Hemp, a close cousin of marijuana, is a super-crop that many Americans have never even heard of. But unlike marijuana, it cannot be used as a recreational drug and has a wide range of uses. In fact, every part of the plant has a different marketable function, making it an economic powerhouse of a crop.
Its fibers are used to create paper, rope, fabric, and textiles. Its seeds are a highly nutritious super-food. The plant’s oil is used as both a renewable, low carbon fuel and an ingredient in body lotions. It also doubles as a plastic substitute or a waterproof, lightweight, fireproof, insulated building material.
Hemp’s Troubled Past
Although the plant has a wide range of use-cases, farms, and others still heavily underutilize the crop. Why is this the case?
The answer likely lies in hemp’s unfortunate relationship and visual similarity to its more controversial cousin: marijuana. Although hemp cannot be used as a recreational drug, it was classified as a schedule one drug and banned under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
For decades afterward, various special interest groups campaigned for the legalization of the super-crop. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed certain academic organizations to grow hemp, and the 2018 Farm Bill legalized commercial hemp cultivation across the United States.
The Sustainable Expansion of Hemp
Since 2018, there has been a massive boom in cultivation for the plant. In 2017, United States farmers only grew 23,000 acres of it. After the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, that number over tripled to 77,000 acres.
Increasingly unpredictable weather also drives the adoption of hemp. The plant is remarkably hardy, requires very little water, and can be marketed for multiple different uses. This versatility makes it particularly attractive for large-scale farms, which use and transport enormous amounts of water.
As demand for hemp-based products grows, many farms will begin growing the plant. Farms that traditionally grew water-intensive crops like alfalfa or cotton are now looking towards switching to growing the plant instead.
For example, California-based SoCal Farms converted large scale cotton farms into hemp farms due to California’s unreliable water supply.
Future Proliferation of the Plant
The New Data Frontier, a cannabis and hemp research group, projects hemp sales to grow from about $1 billion in 2018 to over $2.6 billion by 2022. If plant’s use continues to grow, it could be a win for sustainability efforts.
Not only does cultivating the plant save water, but products made from it can also lower the carbon footprint of various industries. Fuel made from the plant could replace some fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions.
If hemp-based plastic substitutes grow in popularity, non-degradable plastic trash could be replaced by easily biodegradable hemp products.