A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
WITH THE AMAZING HEMP PLANT
Two hundred years ago, hemp was the world’s most prized fiber. Indeed, so vital was it for commerce that Britain legally required several of its colonies to cultivate hemp for its imperial riggings and sails.
As late as 1945, over one million acres of hemp were still grown worldwide. Then came hemp’s long decline, a plant forced into exile by ill-informed laws. By the 1970s hemp cultivation had been banned in almost all industrialized countries. Less than 100,000 acres were cultivated by 1990. Cannabis was becoming an endangered species.
And then a funny thing happened on the way to hemp’s funeral. The body got out of the coffin, stood up and began walking around! The resurrection of hemp in the face of government indifference at best and outright hostility at worst, is one of the most remarkable agricultural stories in history. It has been entirely customer-driven. Reminds me of the story of Tinkerbell. Remember in Peter Pan, when Tinkerbell was near death and could be revived only if the children showed their love? When they clapped, she awakened.
In the last ten years hemp customers have been doing an awful lot of clapping. And hemp has responded awakened from its 50 year hibernation.
The first hemp product of the new era may have been the t-shirt invariably emblazoned with the slogan, “Legalize Marijuana”. Then entrepreneurs discovered that hemp fiber could be used not only to make t-shirts, but to make high- grade clothes, socks, hats and shoes. Then they uncovered hemp’s value as horse bedding and the unique characteristics of its seeds’ protein and oil.
The process of discovery continues, while hemp sales expand by more than 50 percent a year. It is amazing how far the hemp industry has come in the last five years. With no government assistance, individual entrepreneurs and small businesses have developed new breeds, improved harvesting machinery, and refined processing equipment. Yields are increasing, cultivation costs are decreasing and product quality is rising.
Hemp has been recommercialized in every Western country but two. Canada’s first commercial crop is in, and in 1999 it looks like Canada’s farmers will dramatically expand the hemp acreage planted.
We’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. I’d like to talk now not only about how we can get from hereto there, but of equal importance, where there is.
Making Hemp Legal
Absurdly, the United States, the world’s largest single market for hemp products and the world’s largest agricultural producer, is also one of the very few countries that still prohibit hemp cultivation. Several efforts are going on to change this status.
At the federal level, Ned Daly and Ralph Nader have petitioned the DEA to de-list hemp as a drug and shift jurisdiction for its cultivation to the USDA. If the DEA were to do this, it would accelerate the reintroduction of hemp in this country.
Several lawsuits have been filed in states like Kentucky and New Hampshire that argue that the DEA overreached itself by outlawing hemp in the first place, since domestic and international law clearly distinguish hemp and marijuana. Federal courts have refused to hear these cases, arguing that the farmers have no standing to sue to change the federal laws, since hemp cultivation is illegal in every one of the 50 states.
With the legalization of hemp cultivation by North Dakota and Hawaii, this argument no longer applies.
At the state level, we have seen a sea change in legislative attitudes toward hemp in just three years. At that time anyone arguing for hemp in state legislatures was met with guffaws. Now, with Canadian farmers making about $200 per acre with hemp while American grain farmers are making $20 per acre, rural legislatures are no longer laughing about the possibility of introducing a new, profitable rotation crop. In early 1999 North Dakota legalized hemp. Hawaii legalized the cultivation of hemp for research purposes. Montana and Virginia passed resolutions asking the federal government to change its hemp policies.
The people have spoken, in the marketplace and through their elected representatives. Can the federal government be far behind?
Making Hemp Mainstream
Americans must continue to struggle to allow American farmers can cultivate hemp. But there is another equally important strategy we can take to support hemp: buy more hemp products, especially those made from Canadian hemp.
Clearly, the reintroduction of industrial hemp in Canada, and the dramatic increase in acreage grown by Canadian farmers, has been the primary reason that American governments are warming up to hemp. We need to reward and support Canada’s efforts by buying Canadian hemp, because Canadian farmers are in an economic and climatic situation quite similar to that of the U.S.
Canada’s hemp economics are similar to ours. Unlike China, Canada boasts high labor costs. Unlike Europe, Canada offers no subsidies for hemp. Like us, Canada is phasing out its farm programs. Therefore Canada’s farmers, like our own, are seeking new, higher-value crops.
Finally, and most obviously, Canadian farmers are just across our borders. It is not a coincidence that North Dakota farmers demanded that their legislature remove obstacles to planting hemp when they discovered that a few miles north Canadian farmers were deriving much higher returns from hemp than from wheat.
