Hemp: a new look at an ancient resource

Hemp is good for a lot more than designer jeans ... like replacing fossil fuels and solving world hunger - if we can solve the legal and political problems.

by Ken C. Hedman and Kim Levy

[Publisher's note: The following article provides an overview of the substantial and undeniable benefits of hemp cultivation. However, we would be remiss if we didn't first address the issue that probably comes immediately to mind: the fact that some varities hemp - also known as marijuana - are an illegal drug.
All hemp contains the psychoactive drug THC; different strains of the plant contain varying amounts. Now, however, horticultural researchers have produced a variety that produces virtually no THC. Its value and potency as a drug is zero.
Of course, cultivation of this THC-less variety would probably require some form of licensing or checking to ensure that psychoactive varieties were not illicitly or accidentally intermixed in a planting. However, after reading the following article, see if you don't agree that some form of legalized cultivation would be well worth the effort. -- CK]

n June 22, Environgentle in Encinitas commemorated their annual Hemp Day by displaying a vast array of hemp foods and products, and by disseminating volumes of information on the hemp industry and its history. The movement to promote hemp as a crop is stronger now than it has been for almost a century. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of hemp companies and hemp industrial and retail associations. The premiere issue of Hemp Times has just been released. For the first time in history, there is an Olympic sanctioned hemp product and information booth. It has been estimated that there are currently 25,000 commercial applications for hemp products and the number is still growing. Obviously, increased research and development for hemp products are a reflection of current interest.
What is it about hemp that has generated all this renewed interest? Claims for the environmental benefits of hemp cultivation are not modest; they include an end to deforestation, an infinitely renewable and sustainable fuel source, and a solution to world hunger. Is it possible that one simple plant could provide the solution to these vexing problems? Let's look at the contributions that the industrial use of hemp offers.

Papering the record

One important potential use for hemp is the production of paper. From 75 to 90 percent of all paper in the world was made with hemp fiber until 1883: the Gutenberg bible (15th century), Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (19th century) and just about everything in between was printed on hemp paper.
An acre of hemp produces 4.1 times as much paper as an acre of trees. Hemp can also be harvested every year while trees take 20 years or more to grow to harvest. Since hemp builds topsoil, it can be grown on the same acre of land year after year. Many acres of forest could be saved by industrial cultivation of hemp for paper alone.
Paper production from hemp does not require bleaching. This eliminates the toxic chlorine compounds and dioxins generated as a by-product of paper production from wood that pollute of our streams, rivers and lakes. The discharge of heavy metals and toxins like sulfuric acid and dioxin could be reduced by 60 to 80 percent by making the switch to hemp pulp.
Hemp also makes a better quality paper: it is acid-free, it is stronger and will last at least ten times longer than current conventional wood-based paper. This makes hemp paper good for archiving books and important documents - like the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, which was written on hemp paper.
Converting to hemp-based paper can help save forests, reduce water pollution, and create longer-lasting paper of superior quality. However, paper is only partially responsible for the destruction of our forests; a replacement for lumber as a construction material is also needed. It turns out, hemp can be a replacement for lumber in some applications, as well.

Something to build on

Practical, inexpensive fire-resistant construction material, with excellent thermal and sound-insulating qualities, can be made by heating and compressing plant fibers to create strong construction paneling. This paneling could replace dry wall and plywood. Hemp is a logical choice for such a purpose. C&S Specialty Builder's Supply near Eugene, Oregon, in conjunction with Washington State University, has demonstrated the superior strength flexibility and economy of hemp composite building materials compared to wood fiber - even in the production of beams.
Another alternative construction material was developed by the French company, Isochanvre. They have patented a non-toxic process to literally petrify hemp into a stable mass as an organic substitute for concrete in construction. This hemp building material is one-seventh the weight of concrete, more flexible than concrete (making it more earthquake resistant), fireproof (unlike wood), wind-resistant and an excellent thermal insulator. This material seals out both noise and water. Buildings made from this material are safer and more energy efficient than wooden or concrete buildings.
Hemp-based building materials, in conjunction with hemp paper production, could radically reduce the demand for lumber, eliminating the need for clear-cutting and destruction of our ancient forests. This can be done while providing more jobs than are presently supplied by those environmentally damaging industries.

Renewable energy

On another front, using hemp as a biomass fuel could eliminate our dependence on imported fossil fuels. A study completed in the early l990s at the University of Hawaii found that biomass gasification could meet 90 percent of that state's energy needs. Biomass can be converted into virtually every form of energy used, including methanol to power automobiles. Since methanol is a cleaner fuel than petro-based fuels, this would lead to reduced auto emissions.
Corn is the most popular source of biomass today; hemp can yield up to eight times as much methanol per acre as corn. This provides an output equivalent to about 1,000 gallons of methanol per acre per year.
Unlike fossil fuel, biomass comes from living plants that continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When hemp is grown for biomass, CO2 is taken in and metabolized by the plants, generating oxygen in the process. When the biomass is burned as fuel, the CO2 is released back into the air. This maintains a balanced CO2 cycle. By contrast, burning fossil fuels introduces back into the atmosphere carbon that has been "out of circulation" for millions of years, and provides no mechanism for reabsorbtion.
On a global scale, hemp is perhaps the only plant capable of producing sufficient biomass to provide an alternative to fossil fuels. As a biomass fuel resource, hemp could stop a host of damaging effects associated with fossil fuels: strip mining, oil spills, acid rain and sulfur-based smog.

