Cultivating Hemp: Potential for a Global Impact

In today’s consumer-driven world, identifying and implementing sustainable methods has increasingly become a standard seen across all industries. Whether it is a manufacturer attempting to make their product with less environmentally harmful materials, or the individual consumer choosing to purchase a sustainable product, the emphasis on sustainability is being echoed at all levels. Interestingly, it is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants that has the potential to provide a significant leap in the pursuit of global sustainability: hemp.[1]

Industrial hemp (“hemp”), also known as Cannabis sativa L., has been cultivated for a variety of uses, dating as far back as 8000 B.C. in some instances.[2] Historical records trace German hemp fabric samples back to 400 B.C., as well as the Spanish moors creation of the first hemp paper factory in 1150 B.C.[3] Notably, in the United States Henry Ford used hemp fiber in the construction of early Ford cars, as well as powering them with highly unsaturated hemp oil.[4] However, because hemp belongs to the same plant species as marijuana (cannabis sativa), the production of hemp has historically been a controversial and difficult topic, both in the United States and internationally.[5] However, the distinction is that, in comparison to marijuana, hemp typically produces a marginal amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”), the compound in the plant commonly associated with psychoactive components. In light of the past decade’s movement toward recognition and acceptance of marijuana legalization, however, hemp’s potential to increase sustainability across global industries has gained significant recognition.

As of 2020, hemp is legally produced for research or commercial purposes in over 47 countries worldwide, and with the United States passing the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is legal to cultivate in 46 states.[6] The growing global acceptance of hemp cultivation is easily explained when recognizing hemp’s potential to be a highly sustainable, and environmentally friendly multipurpose crop, capable of producing a diverse range of products, and fostering greater sustainability in current global industries.[7] Notably, industrial hemp has the potential to impact the textile, construction, automotive, bio-fuel, cosmetics, oil, and pharmaceutical industries.[8] Further, cultivating hemp has positive environmental impact, and it is once matured and harvested, is a crop that every part of the plant can potentially be used.[9] One example of the positive environmental impact of cultivating hemp is that it has been shown to have a natural impact on improving soil health, proven to restore and replenish contaminated soils.[10] Studies have additionally found that industrial hemp fiber is a viable and more sustainable alternative material than cotton, requiring a shorter production cycle, less water and pest controls, but yet producing higher crop yields with improving soil conditions.[11] Additionally, growing hemp has been found to consume four times the amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than similar crops.[12] While widespread transition to hemp-based fabrics would take significant time, the benefits of hemp over cotton has substantial implications for the global textile industry and environment.

The most important benefit of cultivating hemp is its potential to replace conventional (oil-based) plastics. When made completely from a hemp plant, hemp plastic is recyclable and 100% biodegradable.[13] Further, producing hemp plastic only requires extracting the cellulose out of the plant with no toxic byproducts.[14] Another consideration that makes hemp plastic a viable alternative and replacement for oil-based plastics is that fossil fuels, the major source of conventional plastics, are continuing to diminish.[15] Additionally, there is growing international concern to address the increasing amount of non-biodegradable oil-based plastic waste in the world’s oceans, rivers and other bodies of water.[16]

Despite the obvious benefits of industrial hemp production, there are still several significant obstacles facing widespread hemp cultivation. Differing regulatory hurdles country to country have made it a difficult market for hemp farmers to gain a footing in long-established industries, such as the textile industry. Because the global textile industry is a pillar of many economies, many countries’ governments have subsidized the production of cotton, but have not yet done the same with hemp.[17] Additionally, the initial cost of implementing new machinery and facilities to utilize hemp plastic has dissuaded many industries from choosing hemp as an alternative to their current non-biodegradable methods.[18]

With the environmental health of the world continuing to be a growing concern, implementing sustainable practices across international industries must be recognized as a necessary step by all nations. While shifting from long-standing methods of operating, such as using oil-based plastics, will vary in cost and time to implement depending on the industry, it is vital that governments and industries start coordinating to achieve this means. In industrial hemp’s case, this requires industries’ recognition that hemp is a feasible and lasting alternative to current methods and should receive at minimum equivalent support from their governments. Further, international trade organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, need to take a greater role in establishing sustainable material requirements for industries conducting international trade. Industrial hemp’s potential to make a positive impact is evident, but whether that impact is realized will require a united effort across global industries and nations.

[1] Ifeoluwa Adesina, et al., A Review on the Current State of Knowledge of Growing Conditions, Agronomic Soil Health Practices and Utilities of Hemp in the United States, 10(4) Agric., Apr. 14, 2020, at 1.

[2] Polly Brownlee, New Zealand’s Industrial Hemp Industry: Motivations, Constraints, and Moving Forward (2018) (M.A. dissertation, University of Otago) (on file with University of Otago).

[3] Anastasija Vilcina et al., Development of Hemp Industry in the European Union and Latvia, 14(3) Reg’l Formation and Dev. Stud. 199, 200 (2021).

[4] Brownlee, supra note 2, at 1.

[5] Adesina, et al., supra note 1, at 2.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 1.

[8] Id. at 2.

[9] Anastasija Vilcina, et al., supra note 3, at 199.

[10] Adesina, et al., supra note 1, at 2.

[11] Id.

[12] Ali Asghar Modi et al., Hemp is the Future of Plastics, 51(03002) E3S Web of Conferences (2018), at 3.

[13] Id. at 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Wanjohi Kabukuru, UN Body Weighs a Global Treaty to Fight Pollution, U.S. News (Feb. 25, 2022), https://www.usnews.com/news/news/articles/2022-02-25/un-body-weighs-a-global-treaty-to-fight-plastic-pollution.

[17] Kyle Jaeger, Federal Grants for Hemp Farmers Should be Expanded, State Agriculture Departments Demand at Annual Meeting, Marijuana Moment (Sept. 28, 2021), https://www.marijuanamoment.net/federal-grants-for-hemp-farmers-should-be-expanded-state-agriculture-departments-demand-at-annual-meeting/.

[18] Peter Nilson, Is There Potential in Hemp for Bioplastics?, Packaging Gateway (Mar. 31, 2021), https://www.packaging-gateway.com/features/is-there-potential-in-hemp-for-bioplastics/.