Can Hemp Really Save the World?
Can marijuana's non-psychoactive cousin really save the world, or is it’s universal utility just a pipe dream of cannabis dweebs and conspiracy theorists that’s coming into vogue because of marijuana accelerating legality? With the US's first legal...
Photo by Adrian Cable, from Wikimedia Commons
In Manitoba, anti-drug units of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police now inspect massive hemp fields for legal compliance, instead of raiding them—all part of a $1 billion homegrown industry that's experiencing rapid growth.
In China, the central government is currently expanding domestic hemp planting significantly, after scientists at Bejing's Hemp Research Center produced studies showing the plant can serve as a superior alternative to cotton, and may one day displace concrete, fossil fuels, and a wide-range of petroleum products.
And in the United States, this year's Farm Bill included an amendment allowing universities and state agriculture departments to “experiment” with hemp in any state with a law approving such production, opening the door for America's first fully legal crop since the Second World War inspired the federal government's famous “Hemp for Victory” campaign. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has even been investigating ways to import industrial hemp seeds from the Ukraine, as a way to bolster the embattled nation's economy amid Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Back in 2000, however, when Canada first began legal hemp production, a report from the USDA Economic Research Service sought to downplay the crop's potential, concluding that “US markets for hemp fiber (specialty textiles, paper, and composites) and seed (in food or crushed for oil) are, and will likely remain, small, thin markets. Uncertainty about longrun demand for hemp products and the potential for oversupply discounts the prospects for hemp as an economically viable alternative crop for American farmers.”
So which one is it? Can marijuana's non-psychoactive cousin really save the world, or is it’s universal utility just a pipe dream of cannabis dweebs and conspiracy theorists that’s coming into vogue because of marijuana accelerating legality?
Author, NPR contributor, and self-described solar-powered goat herder Doug Fine says yes it cannabis. Though his big Aha! hemp moment came not while blazing weed in college, or reading an annual agricultural report, but rather when he had his first child, and noticed that hemp diapers stood up better than anything else to repeated line drying under New Mexico's brutal summer sun.
In Farewell My Subaru (2009), Fine related the pleasures and pitfalls of transforming an old ranch into a green and sustainable nearly carbon-neutral farm, where he continues to live, work the land, and raise kids (both kinds). Then in Too High To Fail (2012), he envisioned a local, sustainable approach to cannabis legalization. And now, in Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution, he's penned a primer for the future hemp farmers (and consumers) of Earth, upon whom relies, apparently, the very survival of our species.
Of course, if you've smoked at least two ounces of pot in your life (cumulatively or all at once), at some point, somebody must have already told you about hemp fiber's incredible strength and versitility, that the plant's seed oil is the world's most nutritionally complete single food source, that the crop thrives without pesticides and fertlizers, and that it has the potential to replace drilling, logging, mining, monoculture corn farming, and countless other environmentally destructive industries. But after hearing all that, you probably just nodded politely, passed the Dutchie and moved on.
Doug Fine decided to investigate.
In Hemp Bound, he profiles the leading pioneers building this new industry, ultimately concluding that the end of prohibition will indeed unleash a second agricultural revolution, one where hemp produces even more taxable revenue than legalized marijuana, while feeding the world, freeing us from fossil fuels, reversing climate change and restoring our planet's depleted soils.
VICE: How do you talk about hemp without sounding like one of those guys on a street corner, hollering about salvation?
Doug Fine: You mean how do I deal with the fact that your roommate in college with the lava lamp was basically right about hemp saving the world?
Because, yes, this plant can, if we utilize it correctly, have a transformative impact on the future of humanity, including climate mitigation and—ultimately—freedom from fossil fuels. But first we have to deal with all of this cultural and political baggage surrounding it. So I do try to temper my exuberance. Also, I remind myself that those currently unable to visualize hemp's potential will be seeing it for themselves soon enough. In just a few years, we won't be discussing if hemp's going to be a massive industry. Because, as Spinal Tap's Bobbi Flekman once noted: Money talks, and bullshit walks.
And the facts on the ground show the Canadian hemp seed oil industry growing 20 percent this year, to nearly $1 billion. Canadian hemp farmers already profit around $250 an acre—up to ten times as much as they'd be getting for corn crops. While using about half the water, which actually allows dry cropping in places that have been ravaged by drought.
In fact, because of its long, strong, fast growing roots, farmers can plant hemp in basically desert-like soil, and still turn a profit on the first harvest. So I believe hemp will eventually win out in the marketplace in a wide variety of industries, including energy, housing, textiles, and manufacturing. And this is worldwide, not just Stateside.
In Hemp Bound, for instance, I visit a joint public/private enterprise in Winnipeg called the Composites Innovation Centre, where researchers turn hemp into roofing materials, insulation blankets, soundproof walls—you name it. They showed me a hemp-constructed tractor body, made from their own harvest, that was vastly stronger, lighter, and more fuel efficient than the petrol plastic hunk sitting next to it, and it took way less energy to construct. I was literally looking into the future. Plus I kicked it—it was strong.
