Cannabis has “blazed” a trail into the national spotlight thanks to the legalization battle and provocative new studies on its health benefits. Mounds of research and media events like Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN Special Report WEED have shed light on cannabis’s potential to treat cancer, seizures, multiple sclerosis (MS), glaucoma, pain and other ailments. However, the entire conversation still revolves around marijuana, the high-THC strain of cannabis that makes you hungry and “high.” Little attention has been paid to hemp, the low-THC, high-cannabidiol (CBD) strain that not only has substantial health benefits, but also has enormous potential to benefit our environment.
Yes, it turns out that some of the best uses of cannabis require no baking supplies or bongs. Hemp has been used for centuries to make rope, textiles, foods, personal care products, construction materials, paper and, more recently, automotive parts. Hemp only became a controversial substance in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s, and its production was first restrictedwith the passage of the 1937 “Marihuana Tax Act,” which defined hemp as a narcotic drug and required farmers to obtain federal permits to grow it.
Even still, Popular Mechanics dubbed hemp “the new billion dollar crop” in 1938, claiming that it “can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to cellophane.” And when World War II demanded the full industrial might of the U.S., hemp restrictions were temporarily lifted and production reached its peak in 1943 when American farmers grew 150 million pounds of hemp. It was manufactured into shoes, ropes, fire hoses and even parachute webbing for soldiers fighting the war. After 1943, production plummeted and the anti-narcotic regime kicked back into effect.
The good news is that hemp production continued throughout much of the rest the world, including Europe and East Asia. If we substitute hemp for many of the industrial materials we use and take for granted today, the environmental benefits are impressive. Here, I’ll focus on four environmental benefits that are well established in academic and government research.
1. Forest Cover and Biodiversity
Although more than 95 percent of paper is made from wood pulp, hemp can play the same role. It can be recycled twice as many times as wood pulp, it can produce three to four times as much fiber per hectare as typical forests and even twice as much as a pine plantation. These abilitiesdiscussed by Dr. Ernest Small, Principal Research Scientist at the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada, suggests that more reliance on industrial hemp could reduce dependence on old growth forests, which host the world’s greatest concentrations of biodiversity and absorb carbon dioxide. Forests can’t keep up with the pace of deforestation, but hemp could keep up with our appetite for paper products.
2. No Pesticides and Herbicides Required
The USDA reports that in 2007, roughly 877 million pounds of pesticides were applied to U.S. cropland at a cost of roughly $7.9 billion. Yet recently, the World Health Organization’s cancer research wing deemed the world’s most popular weed killer, glyphosate, a “probable carcinogen” linked to cancer. Yes, what a surprise that the active ingredient in Monsanto’ Roundup, and other weed killers worth over $6 billion in annual sales actually aren’t good for us. While genetically modified crops (GMOs) typically require pesticides, herbicide and synthetic fertilizers to survive, hemp does not. It can grow organically almost anywhere. By substituting hemp for industrial GMOs (e.g. cotton, corn, soybean, etc.), we can we reduce damage to our health and the ecosystems we depend on.