What is hemp

In the wake of cannabis legalization across many US states, hemp is getting a lot of attention. And rightfully so! Despite the controversy over legality due to its psychoactive cousin, hemp has many practical uses and benefits to society. This lush plant can be used for everything from bioplastic to building materials, and it’s more sustainable and affordable than most alternatives.

Hemp is the common name for a strain of the fiber plant Cannabis sativa. One of the world’s fastest growing plants and most durable natural textile sources, human societies have been spinning hemp fibers into clothing and other materials for over 10,000 years. Today, industrial hemp is grown around the world, with manufacturers making use of the plant’s strong fibers for commercial production.


Hemp vs. marijuana: Is hemp the same as marijuana?


The simple answer is: No. It is a common misconception that hemp and marijuana are one and the same, but they’re more like cousins than siblings. It’s true that taxonomically, both hemp and marijuana are derived from the same plant species: Cannabis. However, research has shown that there are genetic differences between the two plants. Cannabis plants for hemp have distinct physical characteristics from plants that produce high-inducing marijuana.

Does hemp have THC?

The key difference is that hemp contains exponentially less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the resinous compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effect – than pot. It also holds higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD), which mitigates psychoactive effects. By definition, hemp plants generally contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC, compared to the 5-20 percent of THC found in marijuana.

Does hemp oil have THC? Much like the hemp plant, hemp oil can contain minute traces of THC, but nothing that could produce a psychoactive effect or cause you to fail a drug test. Hemp seeds and hemp oil are completely legal to purchase and safe to consume.

Legal regulations have been slow to recognize this difference, and many countries still criminalize hemp production. From 1970 up until 2018, US federal law classified all cannabis as a controlled substance but states increasingly pushed for a legal distinction between hemp vs. marijuana.

What is CBD hemp oil used for?

There’s a lot of buzz about CBD oil these days, which naturally has sparked some questions: What is CBD hemp oil exactly? What is CBD hemp oil used for? Does all hemp oil have CBD?
An extract of cannabis flowers, cannabidiol (CBD) oil is one of over 100 different cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, both of the hemp and marijuana variety. Both plants produce non-psychoactive CBD, but CBD oil extracted from hemp (usually just referred to as ‘hemp oil’) only contains around 3.5 percent CBD, while CBD oil from marijuana plants can contain up to 20 percent of CBD.
The CBD hemp oil you see on market shelves is generally of the less-concentrated variety. However, it is the higher-grade CBD oil extracted from marijuana that has been hailed for its ‘miracle’ treatment of various severe, long-term conditions. Though researchers remain on the fence about tangible benefits, studies have linked CBD oil with positive outcomes in cases involving anxiety, cancer, inflammation, arthritis, epilepsy, and chronic pain.

USAGE

How can hemp be used?

An exceptionally versatile plant, hemp has a wide range of industrial and everyday household uses, and the commercial market for hemp products is booming worldwide. Products made from hemp are considered long-lasting and eco-friendly.

Hemp Paper

Made from used hemp textile scraps, hemp paper has been in use since the Western Han dynasty period in China more than 2,000 years ago, and the first copies of the Bible are said to have been printed on hemp paper. However, wood pulp became the primary paper source in the 19th century and has remained so ever since because it is roughly five times cheaper than hemp paper to produce. Today, hemp is most commonly used for cigarette papers, banknotes, and other specialty paper products.


Hemp Clothing

Hemp bast fibers can be woven into a material that makes comfortable hemp shoes, shirts, pants, socks, and much more. Clothes from hemp are sturdy and breathable, with a texture comparable to linen. Many hemp clothing brands also blend hemp with other materials, including cotton, silk, and synthetic fabrics for different textures and uses. Once a relatively niche market, organic hemp clothing has become increasingly popular among mainstream consumers in recent years.


Hemp Textiles

Did you know the word canvas derives from cannabis? Manufacturers have been weaving hemp fibers to create textiles for centuries. These days, hemp is most often mixed with other materials to produce blended fabrics, which are used in bedding, furniture, outdoor gear, and other textiles.


