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Welcome to the hemp economy

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U.K. industrial hemp farm, 2007. Photo: Nabokov/Wikimedia Commons

With Alberta already plunged into an election and the federal government poised to enter one, economic issues are sure to be up for discussion. The federal government can point to a new $1.6 billion in revenue from cannabis from October 17 to December 31, not bad for two and a half months, and pretty close to the black market tally that Statistics Canada puts at $5.7 billion a year.

Alberta can point to a rapidly expanding hemp market, carrying on a century-long tradition that was suspended, after the end of U.S. Prohibition, for another 80 years. When alcohol became legal again, legislative and enforcement attention turned to other drugs. A group that included FBI leader Harry Anslinger and press baron William Randolph Hearst persuaded Congress that "marihuana" was dangerous.

So the U.S. outlawed hemp's psychoactive cousins, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica -- and threw hemp in, too -- a decision that steered the U.S. medical/recreation market towards the highly profitable liquor and pharmaceutical industries. The U.S. rope and textile industries had to seek out other source materials, such as cotton.

The thing is, cannabis sativa and indica are as different from industrial hemp as dachshunds are from dalmatians. Consumable cannabis plants branch out and sprout spiky flower stalks sticky with THC. Cannabis sativa L is a tall lanky plant, bred for its long fibres that are useful in making rope, canvas and other textiles. By law, industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 per cent THC. Flowers are referred to as "chaff."

On the other hand, anything bamboo can do, hemp can do better. "The global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products in nine submarkets: agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food and beverages, paper, construction materials, and personal care," says a June 2018 special U.S. Congressional Research Report on "Hemp as an Agricultural Product." Thirty-eight U.S. states have applied for exemption from the federal ban on growing hemp. And they can think of 25,000 reasons to do so.

Let's start with paper. Before trees, most paper was made from hemp. That was the standard product. "The Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Paine's pamphlets, and the novels of Mark Twain were all printed on hemp paper," says The Ministry of Hemp website, based in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We know because, "Hemp paper does not yellow, crack, or deteriorate like tree paper." The Ministry calculates that annual harvests mean that one acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four to 10 acres of trees over a 20-year cycle.

Wood pulp and paper products accounted for about 36 per cent of Canada's $19-billion forestry industry in 2013. That is, more than one-third of Canada's cut lumber was pulped for paper. Growing renewable hemp for paper would relieve pressure on Canada's forests and protect wildlife habitat. With a little softening, hemp could make good toilet paper too.

One step up from paper, cloth made from hemp can be as tough as the sails that took early peoples around the world ("canvas" comes from the "cannabis" fabric) or as fine and soft as linen. Beyond that, the Western Producer reported, "An Alberta government hemp fibre facility in Vegreville ... has helped develop various uses for fibre, among them biocomposites for car parts, modular building blocks, hempcrete, paper, packaging and livestock bedding." Such efforts remind some Albertans of the Alberta government's involvement in developing canola oil from rapeseed, now a billion-dollar crop.

Hempcrete is made by mixing chopped-up woody hemp stalks with lime, and pounding the mash into moulds, to make upgraded concrete blocks. "Hempcrete is ten times stronger than concrete, mould resistant, rot resistant, pest resistant, fire resistant, and carbon negative," says Cliff Thomason of Oregon Hemp Company in the National Geographic video below. 

New uses for hemp pop up all the time. This stylish carbon-neutral sports car uses hemp fibres for its shiny red shell. We haven't even talked about fermenting hemp for biomass energy, or the amount of hemp seed already included in regular restaurant and fast food. Every part of the plant is usable.  

Potentially most valuable, and finally legal for Canadian farmers to market since last October 17, are the hemp seeds, which are high in protein and in cannabidiol, CBD oil. Anecdotally, CBD oil has been credited with curing or ameliorating everything from epilepsy to shingles sores to seizures. Europe already has 14 varieties of CBD oil in the natural health market. Adding CBD to the fibre and seeds that hemp producers already sell, predicts the Canada Hemp Trade Alliance, will push industrial hemp through four years of "transformational growth" until it's a $1-billion crop by 2023.

Hemp growing actually has a long tradition in Canada. "Hemp was grown throughout the western and central provinces of Canada well before confederation," says The Thistle People's History of Hemp, from MIT. "It is known that hemp was grown under the French regime, and was the first crop to be subsidized by government. In 1801, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada distributed hemp seeds to farmers."  

After the U.S. banned hemp in the 1930s, along with the other cannabises, Canada followed suit. Since hemp grows even in poor soil and scant rain, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had huge hemp fields, which were gradually discouraged through slumping markets and special taxes. However, by 1994, the government was issuing experimental licenses to grow it again.  

These days, "Canada ... is among the global leaders in hemp production and one of the main sources of imported hemp products for American markets," says a recent article arguing the U.S. could do better. "Though total hemp acreage there has fluctuated year to year.... annual retail sales for Canadian-derived hemp products have consistently netted between $20 million and $40 million...." Much of the market is in the States, where farmers haven't been allowed to grow hemp.

Hemp provides the raw material to replace some of humankind's most damaging habits, such as clearcutting forests, or diverting water to cotton crops instead of food crops. Quite possibly, it's also the crop with the greatest potential to disrupt the corporate grip on agriculture, nutrition, and the world economy, because it is naturally pest-free, drought-resistant, actually improves the soil, and is 100 per cent renewable, year after year.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown the world our limits to growth. Hemp proved itself endlessly useful to humans for millennia before politics intervened. We have hardly begun to explore the potential of the hemp plant's 25,000 marketable products. Seems to me that if I was running for re-election and a vibrant renewable industry sprang into production under my watch, this would be worth bragging about. 

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Image: Nabokov/Wikimedia Commons

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Building a house with hempcrete

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