By Robin Alberti
Hemp has a rich history in our country and is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Hemp can provide a sustainable agricultural system that can heal our farmland and economy. Cultivating this crop can provide desperately needed jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and retail.
First, let’s get rid of a misconception about hemp: Although hemp and marijuana both come from the same plant species, cannabis sativa, hemp cannot be used as a recreational drug such as marijuana. The psychoactive chemical in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC. Marijuana consumed as a drug typically has a THC content of 12-33 percent. Industrial hemp is required to have a THC content of 0.3 percent or lower.
Hemp in the U.S.
The benefits of this crop have long been understood. Here are just a few examples:
Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas on a ship with hemp sails hoisted by hemp ropes.
Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp.
Ben Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper.
Our Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.
The first American Flag was sewn with hemp fabric.
Henry Ford used hemp in the production of automobile panels.
During WWII, farmers were encouraged to grow hemp as part of the USDA-subsidized “Hemp For Victory” Program.
Hemp was used by our military because of its strength. Tents, parachutes, sails and clothing were made with hemp fabrics. The U.S. Navy used ropes made with hemp.
Unfortunately, in the 1950s, federal legislation made it illegal to raise any cannabis plant varieties. During this time, all hemp became classified as a “drug” under the Controlled Substance Act. This subsequently placed control of hemp production under the authority of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rather than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
It is still a federal offense to grow hemp (with the exception of universities using it for research purposes), but in May 2013 the Vermont Legislature passed S.157, An Act Relating To Modifying The Requirements For Hemp Production In The State Of Vermont. Governor Shumlin signed this legislation into law the next month. S.157 revamped Vermont’s hemp statutes. Farmers who wish to grow industrial hemp must now register with the Vermont Dept. of Agriculture. On the registration form farmers will need to state their name, list field coordinates or markers identifying the field where they intend to grow hemp, and provide a statement ensuring that the seed is of a low THC variety (maximum 0.3 percent). The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has the authority to promulgate testing and inspection protocols.
Twelve people are currently registered in the state of Vermont to grow industrial hemp. Hemp cultivation provides an opportunity for Vermont farmers to take advantage of this highly versatile crop. Hemp can provide a sustainable crop that can be used by farmers as both a cash crop and a rotation crop that renews soil and provides feed and bedding for animals, allowing small farms to be more self-sufficient.
Viable seeds, an obstacle
The biggest stumbling block for registered farmers is obtaining viable seeds, and there is no seed bank left in the U.S. Industrial hemp growers will need to build up a seed bank and acclimate strains of hemp plants to growing conditions.
Strong market for hemp
Currently, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not permit the production of hemp. Consequently, we imported approximately $500 million in hemp goods last year, proving there is currently a market for hemp products. From natural fabrics to building materials, beauty care products to plastic composites, there are diverse uses for this environmentally-friendly crop. Demand will continue to grow as people become more aware of the thousands of products that can be made with hemp, as well as the nutritional benefits of this crop.
Hemp seeds and hemp seed oil contain all the essential amino and fatty acids, therefore making it a complete nutritional source. It contains omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in the proper ratio that the human body needs. The additional presence of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) in hemp seed oil ultimately makes its nutritional value superior to most comparable seed oils. Hemp seed oil is exceptionally rich in these compounds. Benefits attributed to omega-3 PUFA include anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-thrombotic properties. In addition, dietary omega-3 PUFA help to increase general metabolic rates and promote the burning of fat. They also increase resistance to cancer, inflammation, and blood clotting.
The value of hemp seed oil is only beginning to be recognized in the marketplace. Its ideal fatty acid composition serves as only one of several potential beneficial qualities. A nutritionally complete vegan food product that also exhibits several active pharmacological properties will undoubtedly have an appeal to a variety of potential markets and consumers.
Many beauty products contain hemp, and the topical benefits to skin are substantial. Certified esthetician Elizabeth LaPoint said, “I have never seen anything else that heals skin like products with hemp in them. The stuff flies off the shelf.”
With the multitude of environmental, economic and health benefits, it makes you wonder why it has taken so long to get this crop back from DEA control to USDA control. Hopefully the federal government will catch up to state laws and make it possible for our country to take advantage of this plant that has been around and used for centuries.