Environment

Help Save the Earth, Time to Subsitute Hemp for Oil

Every man-made fiber we wear, sit on, cook with, drive in, are by-products of the petroleum industry -- all of which could be replaced by hemp.

As the recession renews interest in the growing hemp marketplace as a potential boon for the green economy -- even Fox Business News has touted it -- hemp is becoming impossible to ignore.

But the plant's potential extends far beyond consumer-generated greenbacks. A low-input, low-impact crop, industrial hemp can play a significant role in our desperate shuffle to avoid catastrophic climate change.

"In terms of sustainability, there are numerous reasons to grow hemp," says Patrick Goggin, a board member on the California Council for Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial-hemp advocacy group.

Goggin launches into its environmental benefits: Hemp requires no pesticides; it has deep digging roots that detoxify the soil, making it an ideal rotation crop -- in fact, hemp is so good at bioremediation, or extracting heavy metals from contaminated soil, it's being grown near Chernobyl.

Hemp is also an excellent source of biomass, or renewable, carbon-neutral energy, and its cellulose level, roughly three times that of wood, can be used for paper to avoid cutting down trees, an important line of defense against global warming.

When it comes to hemp, environmental gains are inexorably intertwined with economic ones. The auto industry, hardly synonymous with being green but which has had the research dollars to apply new technology, can vouch for Goggin. For years European car makers have been using hemp-fiber-reinforced composite materials to replace fiberglass and in other components, such as door panels or dashboards. And now their American counterparts have joined in.

Blending hemp with plastics is not only cheaper for producers, but natural-fiber composites are roughly 30 percent lighter, which in turn leads to greater fuel efficiency for customers. And when they finally hit the junkyard, those parts partially biodegrade. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Honda all use this technology.

Now, where there are cars, there's fuel, or these days biofuel, which has become a contentious issue as America fights for energy independence while attempting to combat climate change.

Biofuels -- fuels derived from plants -- actually are nothing new. Rudolph Diesel, who invented the diesel engine, designed his machine to run on peanut oil, and his contemporary, Henry Ford, intended his Model-T to run on ethanol, of which hemp provided the major feedstock until the 1930s. Even Thomas Edison championed bio-based fuels, suspicious of the growing dominance of the petroleum industry, which boomed after America began taxing alcohol -- as both a beverage and a fuel -- to help pay for the Civil War.

To wean ourselves off foreign oil, the U.S. heavily subsidized the corn-based ethanol industry to the tune of $7 billion in 2006, according to zFacts, a Web site run by economist Steve Stoft.

Critics argue that the production of corn-based ethanol is problematic because corn consumes more energy from fossil fuels (such as petrochemical, nitrogen-based fertilizers) than it yields, and its production has a negative impact on the price and availability of edible corn, a staple in countries such as Mexico.

In 2007, because so many farmers north and south of the border switched to growing industrial corn, the price of corn flour in Mexico skyrocketed 400 percent, sending rioters into the streets. People need to eat and to do so, they have to be able to afford food, which begs the question: How green is ethanol when it deprives folk of basic food?

"In reality, corn isn't a viable option," says Goggin, who explains that hemp, which can be grown both as food and fuel -- its seeds, harvested for protein and essential amino and fatty acids, or for oil, which is converted into biodiesel -- has roughly four times the cellulose biomass potential of corn. "Compared to hemp, which can be harvested for multiple purposes, it's very inefficient."

As biomass, hemp can be converted into fuels such as methane, methanol and gasoline, which can help curb the world's growing appetite for palm oil used to make biodiesel, and which is having a colossally negative environmental impact.

In densely populated Indonesia, companies are draining local peat swamps and clearing virgin tropical forests, home to the endangered orangutan, to make room for palm oil plantations. This alone has resulted in 2 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions being released into the atmosphere a year, according to the conservation nonprofit Wetlands International.

The same is happening in Brazil's biodiverse cerrado region south of the Amazon, where sugar cane and soy plantations are replacing native vegetation. Deforestation now accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Global Canopy Program, an alliance of rainforest scientists based in Oxford, England. Tropical forests are essentially the planet's lungs -- and without lungs, well, it's a no-brainer ...

"If all the diesel engines today were converted to use hemp biodiesel, you could wipe out world hunger while providing a natural balance to global warming" says Paul Stanford of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, which has worked to end marijuana prohibition and restore industrial hemp.

As hemp, which has a short harvesting period (roughly 120 days for seed), grows it sequesters, or captures, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because biofuels emit less carbon dioxide when burned, more carbon is actually absorbed by the plants used to produce it. So, as more hemp grows, more carbon dioxide would be sucked out of the atmosphere.

"Growing hemp would improve air quality -- isn't that good enough reason to do it?" says Chris Conrad, a respected authority on cannabis and industrial hemp and who wrote Hemp, Lifeline to the Future. Only Conrad, who also teaches at Oaksterdam University, America's only cannabis college, in Oakland, Calif., knows his question is rhetorical. America is the world's only industrialized nation to prohibit the growing of industrial hemp.

That's because the Drug Enforcement Administration has historically lumped hemp in with marijuana, although the plants are different breeds of Cannabis sativa, just as Great Danes and Chihuahuas are different breeds of Canine familiaris.

While hemp contains minute levels of THC, marijuana's psychoactive ingredient (compare 0.3 in Canadian industrial hemp versus 3-20 for medical marijuana), to get high you would have to smoke a whole field of it -- but you'd probably get a headache first. Still, because marijuana has been the most politicized plant in American history, a history of smear campaigns flaming public hysteria and far too lengthy to address here, hemp hasn't escaped the association with its distant cousin.

