HEMP: THE WONDER PLANT
It’s useful for everything from cooking oil to cloth. Paper made from it was used to print the Gutenberg Bible, as well as drafts of the American Declaration of Independence. It’s rich in nutrients essential to good health in human and animals alike. It’s touted as having thousands of uses and can be grown without using pesticides. So why aren’t more farmers growing hemp?
Records and artifacts show that hemp was cultivated by ancient people throughout Asia and southeastern Europe. In Canada, hemp was first grown at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1606. Settlers in subsequent years received land grants with the stipulation that hemp be one of the crops grown.
Hemp’s tough fibres make it a valuable component for the production of paper, fabric and rope. Hempseed oil is low in saturated fats and contains omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids as well as gamma linoleic acid (GLA), a nutraceutical compound useful in treating such conditions as premenstrual syndrome, arthritis and eczema. The non-greasy oil absorbs well into the skin, making it valuable for the production of skincare products. Protein rich hempseed is processed for oil, made into flour, or directly into a number of food products. Seedcake from the pressing of seeds is useful as a feed for livestock.
Those who research and understand hemp tout it as a wonder crop for farmers struggling to diversify their operations. Although this sounds good in theory, the excitement of a few years ago, when hemp was first relegalized for growing, has been dampened somewhat. Part of the problem is hemp’s relation to marijuana.
There exist many myths confusing the line between hemp and marijuana, in part because American law enforcement agencies insist on regarding industrial hemp as a drug, despite research to the contrary. (See sidebar on page 9 for the distinctions between industrial hemp and marijuana.) Industrial hemp production has been banned in the United States since 1938. The recent climate of conservatism in that country is discouraging proponents, who had hoped the States would follow Canada’s lead and allow commercial production to resume. There have even been problems with exporting products containing hemp to the United States from Canada.
Another problem facing growers of hemp is where to have it processed. It’s easy to say the fibres make excellent paper, but how will the pulp industry deal with competition from a plant which can be grown and harvested in one year as opposed to forty or fifty? Many proponents of hemp suspect wide scale lobbying from major corporations as a factor in hemp’s remaining illegal for cultivation in the States.
A significant hurdle to fibre production comes in the cost of transporting fibre to processing areas. At this time, production of hemp for fibre is centred in Ontario, where it is processed for use in items such as carpet backing, and as an excellent bedding material for horses and other stabled animals.
A staunch proponent of industrial hemp is Chops Viger of New Minas, Nova Scotia, a retired fighter pilot and businessman. Viger has done extensive research on the viability of hemp and is lyrical in his belief that hemp holds great promise on the commercial market. He recognizes the hurdles yet to be faced, observing that “It’s easy to show that you can make 25,000 different products from hemp, it’s another thing to actually make even a couple of dozens that are economically viable. You’re always going against huge volumes and you’re going against technology infrastructures that have got billions invested.”
After growing a crop of hemp for its seed two years ago, Viger and business partner Anne Franey established Annapolis Valley Hemp, featuring a line of body care products using hemp oil. They are currently developing their marketing plan to include online and direct sales.
Canadian growers wishing to cultivate industrial hemp do so with authorization from Health Canada. Growers make application for licenses for commercial production of industrial hemp under the Industrial Hemp Regulations and for research purposes under the Narcotic Control Regulations.
In 2001, of 140 applications made to grow hemp commercially across Canada, 126 were granted, one of which was in Nova Scotia. There were two Atlantic applicants for research licenses, one in New Brunswick, and one in Nova Scotia. As part of the license requirements for growing hemp, producers must provide proof that their hemp crop has a THC level lower than 0.3%. The regulations and paperwork are enough to discourage some who would grow the crop.
Arthur Hanks works with the Saskatchewan Hemp Association, where a number of growers are planting acreages. He observes that “there’s a good future in hemp, but we are in no way near the critical mass we need to make it work as a profitable business for many farmers. The seed industries are nice and growing, but there is only enough business right now for a few dozen farmers growing 40 to 80 acres each. For fibre to work nationally, we need infrastructure, which takes capital, which needs to be raised.” It will be interesting to watch how the continuing story of hemp unfolds.
The Great Debate
Dr. David West, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has studied industrial hemp for over 20 years. He describes the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana as similar to the difference between sweet corn, for human consumption, and field corn, used as cattle feed. Both are the same genus and species, but different variants. So it is with hemp and its illegal relative; both are members of Cannabis sativa, but industrial hemp has essentially no amount of THC, (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive chemical which gives marijuana its kick. Industrial hemp contains another chemical, CBD (cannabidiol), which actually blocks the effect of THC in the nervous system, making it more of an “antimarijuana”. As one proponent of industrial hemp says, “you could smoke a truckload of it and you’d never get high - plenty sick, but not high.”
Opponents of hemp argue that marijuana plants could be hidden in a crop of industrial hemp. This is untrue. Hemp is grown quite differently from marijuana, and is harvested at a different stage of growth. Cross-pollination between hemp plants and marijuana plants would significantly reduce the potency of the marijuana plant, rendering it less valuable to the illicit drug trade.
Written by: Jodi DeLong, The Atlantic Co-operator
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