Hemp Farming: The Sustainable Start to the World’s Best Fabric
Posted at 11:00 • 30th Mar • Guest Post: Sustainable Jungle • Hemp
Hemp is one of the world’s oldest and most versatile fabrics.
With over 2,500 known uses and applications, there’s just about nothing this miracle plant can’t do: from biofuel to being a sustainable fabric for vegan shoes and many other types of sustainable fashion garments.
But remember: fabric starts at the farm.
The Benefits of Sustainable Hemp farming
Hemp fabric itself isn’t the only thing with a ton of benefits, but the way it’s farmed is downright healthy for the planet.
Hemp is derived from the Cannabis sativa (yes, THAT one).
Instead of controversy, we get a plant that’s as good for the planet as the fabric is for your sustainable sneakers.
Benefit 1: Hemp farming requires few inputs
Hemp is, first and foremost, an easy crop to grow, requiring little water. It needs half as much water as corn and less than a third as much as cotton.
It doesn’t require high-quality soil and can grow well in almost any temperate climate (or those prime vineyards) closer to the poles than the Equator. Hemp is also an efficient crop with higher yields from smaller spaces (up to 8.7 tons per acre!), which prevents more agricultural deforestation.
Not only is it robust and resilient against the environment, it’s naturally resistant to pests and fungi, meaning it doesn’t need any pesticides. And because it grows in tight clumps, it doesn’t leave room for weeds, so herbicides aren’t necessary either.
Because of the no-to-low chemical requirements of hemp, hemp farms attract honey bees and other pollinators, improving biodiversity.
Benefit 2: Hemp farming is no-waste & carbon negative
Hemp isn’t just a crop with a minimal carbon footprint, but with a negative one!
Hemp is a self-offsetting crop, absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere than trees. Hemp farms on the larger scale then become “carbon sinks”, capable of helping combat climate change.
Because the hemp industry is still somewhat small and tightly regulated, most farming is contracted by manufacturing labs, so there’s little chance any crops will go unsold and wasted.
In fact, no part of the plant is wasted. While the stalks are broken down for hemp clothing and fibers, the woody parts can be used for building and biofuel, and the leaves are left in the field for some good ol’ bioremediation.
Benefit 3: Hemp farms are powerful bioremediation tools
Possibly the most sustainable aspect of hemp is that it doesn’t leave the soil dead and depleted after multiple plantings. Quite the opposite, actually.
For that reason, we could even rotate hemp farms with other, more consumptive crops without having to wait seasons in between plantings as with regular crop rotation.
And if you’re worried about psychoactive potatoes, don’t. The soil contains zero leftover THC.
Not only does it put back nutrients in the soil, but it also takes away any impurities that don’t belong there. Hemp is one of the most powerful bioaccumulators. In other words, it can suck away pollutants from the earth, a process called bioremediation (or more specifically, Phytoremediation).
The strongest empirical evidence comes from the experience of testing hemp’s decontamination properties on one of the world’s most severely contaminated sites: Chernobyl.
The company Phytotech started planting hemp at Chernobyl affected sites in Ukraine in the late 1990s and found that it removed significant parts of the radioactive components from the soil.
Modern-day, this could be applied to former weapons manufacturing facilities.
Outside radiation cleanup, studies have applied hemp to other bioremediation efforts to great success, from removing heavy metals from soil (like cadmium, which can cause cancer if leached into the food supply) to absorbing oil spills (making it an eco-friendly alternative to the chemical Corexit).
Best of all, the hemp is still usable! Granted, you can’t take radiation-soaked hemp and turn it into medicine or clothing, it can be turned into biofuel like ethanol.
However, due to the overall expense of hemp farming and the tremendous amount of fiber that would be required for large-scale clean-up efforts, hemp is still not the go-to solution.
Benefit 4: Hemp farms are highly supportive for communities
Because hemp is so high-yield and grows so quickly (in as little as 60 days), it has an incredibly high-profit margin, almost twice that of other crops.
More than that, many hemp farms stray toward natural farming methods. Rather than machines, they employ a huge workforce to hand harvest and dry the hemp.
This creates a large number of jobs in environments where the workers won’t be exposed to agricultural chemicals.
Problems Still Facing the Hemp Industry
It’s not all sunshine and buds for this plant, though. The efficiency and spread of hemp farming suffers from regulation; too much in some areas or too little in others.
Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is only federally legal if it has less than 0.3% THC (recreational or medicinal cannabis products 15-25% on average).
Not only does the final yield need to meet these levels, but the crop must maintain them at every stage. Higher than average temperatures are but one factor that can temporarily raise THC levels, turning the crop into “hot hemp”.
By government mandate, such crops must be immediately burned. Not only is this a tremendous waste of farmers’ money and resources and a waste of perfectly usable hemp, but it pollutes the surrounding air.
These “arbitrary” numbers and government mandates are a huge hurdle for hemp, particularly toward the biggest problem still facing sustainable hemp farming.
Organic vs. Inorganic Hemp
Just because hemp requires fewer inputs, doesn’t mean farmers don’t provide them in order to yield more.
Less than 1% of hemp farms are organic. Partially because synthetic fertilizers are cheaper and partially because the USDA Organic certification is very difficult to procure (and wasn’t even available in 2014).
And adopting organic practices isn’t enough, they must in fact maintain them for three years to allow the soil composition to change and be fully cleansed.
Because the certification process is so rigorous (and more importantly, expensive), a lot of companies are forced to forgo certification and use phrases like “organically grown” instead. This creates a confusing gap in which all kinds of greenwashing falls.
More state-level and private certifying bodies, which DO exist, are one potential solution to this problem, but it requires legislature and manufacturers to respect and acknowledge the potential of hemp as a sustainable alternative.
Final Thoughts on the Future of Hemp Farming
Hemp is happening and it’s high time the world at large recognized the power of this plant. That requires consumers to start demanding hemp: in their organic clothing, in their sustainable furniture, and even in our eco friendly shoes.
Large-scale hemp could be implemented in every farm in temperate regions, if for no other reason than to act as a sustainable crop rotation tool.
So, in the spirit of sustainable living, let’s get behind this wonderful plant and support the farmers cultivating it and the brands who are using it, all in an effort to future proof our planet.