Hemp, or Cannabis sativa L, was legalized for commercial production by the U.S. Farm Bill of 2018. To comply with federal law, the hemp must test below .3 percent THC and must be cultivated by licensed growers. Since then, hemp production has exploded across the nation, as have conversations about hemp’s usefulness in industrial applications and environmental remediation.
In fact, some argue that hemp can save the planet through carbon sequestration, phytoremediation of contaminated soils, biofuel productionand the creation of earth-friendly consumer, industrialand food products. Hemp is also used to produce cannabidiol or CBD, which offers many health benefits and will be discussed here in the coming weeks.
Carbon sequestration refers to the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because carbon dioxide absorbs and emits infrared radiation, it is deemed to play a significant role in the Earth’s surface temperature. Simply put, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to higher temperatures here on the third rock. Without politicizing the issue, it seems that reasonable people, based on this information alone, would want less carbon in the atmosphere.
Hemp can help. A lot. While it is estimated that a hectare of pine trees can absorb approximately 10 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the same size hemp field can absorb up to 15 tons. In certain regions two hemp crops can be grown a year, thus doubling this figure. In addition, trees take a number of years before they begin capturing significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, while the hemp growth cycle is just 120 days.
Phytoremediation refers to the use of plants to absorb contaminants in soil and groundwater. Industrial activity, oil & gas spills, agricultural chemicalsand buried waste materials contribute to soil and groundwater contamination. Heavy metals, pharmaceutical compounds and other toxins are now a major threat to both soil and water quality around the world. Certain plants, called hyperaccumulators, can grow in contaminated soil or water. They absorb the pollutants through their root system and contaminants then concentrate in plant tissue over time. This process cleanses the soil and allows abandoned lands to be reclaimed for productive use.
Phytoremediation has been somewhat inefficient in the past as many hyperaccumulators have shallow roots and are smaller in size, thus limiting how many toxins could be extracted and accumulated in the plant’s tissue. Hemp plants, on the other hand, have a deep taproot and can grow very large, allowing for much greater environmental benefits. After harvest, the contaminated hemp biomass can be used in biofuel production, helping to overcome the economic constraint hampering the adoption of phytoremediation more broadly.
Hemp, in the eyes of many, is a more environmentally responsible solution to the very serious and increasing problem of soil and groundwater contamination. Proponents argue that hemp cultivation is preferred over traditional methods of remediating contaminated land such as excavation, incineration, or the use of chemical additives to stabilize contaminants. Additionally, hemp fields are known for biodiversity friendliness.
It is no mystery that fossil fuels are problematic. Resource wars, pollution and potential climate impacts are areas of controversy and heated debate. The hemp seed contains approximately 30 percent oil, and this oil can be transformed into biodiesel. Hemp can also be used to produce methanol, ethanol and biogas. The hemp seed renders more oil than other crops like soybean, sunflower or peanuts, making its use far more efficient as a source of biofuel. Hemp biodiesel is said to outperform conventional diesel in nearly all performance areas.
Hemp fiber has been used for thousands of years and has been traced back to 8,000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia where researchers found hemp cloth. The long, straight hemp fibers have incredible strength and are currently used for paper products, textiles, insulation and cordage like twine, yarn, rope and string.
Interestingly, a waste product from hemp fiber production is hemp shives. Shives when combined with lime and a binding agent form hempcrete, a non-load-bearing substitute for concrete. Hempcrete is strong, weighs 90 percent less than concrete, is flame- and mold-resistant, and insulates incredibly well. Hemp cellulose can be formed into biodegradable plastics and high-strength plastics which are currently being explored by automakers Porsche, BMW and others.
Hemp is also healthy for one’s diet. Hemp seeds contain between 25-35 percent fatty acid-rich oil and 20-25 percent protein. They are also high in fiber, magnesium and other nutrients. Hemp seed is processed into oil or milk or consumed as hemp hearts and added to things like salad. Hemp oil is often used as a supplement and is infused into beauty products, while hemp milk is non-dairy and reportedly non-allergenic.
Like most things, hemp production has a couple of downsides. While hemp can be grown with less water, nutrients, and pesticides than other commercial crops, farming it at scale will put some strain on natural resources. That said, hemp production is said to be carbon negative, meaning the crop will sequester or absorb more carbon than emitted by the equipment used to grow, process, and transport it. A more natural or regenerative approach to hemp farming would be advised to further benefit the environment.
Additionally, infrastructure in terms of processing plants would need to be constructed to allow the mass commercialization of hemp. As we know, commercial developments are generally disruptive to the natural environment. The hope would be that over time, the environmental benefits of more sustainable products would outweigh the initial environmental costs.
Hemp farming has also created enforcement issues as some hemp farms are a facade masking enormous illicit cannabis grows. As we know from our neighbors to the north, many of Oregon’s “hemp” operations are being raided by law enforcement as they are actually growing high THC varietals destined for the unregulated market. Because CBD hemp looks essentially like traditional cannabis, illicit operators are substituting THC plants for their hemp in attempts to score big.
Finally, hemp crops subject traditional cannabis operations to cross-pollination risk. Hemp pollen can travel many miles and seed out neighboring gardens. Given such risks, Humboldt County banned its production altogether and I support that move for our region.
Despite having some hurdles to overcome, industrial and environmental hemp applications offer both economic and ecological promise. I expect the coming years to show further developments and advancements in the world of hemp. While not a panacea for all evils, perhaps hemp can be part of a broader solution to save the world we live in.
Jesse Duncan is a lifelong Humboldt County resident, a father of six, a retired financial advisor, and a full-time commercial cannabis grower. He is also the creator of NorCal Financial and Cannabis Consulting, a no-cost platform that helps small farmers improve their cultivation, business, and financial skills. Please check out his blog at, his Instagram at jesse_duncann, and connect with him on Linkedin.