is Hip, Hot and Happening
So Why Are American Farmers Being
Utne, September-October 2004
American farmers are prohibited by
law from growing a low-input, sustainable crop common
in Europe and Canada with tremendous economic potential:
Hemp cannot be commercially grown in
the United States because it is erroneously confounded
with marijuana. In fact, industrial hemp and marijuana
are different breeds of Cannabis sativa, just as Chihuahuas
and St. Bernards are different breeds of Canis familiaris.
Smoking large amounts of hemp flowers can produce a
headache but not a high, or as Ruth Shamai of Ruth's
Hemp Foods says, "I've personally stood in a burning
field of hemp, and if you wanted a buzz you'd have to
drink a beer."
Most Western countries distinguish
industrial hemp from marijuana on the basis of THC (the
chief intoxicant in marijuana) content and permit the
growing of non-psychoactive low-THC hemp for fiber and
seed. Straightforward European Union and Canadian regulations
prevent attempts to camouflage marijuana in hemp fields
and limit THC levels in hemp flowers to 0.2 percent
and 0.3 percent, respectively; THC levels in marijuana
flowers are generally between 3 percent and 15 percent.
But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
(DEA) lumps low-THC hemp with marijuana. As a result,
although the United States permits trade in nonviable
hemp seed, oil, and fiber, it is the only major industrialized
nation that prohibits the growing and processing of
It is time to clear up the misunderstanding,
change the law, and clear the way for ecologically sustainable,
economically viable opportunities for American farmers
Why Industrial Hemp?
Notoriety obscures the history and
value of hemp. Hemp has a long history in America, from
the first plantings in Jamestown, where growing hemp
was mandatory, to the hemp sails of 19th-century clipper
ships and the hemp canvas covers of pioneer wagons,
to World War II's massive "Hemp for Victory"
program. Hemp is a major part of humanity's agricultural
and commercial heritage, having been used extensively
for millennia in cultures around the world.
Hemp seed was known long ago for its
healthy protein and rich oil. The stalk's outer fiber
was used for clothing, canvas, and rope, and textile
rags were recycled into paper pulp. The Declaration
of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, and the finest
Bibles are still printed on hemp-based paper. The woody
core fiber of hemp stalks was used for construction
and fuel. In the early 20th century, hemp-derived cellulose
was promoted as an affordable and renewable raw material
for plastics; Henry Ford even built a prototype car
from biocomposite materials, using agricultural fiber
such as hemp.
Beginning with the passage of the "Marihuana
Tax Act" of 1937 and continuing after the World
War II "Hemp for Victory" program, misplaced
fears that industrial hemp is marijuana and harassment
by law enforcement discouraged farmers from growing
hemp. The last crop was grown in Wisconsin in 1958,
and the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 formally
Today, driven by entrepreneurial spirit
and the desire to build a new industry for a new age,
hemp has reemerged. A diverse but increasingly unified
and politically influential group of interests supports
the commercial growing of hemp, including farmers, businesses,
nutritionists, activists, and green consumers.
Hemp is not a panacea for the world's
social, economic, and environmental woes — no
single crop can do that. But with focused and sustained
research and development, hemp could spur dramatic change.
Renewable, fast-growing hemp could allow major industries
to reduce their dependence on nonrenewable, fast-disappearing
resources and move toward sustainable production.
Today's hemp-based fabrics are nothing
like 18th-century canvas sailcloth (canvas derives from
the Latin cannabis). Hemp fiber, blended with everything
from Tencel to organic cotton, can be used to create
textiles as different as terrycloth, flannel, and luxurious
satin brocades. Hemp fiber offers greater durability
and breathability than cotton, which accounts for 25
percent of the pesticides sprayed on the world's crops.
Hemp-based textile products on the market include apparel
and accessories such as T-shirts, pants, dresses, baby
clothes, bathrobes, and shoes; housewares such as blankets,
shower curtains, and rugs; and sundries such as hammocks
and pet supplies.
