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The Many Uses of Hemp – Nature’s Most Versatile Plant

Despite its tricky history with the law, hemp remains one of nature’s most versatile plants.

For thousands of years, human beings have relied on hemp as a valuable industrial material.

Stretching as far back as 8,000 B.C., this phenotype of the Cannabis sativa plant species was being spun into fiber in some regions of Asia. Over the ensuing millennia, hemp has gone on to serve as an ideal raw material for numerous industries that range from textiles to construction, to health foods. More recently, it’s been worn as hoodies, molded into car frames, and was even used to help mend the land following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Hands holding a hemp plant above soil

Hemp Vs. Cannabis

Unlike the varieties of the cannabis plant commonly classified as marijuana, hemp contains virtually no THC. Given THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive properties associated with marijuana, hemp (or industrial hemp) is thus defined by how much THC is present. In the U.S., a cannabis plant must have a THC level of less than 0.3% to be defined as hemp.

By comparison, some strains of commercial cannabis regularly test at THC levels of 20% and higher. Thankfully, nature has compensated by infusing hemp with high amounts of another cannabinoid: CBD. The ongoing craze over CBD — which, when authentic, may help relieve anxiety, pain, or insomnia—has notably dovetailed with shifting political stances on the plant’s legality.

Use for Hemp

Responsible for over 70% of the world’s hemp, China is easily the biggest producer of the crop on the planet. Behind them is Canada, with the U.S. currently sitting in third.

As the emerging — or, perhaps more accurately, reawakened — domestic hemp industry in the U.S. continues to take shape, the possibilities for how hemp can help us are nothing short of staggering. Covering concerns ranging from climate change to transportation to housing, the potential of hemp to reshape a number of industries loom large.

Here are several ways in which hemp is poised to help:

Building Materials

Hemp is one of our planet’s most reliable building blocks. The fiber of the plant’s inner stem (sometimes known as woody hurds or shives) is a suitable candidate for construction, most notably as hempcrete (hemp shivs mixes with lime). While not as dense as true concrete, hempcrete is continuing to gain credibility as a non-toxic, structurally sound option. It’s also arguably a more affordable alternative to some building materials, although issues of scale have forced costs to remain high for now.

Bioplastic

Make no mistake about it: we have a plastic problem. These days, non-renewable plastics made from petrochemicals are incorporated into seemingly every facet of daily life, making the call for more sustainable alternatives all the more urgent. A viable alternative exists in the form of plastics made from hemp cellulose fibers. One industry already embracing the opportunity: automobile manufacturers. Mercedes, BMW, and Audi are among the companies currently working to incorporate bioplastics into their cars.

Paper

Paper made from hemp may come from either of the planet’s two primary fibers. Though trees are today’s primary paper source, the world’s first paper (made by China’s Western Han Dynasty, circa 200 BC) was actually made of hemp. They had the right idea, given hemp is vastly superior in terms of yield, speed, non-toxicity, and durability

Clothing

Hemp’s fibers can also be used to create a linen-like textile suitable for clothing. The appeal of hemp clothing includes its ability to retain color, its properties as a natural filter of UV light, and its strength compared to cotton. Given that cotton requires far more water and offers none of the soil benefits (see below) of hemp, clothing made from the latter product can also be confidently categorized as supremely eco-friendly when compared with conventional alternatives.

Biodiesel

Continuing the argument for hemp as a sustainable alternative to products derived from fossil fuels, the use of the plant as a source for biodiesel continues to grow more popular. Though Henry Ford was using hemp biofuels back when he unveiled the Model T, modern-day innovation has given us two forms of the product: hemp biodiesel (derived from seed oil) and ethanol or methanol produced from the remainder of the plant (sometimes called hempanol or hempoline). There are many miles left to go before petroleum gasoline goes the way of the dinosaur, but hemp biodiesel presents at least one promising path forward.

Food

Things are a bit trickier when it comes to hemp and food. Eating hemp may consist of consuming hemp in the form of oil, milk, seed oil, tea, and seeds. Known for its nutty flavor and versatility as an ingredient, hemp may also provide medicinal benefits to individuals suffering from a wide array of conditions.

Soil Health

One added benefit of growing industrial hemp is the value it offers in efforts to promote regenerative agriculture. For one, hemp plants are naturally resistant to insects and other hungry critters. That means fewer pesticides, while hemp also appeals to those who practice crop rotation owing to its deep roots, which penetrate the soil, and the biomass it produces. Furthermore, hemp can grow in contaminated conditions, thus making it possible to use the crop to help rehabilitate industrially polluted sites.

Somehow, the list of possible uses for hemp extends far beyond the above. Given its longevity as a vital plant to humankind, it seems fitting that this ancient flora would regain its popularity (and, in some cases, legality) at a moment when our need for sustainable alternatives to centuries of systematic environmental degradation has never been higher.

Though hemp might claim it never tried to leave us, it certainly feels nice to officially have it back above board. Hopefully the plant’s new legal status will spark more ways in which hemp can help us all.

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