Hemp has been long used as a multifunctional and very diverse crop. Only recently has Hemp taken the world back by storm after its decline after World War II. As a commodity, Hemp has it all. It has one of the most diverse uses as well as being incredibly valuable in both economic and environmental terms. But, what does this actually mean? Let’s find out.
Hemp has long been known as a multipurpose and multi-use crop. It delivers fibres, shivs, and seeds that are able to be used for a large number of products, including those for the construction industry, animal bedding, biocomposites, automotive industry, and nutrition.
Industrial hemp has been grown throughout the world for thousands of years. Historically, most applications centred on the use of the fibres for canvas for sails, sacks, hoses, fabrics, and ropes (1).
In the United States, the crop was grown widely from the colonial period into the mid-1800s, this includes both fine and coarse fabrics, twine, and paper. By the 1890s however, labour-saving machinery for harvesting cotton made this a more competitive source of fabric and the demand outweighed that for Hemp (2).
After the second world war, federal legislation came into play to discourage the use and cultivation of Hemp, this fed its decline across the States until, in 1958, no Hemp was cultivated at all (3).
This diverse niche crop is cultivated in 30 countries around the world, including in Europe, Asia, and North America, with China being the largest producer contributing over half of the world's Hemp supply. This ensued a series of national and multi-national legislation allowing and even promoting, the cultivation of industrial Hemp (4).
In 1993, Great Britain lifted its ban on industrial hemp, closely followed by Germany in 1996. In order to promote and re-establish the Hemp industry, the European Union established a subsidiary program in the 1990s. Moreover, in Canada, a 1998 legislation allowed Hemp to finally be cultivated for commercial purposes, following a 3-year experimental period and a 50-year ban. The United States is the only developed country where Industrial Hemp is an established crop at a federal/national level (5).
Across the world, and across time, it is well established that Industrial Hemp holds the key for a number of industries to develop and become sustainable. Because of this, it is important to address how much potential Hemp has as a commodity, including its economic feasibility and its environmental considerations (6).
What Is Hemp Used for?
Hemp truly has a long history of use, ranging from the use of its fibres, shivs, seeds, and oils.
Hemp fibre has the most diverse potential, especially considering it has the best mechanical properties of all-natural fibres. Currently, Hemp fibres are used for insulation materials and biocomposites, especially in the construction and automotive industries (7).
Before the rediscovery of Hemp in the current world, it was used as a speciality pulp and paper. Hemp still has applications in this market, albeit reduced, and is still one of the most important for European markets at 55%, mostly covered by French producers. Second to this, insulation material makes up 25.9% of the European market. Lastly, biocomposites account for 14.4% of the Hemp fibre applications with 96% of biocomposites being used by the automotive industry (8).
Although hemp fibres are worth nearly double that of Hemp shivs, shivs are still incredibly profitable as a market. Shivs are produced as a by-product of the Hemp fibre industry whereby, per one kilogram of fibre produced, there will be 1.7 kg of Hemp shivs. Hemp shivs are important commodities of the animal bedding market, this is especially so considering its ability to absorb moisture, saving working time. 62% of Shivs are used in the bedding market, whereas around 15% of shivs are combined with lime and used in the construction industry. The remainder of the market is attributed to shivs being used in incineration for heat and electricity and its use to create light particle boards (9).
Currently, Hemp seeds remain one of the more popular markets. Hemp seeds are generally a by-product from Hemp crops, only a number of cultivators, mainly in Canada, produce Hemp for the sole purpose of producing Hemp seeds. The uprising of a nutrition and health-conscious population has driven Hemp seeds and oils to be one of the more well-known markets for industrial Hemp. In addition, this market has one of the highest potentials for expansion with countries in the European Union estimated to be able to expand by over 100 times (10).
The cost of starting a Hemp farm depends on many factors, including, whether resources are already in place such as land, irrigation systems and machinery, expertise on cultivating and processing Hemp, and what is the main end-use market. Farmers with higher levels of expertise are expected to have a higher crop yield than those without. This means that experienced farmers can produce hemp materials more efficiently. Moreover, the type of end-use market also has a large influence over the Hemp yield. For example, the yield for fibre is nearly double that of seed due to the cultivating, biology, and harvesting timeline of the plant. In addition, yield can be broadly estimated as 4.6 to 8.1 tonnes per acre for fibre and 600-1000 pounds per acre for seed.
The environmental impact of Hemp depends on the way it is grown and processed. If grown conservatively it is considered to be a carbon-neutral or even carbon negative crop. For example, 2.47 acres of Hemp can store 3.06 tonnes of carbon. In addition, not only does Hemp store large amounts of carbon, this carbon tends to be “locked down” meaning it will unlikely be released back into the atmosphere for a significant number of years. Hemp products also have a long life expectancy and the crop is also touted as one of the best for “bioremediation” meaning it is able to help soak up and remove toxic substances from the soil. Adding to this stellar environmental record, Hemp does not require the use of pesticides and herbicides as it tends to outcompete other plant species, especially weeds.
The Bottom Line
Hemp has been long touted throughout history as a wonder crop. Despite its plummeting popularity after World War II, Hemp has come back with a vengeance. Hemp casts an incredibly wide net in terms of the sheer number of markets it contributes to. In addition, Hemp is both a very safe economic and environmental crop. This multifunctional commodity is worth keeping two eyes on.