As Simon Potter, the center's sector manager for product innovation put it : We're coming back to something that we should have never forgotten about. These natural fibers work better than the often toxic materials made of petroleum.
In the book, David West, a former Big Corn scientist turned hemp researcher, describes visiting America's National Seed Storage Library, where he found just a few bags of the once highly prized Kentucky hemp seed stock sitting in a hallway—long rotten. West described a terrible loss, since the world renowned strain blended the best of Asian and European cultivars. So where will this year's hemp seeds come from? And does America have enough experienced hemp farmers to grow them?
When frontier people and homesteaders set out to cross the then-wilderness to places like Missouri and Nebraska, they carried hemp seeds stored in coffee cans that ended up taking root all along those routes West. The legacy of that is millions of what are called ditchweed plants that come up every Spring in large areas of the country. They were originally used not just as commercial crops, but as erosion control and cattle feed. Today, we taxpayers, in fact, currently pay millions of dollars to eradicate ditchweed, though it always comes back.
So some argue that we can start by breeding with those cultivars that won out Darwin-style, as it's the heartiest seed stock around. It literally grows like a weed. But on a political level, the federal government needs to immediately change the law to allow importation of live hemp seeds into the United States. The reason for that was explained to me by experienced Canadian and Dutch hempsters: this is the hairnet era. The uniformity era. If you want to sell your hemp cereal in every supermarket, you must use approved cultivars. And the Canadians have had success with that model. It’s definitely the grown-up, Digital Age route.
Regarding finding experienced farmers, as a rancher myself, not of cannabis yet—until federal prohibition ends—but a rancher nonetheless, I know that any new crop requires trial-and-error and a lot of learn-as-you-go. But if you're a guy who's already got half-a-million dollars of not-paid-off farm equipment, and GMO crops have left you in debt with heavily damaged soil, and suddenly here comes a chance to make $300 a year per acre, instead of $50—then yeah, I have faith that America's small family farmers will start to figure out hemp cultivation plenty quickly.
Is hemp's role to bring about incremental change that sparks a larger movement, or is hemp itself a game changer, one we've kept on the bench needlessly for nearly a century?
Hemp's a game changer if the industry grows quickly and grows in a sustainable fashion. I say this as a fellow who is generally a rugged individualist: to get hemp off the ground,the government should be subsidizing it, instead of standing in its way. But even in a true free market, it will win out.
When I first started researching Hemp Bound, I visited Eastern Colorado during a long drought that had terrible echoes of the Dust Bowl in the 1930's. And on that trip, I met these wonderful farmers who took me to a wheat field that looked like the Sahara. They'd previously never even thought about hemp, but now, out of pure necessity, they'd started researching it. As had a lot of their neighbors in an incredibly conservative county, one that actually voted to ban marijuana stores locally, even after legalization passed statewide.
This is also a part of the country that's never had a historical hemp crop. Though one woman did come up to me and say, “It's interesting to hear you mention hemp, because I remember my Daddy used to plant it around the irrigation ditches as erosion control. And then in the fall, we'd let the cattle have at it. And boy, they sure loved it!”
That’s borne out by science. Hemp is the real deal when it comes to soil restoration, erosion control, and drought remediation. It's also been proven that hemp feed improves the omega-3 profile of eggs laid by chickens. I know because I went to check out the research at the University of Manitoba, and also tried some eggs for myself. Which means even one level removed it's still having a positive impact on overall nutrition.
Right now, I feed my family hemp seeds imported from Canada. They're very expensive. As is the organic grain mix I currently give my goats, which I have to burn a lot of vegetable oil to go pick up five hours away. So when I can finally just grow hemp myself, and cut those carbon miles out while healing my land and raising a valuable crop—that's going to be fantastic. I can press the seed, feed my family the oil and my livestock the remaining, protein-rich seed cake. That’s the kind of lifestyle decision, repeated on a mass level, including with the cellulose hemp stalks providing regional energy, that can have a significant and positive impact on the future of humanity. It’s not a pipe dream, either. Communities in Germany and Austria are today becoming energy independent with farm waste.
And in the meantime, we can all get hemp into our lives and bodies with a nice hemp smoothie, right?
Between goat ranching, parenting, and writing, I really don't have the time in the morning to spend 20 minutes mixing up a super-healthy superfood hemp shake, but I still do it, because I'd rather pay the grocer now, not the doctor later. My personal recipe has something like 50 ingredients in it, but if you simply throw your favorite juice in a blender with some yogurt, a tablespoon of hemp seed oil and some ginger, I believe you're going to see positive health effects. And you'll be helping bring just a little more hemp into the world.