Hemp Seed Recipes

Whether you eat them raw or sprinkled on top of a breakfast bowl, ground them into flour, or soak them to make hemp milk or herbal tea, hemp seeds are flavorful and high in amino acids and omega-3s. These nutritious seeds can be found in many household pantries around the world, hulled or cold pressed into healthy hemp oil. Hemp leaf has also become a trendy ingredient at fine-dining restaurants. High in magnesium and iron, with five times more protein than lettuce, hemp leaves can be tossed in a salad or pressed into juice for an extra nutrient kick.

“As far as the nut and seed world goes, hemp seeds are like the straight-A student who’s also captain of the football team.”

Christina Chaey, Bon Appétit


Hemp Animal & Bird Feed

Industrial hemp seeds make an ideal food base for animals and birds, one of the plant’s oldest and most popular uses. As of 2003, 95 percent of industrial hemp seeds sold in the European Union were used as animal and bird feed. Most pre-packaged feed for larger birds will include hemp seed, which is also becoming an increasingly popular ingredient in cattle feed. Due to its high fiber and protein content, this oily seed is often used to give sick or malnourished animals an extra boost.


Hemp Rope & Jewelry

Hemp rope and hemp jewelry are both made by spinning hemp fibers together. Once the clear choice for boaters, hemp rope has – for the most part – gone out of use since it was replaced by Manila rope, which is less susceptible to rotting. Meanwhile, making hemp necklaces and other macramé jewelry has become a trendy pastime for DIYers. Hemp jewelry is made by tying hemp twine in repetitive knots called ‘stitches’ to create intricate patterns. Variations in the color and thickness of hemp twine as well as popular stitches ensure that every creation is unique.


Hemp Paint

Hemp-based paints are made with oxidized hemp seed oil, which takes a solid form. Unlike many paint bases, hemp oil is completely chemical-free and food safe, which is great for household use. The most common hemp oil-based paints are finishes, sought after for their moisturizing effect on wooden furniture.


Hemp Building Materials

Hempcrete – hemp-lime, the industrial hemp product used to build and insulate houses – is stronger, more sustainable, and more cost-effective than most traditional building materials. Common household insulators contain toxic chemicals, which may cause irritation for those with allergies. Meanwhile, organically sourced hempcrete absorbs CO2, minimizing household carbon emissions and becoming stronger over time. Hemp building materials are so sturdy they can be used to soundproof walls or reinforce roofing. Hemp’s exceptional insulating properties also mean hempcrete houses naturally regulate temperature, reducing energy costs by as much as 50–70 percent.

Fun Fact

Hemp can purify contaminated soil!

Known as a “mop crop”, hemp plants are used around the world to filter impurities from the soil, water, and air through a process called phytoremediation. This powerful natural restoration method removes pesticides, metals, and other toxins from the environment, absorbing them inside the plant as it grows. Hemp was even used successfully to filter out radiation pollution in Chernobyl following the 1986 nuclear disaster.


Hemp Biofuel

Virgin hemp seed oil has been successfully used as biodiesel, which early research suggests is especially efficient and easy to use. Up to 97 percent of hemp oil input can be converted into usable biofuel, and hemp biodiesel can be consumed at lower temperatures than existing market alternatives. Chemical engineer Thomas B. Reed has shown that an acre of hemp can produce power equivalent to a thousand gallons of gasoline. Hemp can also be grown in infertile soil, so hemp production for fuel doesn’t need to cut into food croplands. The best part? Standard diesel engines can use hemp biofuel without any modification.


How long does it take for hemp plastic to biodegrade?

