Hemp- by Bill Monahan
With the determination of the new federal government to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, it seems a good time to have a look at its THC-free cousin, industrial hemp. Could the cultivation and processing of this remarkable plant bring much-needed economic development to rural regions like our own?
Hemp certainly seems exceptional in the many benefits it offers. A quick Google search turns up websites that claim anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 ways to make productive use of the plant. Prior to the advent of nylon, hemp was used for every sheet, brace and cable in the nautical world. Hemp fibre is ten times as strong as cotton and it grows in a variety of climates, producing more biomass than any other North American plant. Hemp paper can be produced with fewer environmental toxins than paper from wood fibres. The plant itself has been shown to have a remedial effect on soil, and an ability to deter erosion. It can be made into food, clothing, fuel, building materials, plastics, cosmetics and of course medicines. With a short growing time of 80 to 120 days, it is the ideal renewable resource.
Farmers are eternally concerned, understandably, about pests that reduce their yield, and that's why companies like Monsanto have gained such power over farming practices with their chemicals that kill anything that moves. Hemp is known to naturally repel weeds as well as many insect pests. Another agricultural concern is how crops and their attendant fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides impact the soil. Hemp grows naturally and doesn't require the same level of chemical protection to thrive.
The question is how do we make use of hemp to improve a rural economy? In the early twentieth century, hemp was outlawed, first in the U.S. and then around the world. It had never presented a danger to the environment or to consumers but was banned because it looks almost identical to the marijuana that gets you high (that and the fact that it competed with the quickly burgeoning plastics industries based on fossil fuels). The first licence in Canada to grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes was issued in May 1998. You can't grow it without a licence and the application includes a criminal record check. Although legal to cultivate, it is still treated as a controlled substance. Permits must be applied for annually and are only good for three months. Even the seeds used must be officially approved. A much more productive direction for legislation would be to decriminalize the cultivation of a plant which contains no intoxicants and seems to be a boon to the environment in which it is grown. At present the most difficult aspect of growing hemp as a cash crop is the government regulation.
The other main impediment to making a profitable hemp farm is the lack of processing. Whether the plant is used for its fibre, its oils or its seeds, it must be processed to create the final product and with the fibrous stems, the seeds and the soft inner core of the plant each individually processed it's easy to imagine the complexity of the process. Some government investment has been made in support of a new, innovative project design to process hemp. One of their potentially most significant products is Hempcrete, a substitute for concrete as a building material. In addition to the carbon- neutral way that hemp is grown (not to mention the elimination of big ugly pits cut into good farmland), Hempcrete is superior to concrete in many ways. It breathes, reducing dampness and discouraging the growth of mould to provide better indoor air quality; it has better thermal insulation qualities and it is fire and pest resistant.
Another part of the solution is the development of markets. There is a substantiated demand for processed hemp in both the U.S. and China, particularly hemp straw, to meet the demands of manufacturers. With all our farmland, this renewable and extraordinarily adaptable resource should be near the top of the list of Canadian export resources in our trade discussions.
If we were to grow hemp in our fields and create non-polluting industries in the form of processing to fill the empty manufacturing plants that are all too numerous in our area, the economic development of the area would get a real boost. As with so many things, what's needed now is the political will.