What is hemp?
Hemp is a part of the Cannabis sativa class and is often associated with marijuana, a plant used for medical and industrial purposes. Hemp was first grown in central Asia as early as 280 BCE and used in ancient China to grow and produce foods, textiles and paper. Hemp sits alongside bamboo as some of the quickest growing plants on earth. Today, this plant is estimated to have over 25,000 different uses with the potential to rid many industries of fossil fuels as a far greener alternative.
Hemp concrete known as ‘hempcrete’ is one of the many new products. The environmentally-conscious brick is developed from the fibres found within hemp stalks as well as water and lime. When condensed, the matter strengthens to form concrete blocks or whatever desired shape. Today, hempcrete has been used in over 100 Australian houses and could help support a carbon negative future in infrastructure with each square metre capable of absorbing 16 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2).
In addition to hempcrete, the fibres found within hemp stalks have shown to be more durable, absorbent, insulating and far stronger than cotton, placing this dirty industry on a knife’s edge. With these highly valued properties, products like clothing, bedding sheets, furniture, netting, rope, sails and much more could be developed from this miraculous plant. Hemp not only provides superior properties but also uses a fraction of the water and land to grow compared to cotton and other crops.
Along with concrete and clothing, hemp has a solution to one of the greatest catastrophes in history…plastic. Many research teams and companies around the globe have found the use of hemp to manufacture bioplastic could outperform petroleum plastic. This new model of bioplastic has found to be 5 times stiffer and 3.5 times stronger, safe for all walks of life and breaks down in 3 to 6 months! Compare that to petroleum plastic which is weaker, toxic and takes almost 1,000 years to degrade in some cases.
Hemp could also be used to manufacture truly sustainable cars. In 1941, the mastermind behind the Model T (Henry Ford), presented a concept car with a body made from plants, a considerable portion from hemp fibres. He believed that someday he could “grow automobiles from the soil”. To test the strength of this concept car, people tried to smash the body only to cause far greater damage to the sledgehammer. Today, a few car companies such as BMW and Mazda are testing and applying hemp into their cars. Mazda’s Miata chassis has been constructed using 45 kilograms of hemp, with the body estimated to weigh 453 kilograms less while being 10 times stronger than steel!
As mentioned above, hemp has over 25,000 potential uses. Four uses have already been highlighted, with these uses alone capable of cutting our annual emissions by billions of tons. The use of hemp is even greater than what’s often mentioned with even broader applications such as:
– nutrient-rich drinks;
– biofuel; and
Is hemp a sustainable crop?
Hemp is one of the most sustainable crops ever grown with the capability to absorb 15 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hectare and restrict the growth of weeds by drilling large roots into the soil and decimating toxic substances within the soil. Farmers in China and Canada often grow hemp for the first year to ventilate the soil, helping generate superior conditions for food crops in the coming months. Trials conducted by the Rodale Institute found that hemp growth prior to soybean and wheat production ultimately generated far greater amounts of food, stating, “Soybean and wheat yields were increased following hemp fibres, while weed pressure was reduced”. Due to weed decimation, the use of pesticides is also virtually eliminated.
The brilliance of hemp doesn’t end here with one acre of hemp producing:
– as many fibres as three to four acres of cotton;
– twice as much oil as an acre of peanuts; and
– four times the amount of paper as an acre of trees.
Hemp also provides much-needed hope around water scarcity, by consuming half the water of cotton crops and more than half the water of almond crops. Not to forget the fact that hemp also grows rapidly, harvestable four times a year.
The history of hemp:
Hemp was one of the first cultivated crops in history, established thousands of years ago in China to manufacture textiles with paper soon to follow. Texts from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to the Magna Carta were all written on hemp paper.
Early in history, hemp was a positive force for the economy providing clothing, foods and much more. In 1535, the English King mandated farmers grow hemp on at least 25% of their land to help produce clothes, textiles etc. Those who didn’t would be fined. During that time, 80% of clothing and 90% of paper came from hemp. In 1619 after Jamestown in Virginia mandated hemp farming, other cities and states followed suit. Unfortunately, hemp had a downside requiring a significant amount of labour to harvest for production. This sticky, strong and messy job of harvesting was tragically solved with African slaves. The high hemp demand brought constant crop harvesting and planting, introducing larger African slave populations out onto the fields.
Then came cotton an alternative to hemp clothing, far easier to harvest as well as the introduction of steam engines reducing the need for hemp sails. Together, along with other inventions and laws like the Marihuana Tax Act, the hemp industry was brought to its knees.
Does hemp have a future?
As of 2020, the global hemp industry was worth $6.5 billion AUD ($4.7 billion USD) and is expected to rise at a CAGR (Compound Anual Growth Rate) of 22.5% to 2026. The hemp market is set to boom with over 88% of states in the USA allowed to grow hemp for commercial purposes. Australia has also eased its restrictions on hemp, allowing farmers to grow it once again since the tight rules were introduced back in 1937. In 2018, 148,780 acres of hemp were farmed in the USA alone. Compare that to the 600 acres of hemp farmed in 1929. From 2021 to 2028, the hemp clothing market is set to grow 50% in addition to CBD oil which has been on the rise. If hemp does live up to its expected success, billions of emissions could be prevented and largely polluting industries like concrete could rid themselves of fossil fuels.
Why we still need to be cautious:
Hemp’s properties are superior to most plants and its benefits for the planet seems to far outway the negatives. Yet, there is still a giant concern. If hemp does reignite and demand soars, we may fall back into the same trap of current agriculture dominated by capitalist greed. A continuation of the current system will see the destruction of forests for hemp farms, mass biodiversity loss and over-production wearing out the soil. If this was the likely scenario, transitioning to a hemp powered economy simply wouldn’t be worth it. However, when approached correctly, hemp could act as a turning point in agriculture helping ignite change from today’s damaging practices to smaller-scale regenerative community farming all over the globe.
We must ensure that supply can keep up with demand while ensuring a sustainable future and avoiding the pitfalls caused by consumerism.
Hemp is an incredible plant, capable of absorbing tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), extracting filthy rare metals from the soil and providing properties to help transition our dirty industries into a carbon-negative future. As the climate crisis begins to gain attention, now is a brilliant time to help rid companies and countries of fossil fuels while supporting start-ups igniting the change to a hemp future. The potential to help eradicate our horrific damage is possible with hemp and other materials. Cotton to bamboo, plastic to bioplastic, steel to carbon-free steel…even aluminium car frames to hemp frames. The question is no longer how but when?