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Hemp: The Sustainable Sativa with Over Ten Thousand Uses

Kate Byng-Hall Looks into Hemp and its Many Beneficial Attributes.

Photo by si Janko Ferlic

Hemp plants have long been a material used for a variety of purposes.  In fact, it can be utilised in over 10,000 different ways

The plant has a multitude of advantages: it is able to grow in infertile soil where most other crops wouldn’t survive, it can grow in a variety of temperatures and light-levels, and grows to maturity within 6 months as opposed to the 6 decades it takes for an oak tree to reach the same level.  Seemingly, it’s a wonder plant.  The only problem is the stigma surrounding its close genetic relation to marijuana.  

Industrial hemp, otherwise known as sativa, is taller than marijuana, and contains a fraction of the amount of THC, the hallucinogenic chemical which makes marijuana a popular drug, in comparison.  However, their appearances are very similar, and its growth is more restricted than standard crops.  Despite this, it is an unbelievably versatile plant.

Uses for Hemp

The strength of the fibres in hemp’s stalks makes it a valuable material for a variety of purposes, and the high levels of CBD oil within it means it can also be put to use in a number of beneficial ways.

Certain parts of the hemp plant are very nutritious for humans, and can be consumed as oil, flour, or even seeds in order to provide nutrients. The CBD oil in the plant is an excellent moisturiser, so has become a fashionable ingredient in skincare products.

Hemp oil can be used in paint, making it non-toxic, environmentally friendly, and longer-lasting than standard oil-based paints. Hemp fibres can be used in clothing such as jeans, sportswear, and lingerie, and is currently used by brands like Armani, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein.

The fibres can also be made into paper, reducing the number of trees felled. Fibres can be compressed into a pulp and formed into hemp wood, a substance 20 times stronger than oak which can be used for furniture and other purposes as a more renewable substitute for wood. Hemp can even be used to fortify cement – who would’ve thought a plant could be that strong!

Perhaps the most promising potential use for hemp is as a biofuel.  Industrial hemp seeds are a viable resource for creating sustainable diesel fuel, as they can be fermented to create ethanol.  A hemp biofuel industry would need little investment with access to existing hemp farms because the seeds, which are normally discarded, could be harvested from the farms and then directly fermented.  

Hemp in the UK

In 1533, King Henry VIII made hemp cultivation compulsory by law. For every 60 acres of crops a farmer was cultivating, they had to use about a quarter of their land for the growth of flax or hemp, or else they would face a fine for breaking the law.  This is likely because of the crops’ suitability for use in rope to provide for Henry’s growing navy. 

Hemp was so valuable in this period, that people could even pay their taxes with it.

Since then, the British hemp industry has dramatically declined.  Now, there are only just over 800 hectares of hemp growing in the UK, compared to 33,000 hectares recorded across Europe in 2016.

There are various drawbacks for British farmers wanting to grow hemp.  It is obligatory to obtain a license from the Home Office before anyone is permitted to grow the plant, due to its links to marijuana.  Growers must also inform the Home Office about the exact acreage of hemp they’ll be growing, as well as the level of THC in the seeds they are using.  Location can also be difficult, as the government is reluctant to allow hemp to be grown close to public spaces.  Furthermore, it is currently illegal to use the entire plant in products, meaning some farmers may think growing it in the first place isn’t worth it.  

Research is presently being conducted at York University to emphasise the benefits of hemp as a crop to be grown en masse, as well as supporting the idea that the entire plant can be utilised safely and without transgressing the law.  If such research reaches strong positive conclusions, hemp could start making appearances in houses around the country, and even in our cars, offering an environmentally alternative to wood and fossil fuels.

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