Hemp is an integral part of U.S. history: In the 1700s, farmers in many colonies were required by law to grow the versatile crop. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and many of the nation’s founding fathers grew hemp, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But in 1937, everything changed for the hemp industry.
That year, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, which lumped hemp into the same category as its psychoactive cousin, marijuana. Both plants were strictly regulated and eventually classified as Schedule 1 narcotics, despite the fact that the hemp plant does not have psychoactive properties.
But in recent years, hemp production has made a dramatic comeback, and in December 2018, the plant was finally de-regulated as part of the 2018 United States farm bill. The bill removes hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC from the list of controlled substances and allows for the wide-scale production of industrial hemp.
Hemp’s new status as a potential cash crop is good news for farmers and environmental advocates alike. As it grows rapidly and can thrive even in poor soil conditions, the plant offers sustainable solutions and applications within a number of industries. Additionally, new farming technologies, including photovoltaic agriculture, can further expand the environmental and economic advantages of the hemp plant.
The Implications of Hemp Production
The versatility of hemp is somewhat unbelievable: The plant can be converted into biofuel, biodegradable plastic, clothing and paper fiber, and CBD oil, which is used to treat a number of medical conditions, including anxiety and depression. Hemp is also used as a food additive, as it’s rich in protein and amino acids and contains healthy fats.
However, the U.S. relies heavily on foreign hemp imports, especially from China and Canada. The 2018 U.S. farm bill opened up new horizons for hemp production, but the plant’s potential is still being realized. At the 2019 Industrial Hemp Summit, held in Danville, Virginia, researchers, businesspeople, and farmers gathered together to discuss the future of industrial hemp and the technological innovations that are set to change the industry.
For years, U.S. farmers have struggled to turn a profit, and the situation became direr in the wake of President Trump’s export tariffs on agricultural goods. The tariffs led several countries, most notably China, to turn elsewhere for their agricultural needs. Soybean exports alone have dropped by 90 percent, reports NBC News, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid out $7.7 billion to struggling farmers since the tariffs were put in place. Hemp advocates, including Industrial Hemp Summit attendees, believe that the plant could help reinvigorate farming at a national level, as well as boost profits.
Hemp and Water Conservation
Only about 4 percent of water on the Earth is freshwater, and that water is rapidly consumed by humans and the agricultural industry alike. In fact, agriculture utilizes 70 percent of global freshwater, according to Ohio University. And by 2050, that number will increase by 19 percent as the growing global population will require 60 percent more food than is currently produced.
In light of these numbers and increasing pollutants that contaminate the world’s freshwater supply, conserving water is more important than ever. And industrial hemp is poised to become part of the solution to the global water crisis. The Ministry of Hemp reports that hemp uses half the water required to grow cotton. Further, one acre of hemp yields the same amount of paper fiber as four acres of trees, and it only takes about 100 days for hemp to fully mature. By harnessing the potential of hemp, farmers can drastically reduce water consumption.
Modern technology also provides numerous sources from which farmers can tap into a freshwater supply. Desalination processes, which remove salt from seawater, are becoming more mainstream and cheaper to implement. In the realm of civil engineering, researchers are also developing smarter irrigation techniques, including soil moisture readers that allocate water only as needed and the use of wastewater as a source of irrigation.
Poorly built irrigation systems are prone to evaporation and seepage, and even the best traditional irrigation systems are between 50-60 percent efficient. This has led farmers to search for eco-friendly solutions to water conservation. One of these is the process of rainwater collection. A rainwater collection system is one that uses gutters, barrels, and specially designed tubs that collect and store roof runoff. This excess water can be filtered and used for everything from irrigation to human consumption.
Benefits of Crop Rotation
Along with water conservation efforts, farmers are embracing sustainability on a large scale, and hemp is at the forefront of their efforts. Hemp naturally resists most pests, effectively negating the need for pesticides and herbicides, many of which are hazardous to the environment. The large root system of the hemp plant keeps weeds at bay, and encourages better soil tilth.
Farmers worldwide have seen positive results when hemp is factored into crop rotation. In England, hemp grown in rotation with wheat produced an increased wheat yield of 20 percent. And Canadian farmers reported a significant decrease the in cyst nematode parasite, which can devastate soybean crops, after hemp was rotated with soybeans.
Industrial hemp has the potential to significantly impact sustainability efforts across the world, especially when technology is factored into the equation. By growing hemp and rotating it with existing crops, we’re likely to see a decrease in water consumption in the farming industry, as well as a reduction in pesticide use. Further, farmers are likely to see improved crop yields and a boost in profits, which could be a huge leg up for America’s struggling farming professionals.