Technical Hemp Fiber and Core
The most successful emerging industrial
use of hemp fiber is in the automobile industry. "Biocomposites"
of nonwoven hemp matting and polypropylene or epoxy
are pressed into parts such as door panels and luggage
racks, replacing heavier and less safe fiberglass composites.
European hemp fiber made into biocomposites by Flexform
in Indiana has been used in more than a million cars
and trucks in North America. Automotive applications
alone are expected to push European hemp cultivation
to over 100,000 acres by 2010. Emerging technology for
injection molding of natural fibers is expected to accelerate
growth of this sector. Hemp fiber is also used for insulation
and horticultural growth mats, and hemp core is used
in animal bedding, mortars, and horticultural mulch.
The low impact of the farming and processing
of hemp stalks and the high strength, length and yield
of the bast fibers make hemp, a traditional source of
high-strength specialty paper, a favorite in today's
ecologically aware market. Pulp made from hemp's bast
fiber is superior to short-fiber wood, and is an ideal
additive to strengthen recycled post-consumer waste
(PCW) pulp, thus expanding PCW's use. Tough and durable,
hemp content paper can be finished to a smooth-surfaced
sheet with as good as or better print qualities than
virgin wood-based paper. The markets for hemp content
paper are growing, including not only high-quality PCW
printer paper, but also ecological product packaging,
brochures and promotional materials for progressive
Ethanol — ethyl alcohol, currently
produced by fermenting cornstarch from kernels —
is gradually replacing toxic Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether
(MTBE) in the United States as a high-octane, pollution-reducing
gasoline additive. As a source for ethanol, corn kernels
are economically viable only because of high federal
subsidies. In the next two to five years, the energy-efficient
production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass such as
wheat and rice straw, hemp, flax, and corn stalks will
become commercially viable. This process also generates
much lower overall emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2,
and because most automobile engines can run on 15:85
ethanol:gasoline blends without modification, ethanol
will help nations worldwide meet their greenhouse gas
reduction goals. Hemp grown for both seed and biomass
has a stalk yield of up to 3.5 tons per acre, which
would make it an economical source of cellulose for
ethanol production. Farmers in the Midwest could welcome
hemp as a pofitable addition to their marginally profitable
soybean and corn rotations.
Increasingly found on store shelves,
shelled hemp seeds ("hemp nuts") and cold-pressed
oil have exceptional nutritional benefits and rich flavor.
They are used in salad dressings, nutrition bars, flour,
breads, cookies, granola, meatless burgers, nut butter,
protein powders, chips, pasta, coffee blends and frozen
desserts. Virtually all hemp nut and oil in U.S. foods
are imported from Canada.
An impressive 33 percent of the hemp
nut is high-quality protein, providing all essential
amino acids in a reasonable balance, making it an attractive
component of a meat-free diet. Hemp also contains significant
amounts of the vitamin E complex and trace minerals
such as magnesium, iron, and manganese.
But hemp seeds are valued primarily
for the exceptional fatty acid composition of their
oil, which makes up 30 percent of the whole seed and
44 percent of the nut. Studies link many common ailments
to an imbalance and deficiency of essential fatty acids
(EFAs) in the typical Western diet: too much omega-6
and not enough omega-3. Consuming sufficient omega-3
in the right EFA ratio has impressive benefits, including:
reducing cholesterol, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis
and sudden cardiac death, reducing the need for insulin
among diabetics, decreasing the symptoms of rheumatoid
arthritis, promoting mood improvement in bipolar disorders,
and optimizing development in infants.
Hemp oil contains the most EFAs of
any nut or seed oil, with the omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs
occurring in the nutritionally optimal 1:3 ratio. As
a bonus it offers the higher-potency omega derivatives
GLA and SDA. Fish and fish oils are recommended because
they provide the omega-3 derivatives SDA, DHA, and EPA.
