One of the most promising sustainable resources is hemp, a hardy and renewable harvest crop that has been farmed by man since 8000 BCE. It has long been an essential crop in America, with the first plantings in Jamestown, Virginia. Everything from textiles to pioneer wagon covers to the Declaration of Independence was created using hemp.
Previous generations valued hemp for its renewability and its wide variety of uses. Today, it can provide even more benefit to humanity because of its numerous environmental benefits.
What Is Hemp?
To better understand the environmental impact of hemp, it’s important to know this crop’s capabilities.
Industrial hemp is from the same family as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, and is often erroneously mistaken for pot and banned because of this association. However, hemp does not produce the levels of THC found in marijuana and is not used for recreational purposes.
Industrial hemp has been used for centuries to produce fabrics, but its fibrous materials are also used to create a variety of other products.
For example, hemp seeds and fibers are used to make concrete, plastic, fuel, rope, and food, and its natural compounds are used for medicinal purposes, including CBD oils and other supplements.
What makes industrial hemp such an attractive, sustainable alternative is its multiple environmental benefits. These positive impacts exist in three areas of sustainability: social, economic, and ecological.
Let’s take a further look at the environmental sustainability and benefits that industrial hemp produces every day.
Why Is Hemp Inherently Sustainable?
Industrial hemp is environmentally and inherently sustainable in multiple areas. Here’s how we can benefit from hemp and even make up for poor farming practices.
Hemp Is Naturally Resistant to Disease and Pests
The use of chemicals, pesticides, and fungicides have a disastrous effect on the environment, including soil, water, and air contamination, reduction of biodiversity, and resulting illnesses. The largest industrial crops, such as cotton and soybeans, are grown with the use of intensive pesticides, causing a drastic impact on global chemical use.
Planting and harvesting industrial hemp eliminates the use of chemical controllers.
Hemp is highly resilient and naturally resistant to fungi, insects, and diseases. Thus, farmers do not have to use chemicals to manage their crops when they grow hemp.
Reliance on more natural plants, like hemp, may also benefit agricultural development as climate change threatens food security and production and causes potential supply shortages.
Hemp Conserves Water Usage
Textile crops, such as cotton, typically need a considerable amount of water to grow to their fullest potential. Nearly one-third of all textiles in the world are made with cotton, and as a major commodity crop, cotton has a 57% exposure to water stress. This condition places a massive strain on our natural resources. For example, one cotton t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to manufacture.
Hemp, on the other hand, is a less water-intensive crop and uses significantly less of this resource, allowing for conservation rather than careless usage. Additionally, hemp needs less land per pound of fiber to grow and is capable of flourishing in many different climates and soil types.
Hemp Gives Back to the Earth
Improper farming practices strip the land of its nutrients without allowing enough time for soil replenishment. The result of this destructive practice is soil degradation, which ultimately impacts the food crops’ health and overall productivity.
Hemp returns many of its nutrients into the ground, thus the soil becomes healthier, and erosion slows. Additional benefits to the earth include using hemp for phytoremediation, a process where the plant can be used to remove excess selenium from soil and, in essence, clean up the environment.
Hemp Is a Sustainable Source of Fuel
The world is heavily dependant on a variety of fuel sources. As such, the planet suffers from environmental damage caused by oil extraction and fossil fuel emissions, led by companies who are exempt from most corporate taxation and unlikely to stop production anytime soon. However, hemp is an ideal means to change course, and industrial hemp is a natural, practical source of biodiesel — a fuel made from plant matter.
Most biofuels can use vast amounts of valuable farmland necessary for growing food. That isn’t a problem for hemp because it can grow in poor soil and does not have to be produced on valuable farmland dedicated to food crops.
Biodiesel created with industrial hemp is derived from hemp seeds instead of plant stock. Often, hemp seeds are discarded, but they can be reappropriated for biofuel purposes, providing another example of hemp’s eco-friendly status and versatility.
Hemp Helps Slow Down Deforestation
Our planet loses an estimated 19 million acres of forest per year, and tropical deforestation, in particular, is continuing at an unsustainable pace. Often, these forests are cleared to make way for farmland for crops or the trees are harvested for products such as paper.
Industrial hemp fiber can be grown in smaller spaces and less expensively than the wood fiber used to make paper. Unlike wood pulp, which comes from trees that take two decades to mature, an acre of hemp can produce four times as much pulp for paper as trees and in a much shorter time.
Even better, hemp paper is recyclable for far longer than paper created from the wood of trees. Wood pulp paper can typically be recycled up to three times while hemp paper may be reused seven to eight times. Hemp pulp has a higher cellulose concentration than wood pulp and produces stronger paper without depleting the environment.
Hemp Is an Environmentally Friendly Building Material
The worldwide demand for cement is expected to increase, and concrete — a major component of cement — is the second most used resource. And at 8%, it’s the second largest producer of CO2 emissions. Using hemp to make concrete can put a dent in those sobering figures.
Hempcrete, a concrete made from hemp, is beginning to be used around the world, particularly in areas of France and England. The primary benefits of hempcrete are its means of regulating moisture, holding up load-bearing walls, and serving as a form of insulation.
Hemp Can Be a Biodegradable Plastic
Billions of pounds of plastic have been created over the last 60 years, and almost half of all plastic is estimated to be single-use with detrimental impacts on people and surrounding wildlife. Plastics buried in landfills can leak chemicals into the soil and groundwater. Additionally, floating plastic waste can be a means of transportation for invasive species and harmful microorganisms.
Hemp plastics are lightweight yet durable, and they are entirely biodegradable. Even better, hemp plastics do not contain the chemicals found in regular plastics. Those chemicals can affect severe changes in the human endocrine system. Using hemp plastics is an environmentally safe and healthy choice to make.
Hemp Grows Quickly and Cleanly
Depending on the breed of industrial hemp, the plant can be ready for fiber harvest in as little as 60 days. Whereas trees used for wood pulp can take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to be harvested, hemp grows much more quickly and provides profits fast.
The speed and quality of hemp growth means that it makes an excellent replacement for non-organic cotton. With its resilience and variety, hemp can be a better long-term investment for the consumer and the environment.
In 2018, hemp farming was legal in only a few pilot programs in select areas of the United States. As such, industrial level farming of hemp was not allowed. However, that changed with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill when hemp was officially removed from the Controlled Substances Act.
Now hemp is as viable and legal a crop to grow, sell, and trade as soybeans or cotton. That said, the hemp market is still highly undeveloped and not yet popular enough for widespread access to research, seeds, and supply chains.
We are still discovering the wide variety of uses hemp provides for man, and we cannot expect one crop like hemp to solve all our climate change problems. But people are increasingly becoming aware of the impact of global warming on our environment and our lives, and soon, hemp may be one of the sustainable resources leading the way in a climate revolution.
About the Author: Adrian Johansen
Adrian Johansen lives, plays, and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She loves sharing her knowledge and learning new things from people online. You can find more of her work on Twitter.