The Return of King Hemp?
When we think of hemp, many of us may think of those hemp necklaces that we see wannabe hippies wearing, or nowadays, hemp clothing. Yes, with the growing trend of ecologically friendly clothing, hemp has made a return in the textile industry. Of course, cotton is still king, but hemp itself is in fact stronger, better for the environment and easier to grow than cotton.
While cotton was (and still is) the backbone of American textiles, the crop itself can only be grown in certain climates and falls prey to many insects and diseases. Cotton uses around 25% of the world’s pesticides and 10% of the world’s insecticides [Source: Organic Trade Organization]. Cotton diseases and pests, especially the boll weevil, can wipe out entire cotton plantations.
Although today, the boll weevil population is under control, this pest still costs US cotton producers $300 million a year [Source: Wikipedia]. Still, pesticides and insecticides are not always effective and many cotton growers have become environmentally conscious and realized that spraying cotton with toxic chemicals might not be the best idea. Scientists have created genetically modified cotton that contains a protein from the Bacillus thuringiensis. This protein creates a toxin that is harmful to a handful of insects (moths, butterflies, flies and beetles) and reduces the need for insecticide management. The BT cotton is ineffective against many pests like aphids and plant bugs, which is why cotton is one of the most heavily-sprayed crops in the world.
Of course, with the growing trend of eco-conscious products, some cotton producers have begun to grow organic cotton (not to mention the World Health Organization estimated that 20,000 deaths occur from pesticide poisoning in developing worlds [Source: United Nations Environment Programme). What differentiates this cotton from normal? Organic cotton does not use any pesticides and is not genetically modified. The actual growing of the cotton is also different between organic and non-organic cotton. With regular cotton, the crop is planted, harvest and replanted in the same plantations. Since cotton is a very thirsty crop, this can lead to desertification, like what happened in Uzbekistan, or salination, like in the Soviet Union. Organic cotton is rotated every year, allowing time for the nutrients and water in the ground to be replenished.
But even with the onset of organic cotton, hemp itself is much more eco-friendly and can be used in much the same way as cotton. In fact, it had been used in the US up until the 1930s and was made illegal the same time as marijuana. Until that point, it was used in almost everything from Revolutionary War uniforms to the Constitution. It has been used for far longer than cotton, since hemp can grow in almost any condition, requires very little pesticide and herbicide and is one of the fastest growing known biomasses. Most of us know that hemp can be used to make various types of clothing and accessories (shoes, purses etc), but due to its tensile strength, fiber length and diameter, it served a variety of purposes like: rope, strengthening building materials and creating paper. And unlike the cotton plant, almost every part of the hemp plant is usable. The seeds contain essential amino acids for humans and can be eaten raw or cooked…or even made into hemp milk, tofu and even butter. The seeds actually contain almost as much protein as milk, meat, eggs or soy and are high in calcium and iron. The oil itself has been shown to relieve symptoms of eczema and also has anti-inflammatory properties. And like vegetable oil, hempseed oil can also be used as a biofuel and allow diesel cars to run off of something more sustainable [Source: Global Hemp].
Even though it is illegal to grow hemp in the US, many other countries – over 30 countries including the UK and Japan – produce industrial hemp. Many states in the US have even passed laws making hemp farms a possibility, Hawaii being the first state to pass licenses on hemp farms. While hemp fibers are used much like cotton is, the plant itself is much better for the environment. It doesn’t drain water from the soil and is actually used to purify water and soil. In fact, it is currently being used to clean up the soil at the Chernobyl site [Source: Current.com]. This highly adaptable plant should regain its rightful title as King, and, like that 1940s WWII PSA said, we need to start using Hemp for Victory [Source: YouTube].