A recent study from Italy that was published in Springer Nature suggests it’s possible, but impatience during growing and poor controls during the green transition could cause more harm than good when it comes to greenhouse gases.
Until the late 1930s, hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) was prominent in North America and worldwide, providing everything from textiles and paper to food and medicine. Hemp was also used on ships for canvas, oakum, and rope — due to its high tensile strength (three times that of cotton) and its ability to withstand saltwater. Traditionally labor-intensive and costly, hemp production began to decline with the invention of the cotton gin.
Although a machine was invented shortly thereafter in 1917 that would significantly increase the production rate and fiber yields of hemp, the machines and their inventor disappeared before they had a chance to compete. After years of propaganda, failure to launch a cost-effective production process, the introduction of synthetic fiber, and effective large-scale lobbying, hemp was officially banned in 1937 as a narcotic drug under the Marihuana Tax Act.
While laws began to change in 2014, industrial hemp continued to be a niche crop until regulations descheduled low THC content plants (<0.3%) in 2018, finally reopening the hemp industry to production. On February 19th, 2021, the United States officially rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, promising to reduce net greenhouse gas pollution by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030. Theoretically, hemp is a climate-friendly plant; however, mass production has shown significant variances in CO2 emissions, up to 86 times more than beef per kilogram.
The Environmental Benefits of Hemp–Potentially
Historically, hemp has shown over 10,000 industrial uses amidst many industries. The food supply chain alone could benefit immensely from industrial hemp, with hemp flour and seeds as waste products to hemp oil. Since 2017, Italy alone has seen a 500% increase in demand for hemp-based food products from beer and pizza to milk, ice cream, and snacks. Not only are these foods in demand, but they are also highly nutritional, containing large amounts of Vitamin D (a known COVID-19 agonist and immunostimulator) and plant proteins—potentially reducing animal protein consumption. Hemp’s cannabinoids can potentially be utilized for food preservation as well.
Green construction, agriculture, and transportation are the three most important environmental impact factors to consider when discussing a circular economy. The ultimate goal is to minimize the use of inputs while maximizing outputs and minimizing waste and pollution.
Hemp materials used in green construction weigh little, are moisture and heat resistant, and sustainable during production. The benefits of hemp construction can be passed onto the consumer by reducing excess heating and cooling costs. In fact, anything that can be made with a fossil fuel (hydrocarbon) can be made from hemp (a carbohydrate).
Regarding the environment, hemp is considered to have an ecological profile that stands perfectly within the Planetary Boundaries defined by the Stockholm Resilience Center for Planet Earth. Firstly, Hemp is considered a culture ΔCO2negative, which means it’s capable of removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than it emits. While a common trait among many agricultural species, the rapid growth of hemp makes it particularly effective – only 1 hectare of industrial hemp can absorb 15 tons of CO2 alone.
Recent research indicates the hemp plant uses specific mechanisms for nitrogenous nutrition, which has the potential of directly reducing greenhouse gases, as the plant itself responds better to natural, slow-release fertilizers as compared to more dangerous synthetic fertilizers, such as nitrous oxide. Due to its large size and lack of weeding requirements, hemp doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. It’s an effective pollinator, increasing plant biodiversity due to its ability to attract pollinating insects and send pollen up to 3 km away using just the wind.
Emerging Applications, Continuing Problems?
Known issues in the food chain have already been divulged. While hemp provides many characteristics that some argue make it a “superfood,” it presents itself as very unstable with a tendency to go rancid easily because of its high levels of unsaturated fats. Hemp flour, like many plant products, contains anti-nutrients that can inhibit the absorption of iron in the human body. These issues could be rectified with proper research, but proper research comes with proper funding. Proper funding isn’t going to happen without regulation, as was evidenced by positive changes in Italy after the Italian Law of 22 November 2016 legalized cultivation.
Theoretically, hemp is a sustainable, versatile crop with a low environmental impact. In practice, not so much. A recent study exposed indoor growing facilities as one of the largest offenders of greenhouse gases, competing with gas-fueled automobiles and beating out commercial beef production by a landslide.
Competing for profit, a purported “natural” industry is dumping chemicals on their crops to increase production and reduce pests using age-old traditions (petroleum-fueled equipment and synthetic processes) to try to solve new-age problems (climate change and natural products) before adequate regulation can be implemented to prevent it.
In February, when the United States officially rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, the country later promised to reduce net greenhouse gas pollution by 50-52% from 2005 levels in 2030. According to the study, Italy is already moving towards the objectives of EU 2030, which predicts a 40% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990. In the United States, total greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by only 12%.
So Many Possibilities, So Little Time
With a green transition nearing, will the hemp industry's carbon footprint go down? It seems like it’s up to us. Research has shown the immense potential of industrial hemp. Not only can it provide health benefits and food, but it can assist humankind in combatting climate change—if we are willing to let it. Lobbying and regulation have proven to be the only way of enforcing change, but if producers aren’t willing to hold up their end of the bargain, it may be too little—too late.