Hemp plastics fully decompose within three to six months. This is roughly the same amount of time an orange peel takes to decompose. Exact decomposition time depends on the size and density of the product as well as the temperature and humidity of the environment in which it is discarded. Nonetheless, hemp plastic is an exponentially better choice than other single-use plastic alternatives.
By comparison, petroleum-based synthetic plastics take hundreds of years to decompose! Your great-great-grandchildren will still be living with the synthetic plastic waste created today. Meanwhile, hemp plastics will have long since gone back into the soil.

Hemp Plastic

335 million tons of plastic were manufactured in 2018 alone. Most of this was single-use synthetic plastic, which is a major source of environmental and food chain pollution because it does not decompose. Plastic made from hemp fibers presents a viable and sustainable alternative to what has become a major ecological threat.
Pure 100% hemp plastic is rare because existing technology has not yet made it commercially affordable. However, hemp is a common ingredient in composite bioplastics, which also include other plant sources. Hemp-based plastics are used in a wide variety of products for every industry, including hemp packaging, furniture, containers, and straws.
When combined with fiberglass, kenaf, and flax, hemp plastic is sturdy enough to use in automobile manufacturing. Back in 1941, visionary car manufacturer Henry Ford built a car with hemp plastic, which tests showed to be stronger than the steel traditionally used for automobiles. Today, many popular car manufacturers – including Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda, Lotus, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Porsche, and Volvo – use hemp-based materials.


Hemp Weed Killer

The tall, dense foliage of hemp makes it well suited for organic weed control. By adding hemp plants into a crop rotation, farmers can smother tough weeds without resorting to pesticides.


Hemp Straws

Hemp straws are drinking straws made from hemp fiber. These plant-based utensils are non-toxic to humans and do not pollute the environment like straws made from synthetic plastic. Hemp fiber is ideal for making various types of straws, including single-use straws, reusable plastic straws, and paper straws. Many consumers prefer hemp straws to other organic alternatives – such as bamboo or reed straws – because they are durable and flavorless.


So what is industrial hemp used for? Nearly everything! Hemp uses range from hair and beauty creams and edible hemp oil products to hemp-based biofuels and car bodies. Many believe the full potential of industrial hemp uses has yet to be discovered because until recently, laws criminalizing hemp cultivation have restricted research. Once the stigma surrounding these innocent plants is lifted, we may see many more uses of hemp crops up.


BENEFITS


What are the benefits of hemp?

The benefits of hemp are as varied as the types of hemp products. Hemp represents an alternative to many other source materials, which have proven expensive and unsustainable for modern usage


It grows like a weed.

Because cannabis grows in poor soil, even with limited water or human intervention, it makes an affordable and low-maintenance primary fiber source, particularly in parts of the world with little cultivable land.

It’s power-packed with nutrients.

Other seed oils pale in comparison to the health benefits of hemp oil. So exactly what are the benefits of hemp seeds and what are the benefits of hemp oil?
Both hemp seeds and hemp oil are high in protein, fiber, and polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s and omega-6s, which support the normal functioning of our bodily systems. The 75 percent concentration of omega-3s and omega-6s found in hemp oil is said to be the optimal ratio for absorption. Further, clinical research has shown that hemp oil can reduce internal inflammation, treat skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis, and minimize negative side effects from menstruation and menopause.

It has a high potential value.

Hemp is considered by many to be the ultimate cash crop. As the most efficient organic source of fiber, food, and oil in the world, it’s undeniably an economically significant commodity. As of 2014, the US market for hemp seed and fiber was already bringing in over $600 million. Demand for hemp products continues to expand as consumer awareness grows, and many farmers rightly see hemp cultivation as an opportunity to make up for shrinking land and the decreased value of other agricultural commodities.

It’s environmentally friendly.

There are actually four distinct reasons why hemp is good for the environment: It reduces industrial waste; it makes productive use of poor soil; it cleanses toxins from the surrounding environment; and, it requires little to no pesticides to cultivate. Products made from hemp have zero non-organic waste, and very little waste in general, given that even hemp byproducts can be put to use. Replacing current high-waste materials with hemp could make a huge dent in global waste.