Canadian farmers have expanded by several hundred percent the acreage planted in hemp. Now they will have to find markets for that crop, or else next year we will see the price of hemp fall and acreage shrink. That is why I urge you to buy hemp early and often and buy Canadian hemp. And if you represent large corporations, convince them that part of their new product development or research and development budgets should include purchase of Canadian hemp.
Making Hemp Right
Right now hemp is a niche crop. But it holds potential for becoming a commodity crop. That means that rather than tens of thousands of acres, we will see tens of millions of acres planted. Rather than a few hundred farmers planting hemp, we will see several hundred thousand farmers planting hemp.
If hemp becomes a commodity, farmers would benefit by having a new valuable rotation crop that can build up the soil and reduce diseases. And the environment would benefit by the reduced use of pesticides on hemp.
But the growing of hemp in and of itself will not enable independent farmers to survives nor will it inevitably boost rural economies. To achieve those goals we need to encourage hemp cultivators to become hemp processors. We need to return the profits earned in the processing and manufacturing stage to the farmers and the local economy. If we don’t do this, the hemp farmer of the future will be in the same situation as the corn farmer or wood-lot owner of the present-falling continually behind even as productivity increases.
The farm share of retail value of plant matter has fallen from 41 percent in 1910 to 9 percent in 1990. In 1980 farmers received only 30 cents of every dollar spent on food. By 1991 this had dropped to 21 cents and has fallen even further since.
Expanding the market for hemp is important, but if we want this expansion to truly benefit farmers and rural communities, we need to make farmers and their neighbors owners of the next generation of processing and manufacturing plants.
Cooperative ownership is not an alien idea to farmers. Today almost four million farmers in this country belong to some 4,500 rural cooperatives, with annual sales exceeding $100 billion. The vast proportion of these cooperatives are marketing or storage or service coops. But in the last ten years a new type of cooperative, the farmer-owned manufacturing plant, has appeared. Over 100 now exist. These can form the foundation for the next industrial economy, an economy based on plant matter and owned by those who cultivate the plant matter.
Let me illustrate what such an economy might look like by shifting the discussion to another type of plant matter-corn, and another final product-fuel. In Minnesota state policies have promoted in-state production of ethanol and its manufacture from cooperatively owned biorefineries. As a result of those state policies, Minnesota is home to 15 ethanol refineries. Such a large number of plants has led to healthy competition and a rapid learning curve by engineers. Efficiency has soared. Today the newest ethanol plant in Minnesota, although only 25 percent of the size of Archer Daniel Midland’s plants in Iowa and Illinois, are arguably more efficient than ADM’s plants.
Three-quarters of these ethanol plants are cooperatively owned, and over 90 percent of the ethanol produced in the state comes from these co-ops. More than 7,500 farmers, about 10 percent of all Minnesota farmers, are shareholders in these manufacturing facilities. And ethanol currently comprises about 10 percent of all automotive transportation fuel in the state.
Soon these cooperatively owned biorefineries may take the next step, shifting from corn starch to corn cobs and corn stalks as their raw material and making ethanol that can displace 50-80 percent of the gasoline in the car’s tank. The cellulosic part of the corn, or other plants, could be used to make fuel while the valuable starch will be converted into higher-value chemicals like ethylene glycol (antifreeze) or propylene glycol, used in toothpaste and in plastics.
In the future, we should strive to have hundreds of cooperatively owned hemp processing plants and manufacturing facilities. Only then will we be able to say that the introduction of hemp truly changed the face of agriculture.
Let me make one final point. Hemp is touted as a natural crop, and often as an independent. But the new technologies of agriculture are rapidly converting the independent farmer into a dependent contract farmer. Companies today are offering patented, genetically modified seeds that require farmers buying them to sign a technology use agreement that, in many respects, puts the farmer in a similar dependent relationship to the seed company as the poultry grower is today to Perdue or Tyson. The farmer become totally dependent. A single company, Monsanto, for example, owns 75 percent of the US cotton seed and even owns the patent rights to cotton itself.
When we consider the future of hemp, we might want to look at the current reality of canola. Canola, developed in Canada, is the most recent example of a new crop that has gone from zero to millions of acres in less than a generation. It was developed in the 1960s, and by the mid-1990s an astounding 12 million acres of canola were planted in Canada. In the United States, canola cultivation has gone from 12,000 acres in 1988 to almost 750,000 acres in 1998.
Canola is a success story. But it is also a cautionary tale, because recently canola breeds have been genetically engineered and the seeds have been patented. Three million acres of canola are planted with Monsanto’s patented seed. On August 6, 1998 Monsanto filed suit against a Saskatchewan farmer who had grown genetically modified canola in 1998 without a license from the company and had done what farmers have been doing for tens of thousands of years-saved the seed.
Written by: David Morris
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