But concern over the contamination of fish by mercury
and other environmental toxins has led the FDA to warn
pregnant women and nursing mothers to restrict their
fish intake. Hemp's omega profile means that using hemp
nut and oil as a staple food is a good alternative to
fish: One tablespoon of hemp oil in a shake, salad,
soup, or sauce provides 3 grams of omega-3, more than
the 2 grams per day recommended by the U.S. National
Institutes of Health.
Virtually all common vegetable oils,
such as soy, corn, sunflower, safflower and olive oil
offer a much less desirable omega balance, i.e., not
enough omega-3. Even walnuts, touted in recent media
due to the FDA's qualified endorsement of their omega-3
health benefits, contain significantly less omega-3
and in a lower ratio to omega-6 than hemp seed. Of the
commodity vegetable oils, only flax seed contains more
omega-3, but flax does not have hemp's optimal EFA balance.
Because it is more easily digestible with a longer shelf
life and a nutty natural flavor, hemp nut also offers
a greater range of culinary options than flax seeds.
Hemp Body Care Products
Hemp oil's high and balanced EFA content
also makes it an ideal ingredient in body care products.
The EFAs soothe and restore skin in salves and creams
and give excellent emolliency and smooth after-feel
to lotions, lip balms, conditioners, shampoos, soaps,
shaving products, and massage oils. Recent Canadian
research shows that hemp oil has potential as a broad-spectrum
ultraviolet skin protector.
What Can I Do?
Here are two simple ways to help hemp
blossom in the marketplace: Buy hemp! Vote
Hemp foods and body care products are carried by large
chains such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe's
and by thousands of smaller independent natural-food
chains, stores, and co-ops, and even by some mainstream
grocery stores. Outdoor retailers, ecological specialty
stores, and some department stores carry hemp clothing.
See the wide range of hemp products, and their makers,
listed in the Hemp Industries Association's (HIA) Members
Product Directory. Search for local retailers at
Be informed, talk to your state and national representatives,
and tell your friends and family about the benefits
of hemp for a sustainable economy and healthy environment.
Numerous states have passed legislation supporting industrial
hemp. What's the status of your state? Find out here.
Activists are working to shift federal
regulation of industrial hemp back to the Department
of Agriculture (USDA) and out of the hands of the DEA.
Donations to support this effort can be made online
at the Web site of Vote Hemp, the industry's lobbying
group, where you can also find sample letters and easy
ways to contact elected officials; see our What
Can I Do? page.
TestPledge, DEA and the
Right to Eat Hemp Foods
Under the HIA's TestPledge program
U.S. hemp food companies voluntarily observe trace THC
limits in hemp nut and oil. These conservative limits
protect consumers from workplace drug-testing interference;
they are based on a study, jointly commissioned by a
Canadian governmental program and industry members,
published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology
Nonetheless, fueled by Drug War ideology
and hysteria, the DEA has attempted to ban hemp foods.
Hemp food manufacturers and the HIA have won a series
of legal battles, culminating earlier this year in the
9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals ruling that the DEA ignored Congress'
specific exclusion of hemp fiber, seed and oil in the
Controlled Substances Act (CSA), exempting them from
the DEA's control. The court viewed the trace amounts
of THC in hemp seed as insignificant and irrelevant,
just like the trace opiates in poppy seeds, which are
similarly exempted from the CSA and which the DEA hypocritically
Fighting the DEA's attempted ban has
cost hemp companies over $200,000, but they are prepared
to spend what it takes to fight any further appeal to
the Supreme Court. "The public and the media should
question the DEA's waste of tax dollars in trying to
crush the legitimate hemp food industry," says
Eric Steenstra, president of the hemp industry's lobbying
organization, Vote Hemp. "A Bush administration
appeal will fail and only further embarrass the DEA.
Appealing the decision would be a last-ditch effort
to save face at the expense of taxpayers and limited
law enforcement resources."
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