In 1937, America passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which criminalized cannabis and levied high taxes ($1 per ounce) on medical marijuana and industrial hemp. Although growing hemp wasn't technically disallowed, the law made it prohibitively expensive, so it fell into decline.

Hemp experienced a short resurgence during World War II, when the government launched an aggressive campaign to grow hemp in the face of a severe fiber shortage. In 1944, the National Farmers Union called for the widest use of hemp within the American market, according to documents on the North American Industrial Hemp Council Web site, for hemp was always considered an essential American crop -- as American as the first pair of Levi's made from hemp fiber in 1849.

But after the war, hemp production again faded away, perhaps because the DEA has always maintained it can't differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana, a seemingly American shortcoming.

As it stands, we can't grow hemp but we can import it, and we do, in the form of clothing, bath towels, rugs, food and car components from Canada, China and Europe, which have utilized the crop to bolster their economies. Last year, annual hemp retail sales in North America amounted to $300 million.

Our legal quandary has hurt us economically, but the environmental impact is just as great. For example, California, an agricultural giant that nets $36.6 billion dollars a year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is the world's 12th-largest carbon emitter and a state with a reputation for being an environmental maverick.

In September 2006, California passed Assembly Bill 32, announcing its compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, a move Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrated by exclaiming, "The global warming debate is over!" But four days later, Schwarzenegger vetoed, for the second time, a bill to legalize the growth of industrial hemp, stating the measure conflicted with federal law.

If California, which grows cotton -- one of the most water and pesticide intensive crops in the world, could legally replace cotton with hemp, it could clean up the environment while supplying the domestic market with a crop that has thousands of applications. In 2005, cotton was worth $630 million to the state (although the industry is shrinking due to globalization). According to "Illegally Green: Environmental Costs of Hemp Prohibition," a report written by analyst Skaidra Smith-Heisters and issued by the Reason Foundation, hemp produces more fiber and uses half the irrigation water and nitrogen fertilizer that cotton does.

"If hemp was freed up of its legal hassles, it would encourage the business climate to implement small-scale solutions, and you would see all kinds of innovation coming from this," says Smith-Heisters.

But until industrial hemp is legalized, innovation will have to come from overseas, or over the Canadian border. "Our lack of infrastructure is a great disgrace. We were once the leader in hemp technology, and we voluntarily absented ourselves from one of the most important global resources that exists," says Conrad. "We'll keep losing and face economic and environmental collapse if we remain afraid of this plant."

Canada, which produces hemp for seeds, and Europe, which mainly produces hemp for fiber, are leading the way. At the end of May, the European Industrial Hemp Association held its sixth annual international conference in Wesseling, Germany, where experts, traders, cultivation consultants and investors met to exchange information about the latest developments concerning hemp. Of the 100 or so participants, less than a handful was American.

"It was disappointing not to see any American officials educating themselves about hemp, the struggles we're facing within the industry or for pure research-and-development purposes," says Anndrea Hermann, vice president of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance and a Missouri native. Hermann attended the EIHA conference and hopes one day hemp won't be seen as a specialty crop, but as a staple. "The conference was an opportunity to pick great minds."

And with hemp, there's growing opportunity. Among exciting developments is hempcrete, a generic term for hemp-based building material used to replace concrete. In France, which has grown industrial hemp without interruption, hemp plaster is common due to its high insulation properties.

Hemp can be made into almost any building material, including roofing, flooring, paint, insulation pipes and bricks. In addition, hempcrete tends to be stronger and absorb greater humidity while sequestering carbon dioxide. A joint venture with U.K.-based Lime Technology, American Limetec in Chicago is the first American company to distribute hemp-lime materials.

"Europe has already proven it can get the hemp market rolling, that it's viable and that it can be done sustainability. It makes sense for us to do it, too, though it will never happen until we get started -- and we can't until the federal government makes the distinction between hemp and marijuana," says Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, which represents the domestic hemp industry and seeks to educate the public about hemp products. Steenstra says that every man-made fiber we wear or walk in, sit on or drive and fly in, or cook with are by-products of the petroleum industry -- and all of which could feasibly be replaced by hemp.

America seems to be getting closer to getting started. To date, 28 states have introduced hemp legislation, and 15 have passed it -- although that the legislation is not uniform. Some states have authorized studies of industrial hemp and its viability as an industry, some have legalized growing it (although they still face pressure from the DEA over permits) and others have asked the federal government to relax its laws against hemp.

Eight other states (Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia) have removed barriers to its production or research. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has reintroduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009 to the House of Representatives, though what happens with the bill remains to be seen. And now that the Obama administration has announced an end to medical marijuana raids, hemp advocates are hopeful their window of opportunity is finally opening.

"We're getting close to the tipping point, and a large part of that is due to the work the states are doing. They're setting a precedent, which is the federalism our founding fathers dreamt of," says Goggin. Though hemp advocates are aware that America's insufficient infrastructure -- from the lack of processing plants to the dearth of businesses actually using in hemp in their products -- will require a massive coordinated effort, their optimism is growing as they push to get the plant legalized.

"Hemp is not going to solve all our problems, but it is an important piece of the puzzle. Why not use the resources available to assist us in the process of combating climate change?" says Goggin. "To blindly scapegoat and ignore hemp is backward thinking. At this point, we need to be forward thinking."

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
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