It could help to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Hemp seed oil has proven exponentially more effective as a biofuel source than alternative seed oils. Research has been slow, but initial findings indicate that hemp oil is a promising option for the future of biodiesel.


HISTORY

How was hemp discovered? A short history of hemp

A “camp follower”, hemp plants have long sprouted up in abundance in the manure-rich soil surrounding human settlements. As a result, hemp was probably one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans. Its earliest recorded use was 8500 years ago, when hemp was harvested in China for its fibers, which were then woven into textiles or pressed into paper. Cannabis seed traces found at an archeological site in Japan dating back to 8000 BC suggest that hemp was present across Asia during this period. The Chinese character Má (麻), the first recorded word for hemp, portrays two plants under a shelter.
Hemp production later spread to the Mediterranean and into Europe during the Middle Ages, where it became a food staple of the peasant class and a malt used to make beer. Commercial production began in the UK in the 1500s and took off across Europe in the 1700s when colonial expansion increased the demand for naval rope.
For most of the early history of hemp use, textiles and food were the predominant hemp product. Attention to hemp’s use as an intoxicant was relatively sparse, with the notable exception of Herodotus. In his stories, this classical Greek historian described Scythians smoking hemp seeds both for ritual and recreation.
The history of hemp in America, at least as far as records can confirm, began with early Spanish expeditions. Hemp’s first recorded appearance in the Americas was in Chile around 1545, when it was brought over by Spanish explorers for cultivation. Early Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to Latin America also attempted to cultivate hemp in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, but Chile ultimately proved the most fertile ground for hemp production.
In 1605, the first records of hemp appear in North America. Early settler Samuel Champlain noted that the Wampanoag (Native American) people of the Cape Cod area and the Nauset people in Plymouth Bay harvested wild hemp to make clothing. Down the coast in Virginia, the Powhatan tribe was observed cultivating hemp in 1607. Following the wisdom of the native residents, Puritan settlers also began to cultivate hemp by 1645.
By the mid 18th century, hemp had climbed its way to the top of the public radar. Former US president George Washington was a vocal advocate for hemp production, as were subsequent presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce. Prior to the Civil War (1861–1865), hemp was a major cash crop in the American South, and hemp plantations were tended and harvested by slaves.
The passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which imposed sizeable taxes on hemp traders, dealt a significant blow to the US hemp industry. It is rumored that a number of key figures, who were threatened by hemp as a competing resource, were behind the passage of the Act.
Only a few years later, the tax was lifted to encourage the production of hemp in support of the World War II war effort. Cut off from their previous naval rope suppliers in the Philippines and Indonesia, the US Navy needed homegrown hemp to keep their fleets well stocked. Hemp was used to make uniforms, canvas, and rope. To encourage local farmers to reintroduce hemp into their crop rotation, the Department of Agriculture conducted a public campaign linking hemp with the success of the war. The campaign succeeded in increasing US hemp production by twentyfold in one year.
This came to an end with the classification of Cannabis as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance in 1970. Hereafter, cultivation or processing of any cannabis plant or byproduct – making no distinction between hemp and marijuana varieties – was rendered illegal.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the hemp industry had dropped off significantly by the 1930s, as consumers’ preferences shifted toward new synthetic materials. With increased government regulation (or outright criminalization), both supply and demand continued to slide for most of the 20th century. Global hemp fiber production fell 75 percent over 30 years: from 300,000 metric tons in 1961 to just 75,000 in the early 1990s.
Today, the potential of hemp farming is a glimmer of hope for many farmers facing a dire financial situation driven by shrinking land and overproduction. A 2019 survey by Farm Journal and Drovers found that many traditional farmers were considering adding hemp to their crop rotation, because they saw it as an opportunity for sustainable revenue.


What does hemp look like?

