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As Pricey Cotton Eats Up Food-Producing Acres, Hemp Looks Smarter Than Ever

4/1/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: hemp, cotton, agriculture

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailCotton stocks are at their lowest level since 1925, and prices have surged—up 170 percent since last year and 40 percent since the beginning of this year. Demand for textiles, particularly from China, and poor cotton crops in Pakistan and Australia mean that prices aren’t going down any time soon, Tony D’Altorio predicts in Investment U Research. “There’s very little cotton out there,” states U.S. Department of Agriculture chief economist Joe Glauber.

Farmers in the southern United States are responding to the squeeze by planting cotton where they once grew corn, soybeans or wheat, William Neuman reports in The New York Times. The USDA predicts Southern farmers will plant 12.8 million acres of upland cotton, a 19 percent increase from last year. The National Cotton Council expects substantial increases in all cotton-producing states, including large jumps in North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, according to the Times. While this will likely help bring down prices, this loss of food-producing acres is cause for concern, says Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton and Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. 'Those people in poor countries that have a hard time affording food, they’re going to be even less able to afford it now,' he told Neuman. Already, Bloomberg reports, corn prices have risen 79 percent since July 1 and soybean prices have climbed 50 percent, driving global food costs to a record. An extra 44 million people were driven into “extreme” poverty since June, according to the World Bank. 

What can we do? The simple alternative—made maddeningly complicated because of outdated laws—is hemp. With its long, strong fibers, hemp has been used to make paper, clothing, textiles, rope, sails, fuel—and food—since ancient times. Hemp fabric is seven times stronger than cotton, breathable and absorbent, naturally resistant to UV light and anti-microbial, making it an ideal textile for home decor. (The versatile fiber is even being used to make a concrete alternative.) Hemp is considerably less water- and chemical-intensive to grow than cotton.

In 2008 the Hemp Industries Association estimated that industrial hemp sales in the United States reached $360 million. Yet in most of the United States, federal laws prohibit farmers from growing hemp.

A relative of the marijuana plant (that won’t get you high, no matter how much you smoke), hemp suffers from its association with its mind-altering cousin. Since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 banned hemp production in the United States, all industrial hemp sold here has been imported from Canada, China and Europe, where it can be legally grown. Oregon, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Vermont have passed laws making hemp cultivation legal, and Michigan farmers are lobbying for the same, but growers face major difficulties in getting the federal government to grant the licenses needed to grow it. Farmers must obtain a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency before they can grow hemp without fear of prosecution, and those aren’t forthcoming. The DEA treats hemp as marijuana.

I like to think that the silver lining in skyrocketing cotton prices could be a renewed interest in hemp, a crop that could pump millions of dollars into the U.S. economy. A world threatened by a major food security crisis should just say yes to hemp. Check out the Facebook group I Want to Grow Hemp Like George Washington to learn more.

hemp harvest 

A Kentucky farmer harvests hemp in 1943. 

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