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Hemp: Its Health Appeal and Value as a Cash Crop

April 20, 2021

While it may be easy to draw quick, often fearful mental connections between hemp, marijuana and harder drugs, there are far gentler realities at work. Despite its long history of diverse uses around the world, hemp has been getting a bad rap. It’s time to shed light on the distinctions between hemp and addictive, mind-altering substances, and to explore some of the many helpful functions of this versatile plant.

In this post, we’ll consider hemp as a cash crop: its history and traits, health benefits and a number of its uses.

THC, CBD and Their Varied Impacts on Our Health

Hemp (Cannabis sativa), also called industrial hemp, is a plant of the family Cannabaceae. Though cultivated for its fiber or its edible seeds, it is sometimes confused with the cannabis plants that serve as sources of the drug marijuana and the drug preparation hashish.1

Hemp, marijuana and hashish contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a compound that produces psychoactive effects in humans—that is, it can get us high.1 In contrast to the variety of cannabis grown for the production of marijuana or hashish, however, the separate variety cultivated for hemp contains only small amounts (less than 0.3%) of THC.2

In their stalks and seeds, hemp plants contain a concentrate called cannabidiol (CBD). It interacts with the human body’s endocannabinoid system: a complex signaling network that regulates such processes as inflammation responses, pain management, metabolism, appetite, mood, relaxation and sleep. CBD helps the endocannabinoid system keep things in balance, with benefits that can include reducing seizures, managing pain and curbing anxiety.3 Unlike THC, CBD is non-psychoactive, so it doesn’t make us feel high.4

By extracting CBD from hemp stalks and seeds and mixing it with a product such as coconut oil or hemp seed oil, we can create CBD oil4 which, owing to its positive effects, is now in high demand.3

Hemp Fiber

Hemp originated in central Asia. Its cultivation for fiber, recorded in China as early as 2800 BCE, was practiced in Mediterranean Europe early in the common era and throughout the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. Hemp was planted in Chile in the 1500s and in modern-day North America a century later.1

Longer and less flexible than flax, hemp fiber is strong and durable.1 The National Hemp Association reports that hemp has the strongest, longest plant fiber in the world, and that it’s rot- and abrasion-resistant.4 It usually appears dark brown, gray or somewhat yellow or green, and is not easily bleached sufficiently to make it a good candidate for dying.1

Hemp is used in bags, nets and carpet,4 cordage (twine, yarn, rope, cable and string), and in artificial sponges and such coarse fabrics as burlap and canvas.1 Further, when used to make recyclable, biodegradable bioplastics, it helps reduce the public health hazards exacerbated by waste and pollution. In Italy, some hemp is specially processed to yield a whitish color and used to make fabric similar to linen.1

The Heart of Hemp

High in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids,5 hemp’s edible seeds are a source of protein, fiber and magnesium. Shelled hemp seeds, sometimes known as hemp hearts, are sold as a health food and can be eaten raw—sprinkled on salads and pastas, blended into fruit smoothies and breakfast cereals, and so on. Hemp seed milk is used as an alternative to dairy milk, and ground hemp hearts create a butter to replace peanut butter. Historically, the seed’s chief commercial use has been for caged-bird feed.1

Hemp seeds contain about 30% oil, which can be used to make paints, varnishes, soaps and edible oil that has a low smoke point.1

Hemp in Today’s Economy

In the United States, it has been legal to grow hemp since 1998. Due to hemp’s relation to marijuana, however, producers were required to receive a special production permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.4

In December of 2018, the Agriculture Improvement Act (commonly called the Farm Bill) of 2018 was signed into law. It removed hemp, defined as cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) and derivatives of cannabis with extremely low concentrations of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—no more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis—from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).6

The 2018 Farm Bill also explicitly preserved the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority over hemp products: Just like any other FDA-regulated product, hemp products must meet applicable FDA requirements and standards. For example, the FDA’s existing authority over foods, dietary supplements, cosmetics and human and veterinary drugs apply to hemp products within those categories.6

The upshot: Hemp cultivation and processing became legal on a federal level and hemp products became eligible for commercial sale. There are fewer restraints on transporting hemp and less risk for the farmers and producers involved. As a result, CBD and other hemp products have seen a boom.4 The market for CBD, which is used to treat chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia, is predicted to reach $23.7 billion by 2023,7 while sales of hemp overall could top that number.5

Because it needs little water and can grow in virtually any type of soil, hemp is an easy cash crop.4 According to Forbes, hemp farming in the U.S. quadrupled in the year following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.8

That is good news not only financially and for those who seek out hemp products and their health benefits, but also for a hard-hit sector of the economy: As a group, farmers have aged over the past three decades. A 2011 study found that they’re six times as likely to be over age 65 than under age 35. Now legal for cultivation, hemp is changing that.7

The 2017 Census of Agriculture found a small but significant rise in the number of farmers under 35. While veteran farmers are planting hemp, so are young farmers, with and without agricultural backgrounds, who are looking to capitalize on the so-called ‘green rush.’

The public benefit company First Crop, which promotes regenerative hemp farming, launched in 2019 to give cannabis farmers support and services. Cofounder Michael Bowman said that hemp has gained such popularity in recent years that farmers in all parts of the country are gravitating toward it.7

“We are watching these young farmers, beginning farmers, stemming the tide,” he said. “After watching the drain of our young people leaving agriculture, this is the first sign we’ve had in quite some time—hemp is bringing people back to farming.”7

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