempt to get rid of the fungus, because there is no other hope for saving the crop. The soils of North Dakota, created by glacial activity, are very rocky, and are hard on the machinery used when farming crops like potatoes or beats. The soils are very well suited, however, to growing Hemp, as has been proven in Canada, just north of the border (McNally, 2008).

Monson and Hodge have claimed that their inability to farm hemp is hindering their ability to make money from their land. A statement by Monson says it all “This is not any subversive thing like trying to legalize marijuana or whatever. This is just practical agriculture. We’re desperate for something that can make us some money.” (Davey, 2007) Monson’s stature as a farmer, high school principal, and Republican state legislator in North Dakota have lead opponents of hemp to claim that Monson’s conservative appearance is being used by the marijuana advocates to promote drug legalization (McDougal, 2008), but these claims are unfounded. The negativity put forth by these opponents are only hindering real people from benefiting from the production of a cash crop that is thriving around the world.

Industrial Hemp in Other Countries

 In order to develop a case for the cultivation of industrial hemp, it is essential to examine its possible economic benefit based on existing precedents.   The economic qualifier used in this context is “if hemp production is profitable, then world production will be thriving and vigorous”(Vantreese 1998).  Without disputing the logic of this statement, let us look to the world market for examination.  Hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years and production has been historically dominated by China, South Korea, and Russia (including the Soviet Union era).  The European Union and Canada have only recently joined the market.

China has the longest relationship with agricultural Cannabis sativa and thus there was never any debate over its legality or its relation to the narcotic.   China is currently and has been the world’s largest producer of Hemp fibers and Hemp seed at 40.6% of the total world crop while occupying only 0.3% of the country’s agricultural acreage (Wang and Shi 1999).  This is partly attributable to a beneficial climate and a plentitude of labor in the agricultural regions.  Additionally, there has been growing demand from “Green” (Dryzek 2005) North American and European consumers and companies for raw hemp materials.  Despite the demand and high foreign price, domestic price in China remained low (Wang and Shi 1999).  This is largely due to an institutional failure on the part of the state.  Chinese socialist policies favor grain production and thus leave a poor market structure for industrial hemp.  This poor market structure predictably generates a poor response.  Cultivation is not the problem; rather, it is the lack of state investment (in a non-capitalist economy) in technology such as processing that keeps the hemp market from thriving in China.  Despite this, a recent meeting of the Chinese National Hemp Industry is pushing for more research and development, with the projected goal of moving from the current 10% (.6 million tons) of the comparable cotton production to 20%(1.5 million tons) in the next few years (Fibre2Fashion 2006).

The European Union, most notably France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and Canada have developed licensing and subsidizing systems which can be viewed as models for the United States.  The E.U. has undertaken a strict licensing program run by the state, which consists of a formal application, a limit of 14 plant varieties, and a THC content of less than 0.2% (Vantreese 1998).  Canadian Ministry of Health also ensures that only legitimate farmers are licensed and includes a background check, GPS coordinates of Hemp fields, seed from authorized seed vendors and random inspections and testing (Alberta Industrial Hemp Enterprise 2000).  Furthermore, a number of restrictions are placed on trade between countries.  However, the E.U. has renewed a subsidy of 90 Euros offered since 1988, as well as spearheading a massive research and development effort called the Hemp for Europe campaign (Vantreese 1998).

Despite these efforts, the Hemp industry could not be described as thriving independently at this time.  A case of institutional failure in China has limited a market with some of the biggest potential.  Anti-Narcotics concerns have necessitated lots of restrictions and red tape that make hemp cultivation a tedious process in Canada and the E.U. But by far the biggest impediment is the cost of processing the raw material.  This limits Hemp’s competitiveness with already established markets in the Textile (Cotton), Paper (Timber), Food (Soy), and Plastics (Petroleum) industries (Vantreese 1998).  Investment in technology is being seriously undertaken by Canada and European countries focused on sustainability and ecological modernization – although a magic bullet has yet to be found.  Despite these obstacles, potential exists:  California firm Hemptech recently noted that the Hemp market grew from 75 million Euros in 1995 to 1.5 billion Euros in 2001(Marcus and Small 2002).

Fifteen years ago hemp cultivation was illegal in various countries, including Germany England, Canada and Australia. Vital to overcoming governmental reluctance in each country was the presentation of hemp as business-oriented and conservative. Hemp’s environmental advantages did acquire some political support, but in order for the laws to be changed, hemp cultivation had to be perceived with potential economic feasibility and benefit (Marcus and Small 2002). Strong support from business and farm groups was crucial to success, whereas support from pro-marijuana interests often hindered it. The combination of potential economic benefit joined with assurance that hemp cultivation would not detrimentally affect the enforcement of marijuana legislation has led industrially advanced countries to legalize hemp cultivation (Marcus and Small 2002). If the United States reinstates hemp cultivation, it will likely be for the same reasons.


Connections between the Industrial Hemp Issue and Topics Discussed in Class

 It is important to realize that hemp utilization does not roughly conflict with either the Survivalist or Promethean discourses. Survivalists would applaud the fact that hemp is a very lucrative biomass resource, producing up to ten tons per acre in only four months. Thus, hemp is not only a renewable resource, but also one that renews itself quickly; Survivalists would not have to fear its depletion. Prometheans would also approve of hemp utilization, for there would be no need to make significant decreases in the amount of resources consumed, but rather a shift from one resource to another. Prometheans embrace this change, believing that when the supply of one resource is low, humans will find an alternative.

The legalization of industrial hemp also makes sense to the economic rationalist. Letting the market decide the winner may very well contribute to hemp’s popularity. As traditional sources of material become scarcer and eventually reach exorbitant prices, hemp could serve as the low-cost alternative for many industrial products. A more ideal scenario would be the implementation of hemp before other resources are depleted, thereby allowing a combination of hemp and traditional resources to fulfill the total demand. Although they believe in the subordination of nature to economic interests, economic rationalists cannot deny the superior efficiency of hemp; indeed, hemp would be not only environmentally beneficial, but fiscally beneficial as well.

As Mazmanian and Kraft explain, we are currently experiencing a third epoch in the environmental movement, a move towards sustainable development. Hemp use, with its environmental advantages and lucrative production, seems to fit particularly well with such a sustainable approach.

In order to successfully implement hemp utilization in the US, the government, the market, and local communities will have to uptake certain responsibilities and establish certain relationships. A combination of top-down control, which dominated the first epoch, and market-based incentives, which dominated the second epoch, are needed for such execution. The legalization of hemp production by the federal government would be the initial step. Administrative rationalism would need to dominate policy in the beginning; once a sound infrastructure is developed, more power can be granted to local authorities and policy may be flexible in order to better suit the region. Implementing a strict standard of maximum THC content in hemp would also be a key governmental action, followed by a license system, security structure, THC analysis, and record keeping, which could be executed on a state and even community level as well, given the circumstances (described by Agrawal and Gibson). However, market-based incentives would also be crucial to hemp’s success in the US. In the mid 1990s, the EU provided subsidization for hemp cultivation, which provided support that was instrumental to their hemp industry (Marcus and Small 2002). The benefits of hemp utilization would have to outweigh the costs incurred by the government for such subsidies, as well as costs for the licensing, security, THC analysis, and record keeping.

This combination of discourses is perhaps the most feasible means of introducing industrial hemp to the United States market. As Dryzek implies in his final chapter, no one discourse will serve as the panacea to a particular problem, but rather the employment of many discourses can help “blur boundary between human social systems and natural systems” (235). Hemp can play an integral role in the third epoch as industry looks for ways to delink economic success with environmental degradation.