In recent years, the demand for hemp-based products has been on the rise. However, there are currently some obstacles that prevent the material from being used to its maximum potential. By overcoming these challenges, we can work towards harnessing the range of qualities of this versatile plant.
What is hemp?
Hemp and marijuana both come from the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. While they look similar, they do possess different qualities. The main difference between hemp and marijuana is the level of a cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis that interact with brain receptors involved with functions like appetite, pain sensation, anxiety and depression. Hemp has a THC level of 0.3% or less. This is the psychoactive component found in Cannabis sativa. Since the THC level in hemp is low, it cannot produce the same psychoactive effect that marijuana does.
What can hemp be used for?
Hemp is incredibly versatile and can be used to manufacture a variety of products. This includes hemp-based paper, biodegradable plastics, textiles, insulation and other construction materials (like hempcrete and fiberboard), food and even biofuel.
Hemp is so valuable for manufacturing because almost all components of the plant can be utilized in some way or another. Stems of the hemp plant consist of wood and bast tissues. Both of these have properties that make them breathable and moisture-wicking. While the wood tissue can be used for building purposes, the bast fibers can be used to produce sturdy rope and textiles, which are elastic and tear-resistant.
Hemp fibers are also durable and versatile. They can be used for products like rope, textiles/clothing, shoes, food, paper, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel. Some new research indicates that there is also potential to utilize the fibers to produce bio-based, inexpensive and highly-efficient batteries. These may even be useful for high-performance energy storage devices like electric cars.
The plant’s seeds, leaves and flowers tend to be more versatile for human consumption. Hemp seeds are gluten-free sources of a variety of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, proteins and fatty acids. They can be used to produce hemp seed oil or used directly in granola or salads.
Similarly, the leaves and flowers can be processed into oils, used in foods, made into teas or integrated into skincare product formulations. Additionally, the leaves can be further utilized as compost, mulch or even biomass in power plants. The hemp flowers could also help grow and sustain bee populations. Though hemp plants are wind-pollinated and therefore do not produce nectar, they do produce copious amounts of pollen, which can be used to feed the bees.
Hemp roots are particularly useful at releasing nutrients into the soil and helping to boost soil structure. One such example of this is through phytoremediation. This is a process through which soil is naturally decontaminated. The hemp roots absorb pollutants and harmful substances from the soil. This prevents the use of harsher treatment methods and preserves the environment by using natural processes to tackle this issue. Additionally, the hemp roots can also be used in dietary supplements, ointments and oils.
The pros of using hemp
Many industries and agricultural practices in the U.S. are extractive and/or put immense strain on the land and resources. However, the hemp industry has several benefits to society, the economy and the environment. To understand how advantageous hemp is, we can compare it to cotton. Cotton often depletes nutrients from the soil, especially if it is not rotated with other crops. Conversely, hemp is incredibly beneficial to the soil and other plants in the area. It releases water and nutrients into the ground and uses the process of phytoremediation to extract harmful substances from the soil.
Additionally, while cotton uses lots of water and has a yield of 600 to 1400 pounds of cotton fibers per acre, hemp can produce 1300 pounds per acre with half the water consumption and little to no pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. This is equal to double the yield of cotton and 160% more than linen. Cotton farms have thrived in California for centuries, but swapping them out for hemp farms would be more sustainable. This is because farmers are currently struggling to meet industry demands because of droughts. Hemp plants can also be harvested within 100 days of planting, whereas cotton can take up to 180 days before harvest.
Cotton fibers are short and need to be spun and woven for textiles. Unlike cotton, hemp fibers are long and grow in strength when wet. Overall, they are more long-lasting than cotton. The fibers can also be blended with other textile materials like wool, cotton and polyester for softer and more durable textiles. This can benefit the economy and is a strategy that many large fashion brands such as Patagonia and Levi’s employ. The Fibershed project is one such company that facilitates this process by connecting hemp farmers to weavers, and finally to fashion designers. This allows for a system that benefits the people, the environment and the economy!
The challenges of using hemp
There are a few downsides to using hemp, particularly in the U.S. Because of the lack of infrastructure and appropriate machinery in the country, hemp is not used as frequently. Since the industry’s infrastructure is highly underdeveloped, it makes the material hard to come by and extremely expensive. Sometimes, this can be the reason why companies choose to use hemp blends for their clothing. By utilizing other materials such as organic cotton alongside hemp, costs are cut and supplies can be met.
Another factor that comes into play is legal restrictions. Until the Agriculture Improvement Act was passed in 2018, farmers had to seek approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to grow hemp. Since this has only been in place for a few years, hemp production still remains low. As a result, many U.S.-based companies rely on China for their hemp supply. However, this comes with an entirely new set of problems, such as forced Uyghur labor and systems or processes that exacerbate various forms of pollution and climate change.
Currently, the repercussions of past legal restrictions and the lack of infrastructure prevent the use of hemp as a material across various industries. Unless these obstacles are tackled, it will be difficult for companies to utilize the plant to its maximum potential. This is a pity, especially since it is a very versatile material that is high in yield, can help restore degraded land, provide livelihoods for farmers and boost the economy.
Via MSU Today
Lead image via Pexels