Hemp is derived from the plant Cannabis sativa, which is characterized by a sturdy stem, more delicate sub-branches, and long, slender leaves fanning into groups of 7-13. The hemp leaf of Sativa plants generally has a bright green color, lighter and thinner than their Indica relatives.      Unlike marijuana plants, which are usually short and stalky, hemp plants can grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) tall. Hemp leaves tend to concentrate on the upper half of the plant, making it appear top-heavy.


How do you grow hemp?


Industrial hemp farming and harvesting practices have been honed over centuries of human cultivation. While hemp plants grow wild in a range of climates, careful planting, care, and processing can improve outcomes and ensure a more profitable harvest.


For optimal output, hemp grows best in neutral to alkaline clay soils that hold water, but don’t become waterlogged. Hemp plants also prefer flat, low-altitude environments. However, hemp grows wild in many different climates and soils.

Hemp roots can grow up to 3 feet (0.9 meters) deep to access water in lower layers of earth.

Hemp plants grow closely together, with as little as 4 inches (10 cm) between plants. This encourages the plants to grow long, sturdy fibers.

Hemp requires 300–500 liters of water per kilogram of dry soil, 14 times less than cotton!

Hemp should be planted in the spring: March-May in the Northern hemisphere or September–November in the Southern hemisphere.

It takes 3–4 months for a hemp plant to reach maturity. The growth cycle of hemp totals around 108–120 days.

Hemp is an annual, which means that the full life of each plant is one growing season. Only dormant seeds survive after the life cycle is completed.

Hundreds of years of selective breeding have yielded a variety of hemp strains with distinct features. Some are adapted to grow in colder environments, while others have lower THC content or higher fiber concentrations.

Hemp helps the plants grown after it by removing toxins from the soil, killing weeds, and loosening deep soil layers with its roots. For these reasons, hemp is often followed by more delicate cereals in crop rotation. Hemp is amenable to monoculture, so it can also be grown in the same area several years in a row.


PLANTING

In the early spring, hemp seeds should be sown at a depth of 0.5–1 inch (1.3–2.5 cm) using a grain drill or other industrial seeding equipment, leaving 4–6 inches (10–15 cm) between each seedling.

NURTURING

Hemp plants generally do not require pesticides or herbicides to fend off threats. However, cannabis plants can be affected by pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. These may affect the plant’s growth and fiber quality but rarely impact overall yield.

HARVESTING

After flowering is complete, it is time to harvest. Exact timing can be finicky and depends on the strain and other climate factors. A seasoned hemp harvester may advise cropping early, even though this means lower seed yield because it enhances the yield and quality of the fiber.
Small farms can be harvested by hand, while larger fields may require the assistance of mechanical cutters. Plants should be cut off 0.8–1.2 inches (2–3 cm) from the ground. The lower stalks, which will be processed for fiber, should be left out to dry for four days. Meanwhile, the leafy upper half of the plant is brought in for cold pressing.

NURTURING

Hemp fiber must first be separated from the hurd – the woody inner part of the stalk – through a process called decortication. In the past, the plant stalks were soaked in water, in preparation for the fibers to be manually beaten off of the hurd core. As industrial technology advanced, rollers and hammer milling were used to crush the fiber away from the hurd. The latest evolution of this process is high-speed kinematic decortication, which separates hemp stalks into bast fiber, microfiber, and hurd.

Where does hemp come from?

Today, China produces 70 percent of the world’s industrial hemp, followed by France, which is responsible for roughly another 25 percent. The remaining 5 percent of global hemp production is distributed between Australia, Canada, Chile, Egypt, India, Japan, New Zealand, North Korea, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, the UK, Ukraine, and a number of EU countries.
Although hemp production has now been legalized across the United States, most of the hemp products you see on the shelves of American shops were likely imported from Canada or China. With the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, US hemp production looks poised for a major breakthrough, and this could change quickly. A 2019 survey of US farmers revealed that 48% are interested in growing cannabis for animal feed and other hemp products.


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Further reading

Want to learn more about hemp history, hemp production, how to grow hemp or the uses of hemp? Pull up a chair, and check out our suggestions for further reading!