Let them eat hemp

According to the UNICEF report State of the World's Children, a child dies every 2.3 seconds as a result of malnutrition. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, twenty million children die of malnutrition every year. These numbers are staggering, and are on the rise. Here again, hemp can come to the rescue.
When hemp is grown for seed, half the weight of the mature, harvested female plant is seed! Hemp is also a hearty plant that flourishes in almost all climates and in marginal soils. This means it could be grown in poor countries to provide food where it is most needed. Australians survived two prolonged famines in the 19th century using almost nothing except hemp seeds for protein and hemp leaves for roughage.
No other single plant source can compare with the nutritional value of hemp seeds. Both the complete protein and essential oils contained in hemp seeds are in ideal ratios for human nutrition.
Only soybeans contain higher percentages of protein. But unlike soy, 65 percent of the protein found in hemp seed is in the form of globulin edestin. The combination of this protein with albumin - another globular protein contained in all seeds - creates readily available essential amino acids in ideal proportions for the human body.
Hemp seed is also the highest source of essential fatty acids (EFAs - linoleic and linolenic acids) in the plant kingdom. These are the same essential fatty acids found in fish oil, but are free of contaminants which accumulate in fish from water pollution. These EFAs are also found in flax seed oil. However, the EFAs in hemp seed oil are better proportioned for our bodies and hemp seed oil is much more palatable than flax seed oil. EFAs lubricate or clear the arteries and are responsible for the luster in your skin, hair, eyes and even your thought processes.
Hemp seed appears to be the only source capable of feeding the world's hungry while supplying all their nutritional requirements from marginal lands. Hemp has the potential to end world hunger!

But wait, there's more

Hemp is a disease-resistant weed and grows easily compared to other crops. Food crops are disrupted by drought but hemp actually helps soils alleviate droughts. It sets the standard in retaining topsoil and re-foliating arid land.
Hemp can also be used for the production of cloth spun from its fiber. Hemp cloth is softer, warmer, more water absorbent, stronger and more durable than cotton. The well-known clothing manufacturer Patagonia has found that hemp has eight times the tensile strength and has four times the durability of cotton.
The real win is in pesticide reduction. Approximately 50 percent of all chemicals used in agriculture today are applied to commercial cotton crops. Hemp has few natural predators and its cultivation requires no chemicals.
The oil from hemp seeds has been known to cure dermatitis and other serious skin diseases. The oil is also being made into a laundry detergent that biodegrades naturally in our water systems. The number of hemp uses keep growing.

Promises unfulfilled

The possibilities represented by hemp cultivation are tantalizing: reduce or eliminate deforestation, free us from dependence on fossil fuel and their damaging by-products, and provide a positive impact on chronic world hunger.
Of course, due to its psychoactive properties, its cultivation is currently illegal in the United States and many of the countries that need it most. Hemp sold in the United States comes primarily from China, Hungary, Thailand, Romania and Chile. Hemp is also legally cultivated in Australia, England and New Zealand.
However, the recent development of varieties of hemp containing almost no THC - the psychoactive component - should eliminate this as a problem. Nevertheless, almost a century of negative propaganda about hemp, plus the concerns about marijuana use, will make legalization a political hot potato.
With persistence, perhaps we can overcome our national paranoia about hemp and find a way to allow legal cultivation. If we can, and if hemp fulfills only a small part of its promise, it will have been well worth the effort.

Ken Hedman is a hemp advocate now living in Washington state.
More information about the history (including the corrupt forces behind hemp prohibition), industrial and medical uses of hemp can be found in The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer, or HEMP: Lifeline to the Future, by Chris Conrad. Much of the information contained in this article comes from these two books.
Environgentle in Encinitas and Earth Connections in Grossmont Center both support the market for hemp as an environmental alternative to synthetic and toxic materials. Their hemp products include: seeds, lip balm, hats, bags, cookbooks, oils, twine, clothing, soaps, papers, lotions, shampoos, shoes, food, wallets, rings and more. The owners are well informed and more than happy to answer any questions regarding hemp manufacturing. They also carries lines made by EcoDragon, The Merry Hempsters, and Hempy's. They even have directory listings so you can order the following hemp products: dog collars, backpacks, rope, canvas, paint, surfboards, tofu and many other hemp products.
If you wish to assist in the effort to legalize hemp cultivation, contact NORML (The National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws) at 1380 Garnet Ave., Suite E502, San Diego, CA 92109 or call (619) 281-8586. NORMLs General Meetings and presentations are held at 7:30 pm on the third Monday of each month in the Intersection Gallery/Wikiup Cafe at 4247 Park Blvd., situated on the southwest comer of El Cajon & Park Blvds. in University Heights (574-6454).