Feature

Cotton vs. Hemp

By David Jenison

Cotton vs. Hemp

Drafted by leading prohibitionist Harry Anslinger, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 in effect outlawed the cultivation of hemp in the United States. A study by the International Association of Plant Taxonomy noted that marijuana and hemp are both of the same genus (cannabis) and species (sativa), but hemp by definition has only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and smoking hemp will not produce a psychoactive high. For this reason, conspiracists often argue that William Randolph Hearst, the Du Pont family, Andrew Mellon and other tycoons pushed for hemp prohibition as a way to protect their business interests, including paper and nylon production. The conspiracy theories may or may not be true, but the cotton industry has enough clout to extract about $600 million in federal subsidies each year, which often go to absentee millionaire farmers. What is more certain is that hemp is on the verge of a comeback.

With the Canadian hemp market raking in about $1 billion a year, the U.S. finally loosened its prohibition on hemp. A provision in the 2014 farm bill removed research-related hemp from the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which had classified it as fully illegal Schedule I substance. The move was not a full repeal of the prohibition, and challenges still exist since it can be difficult to tell the difference between hemp and psychoactive cannabis. However, the hemp comeback has turned the corner, and a deeper cotton vs. hemp debate is heating up. Here are a few of the contrast points between the two crops.

Environmental Impact

Published in 2005 by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the 39-page “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester” examined the environmental impact of the three textiles. The study found that producing polyester requires up to 10 times more energy output (measured in megajoules) and emits significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2) than cotton and hemp. However, polyester requires much less land area for cultivation, whereas cotton requires the most. As natural fibers, both hemp and cotton cultivation have water requirements, and the study found that each kilogram of cotton (kilogram = about 2.2 pounds) requires 9,758 kilograms of water use (kilogram = a liter in water volume), while each kilogram of hemp requires between 2,401 and 3,401 kilograms of water. (And drought-stricken California is the sixth-largest U.S. cotton producer.) In terms of total Ecological Footprint, cotton represented “the higher end,” polyester the “middle ground” and hemp “the lowest… of the three textiles.” Summarizing the results, the researchers noted, “These results highlight that the cotton system… is the least productive,” while “the overall best performer in the Ecological Footprint context is ‘Traditional Organic Hemp.’”  

Insecticides and Pesticides

When describing hemp, the 2005 Stockholm Environment Institute called it a robust “low maintenance crop requiring low inputs, including agro-chemicals… and it has to date not been plagued by pests.” Similarly, the Journal of the International Hemp Association in 1997 highlighted studies that suggest cannabis plants are natural pest repellents that “deter insects, nematodes, fungi and weedy plants” and kill and/or repel mites, weeds, fungi, bacteria and protozoans. Hemp essentially acts as its own pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer, and it can pull unhealthy toxins from the soil. By simply utilizing hemp in crop rotation practices, the plant can improve the soil and help farmers more effectively grow other crops. By comparison, cotton plants grow on three percent of all crop-based land, but they receive 35 percent of the world’s insecticides and pesticides.

Comprehensive Uses

Cotton crops produce fibers that people can wear. Corn crops produce food that people can eat. Wood pulp can be turned into paper on which people can write. Hemp crops can be used to do all three. Highlighting its versatility, hemp has comprehensive applications both as seed and fiber. In its seed form, hemp can produce milk, oil, grains, breads and other food products that are naturally rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and protein. At the risk of perpetuating hippie stereotypes, vegetarians tend to love hemp for this reason as it provides nutrients more commonly available in meat. Meanwhile, as a fiber, hemp can be made into shirts, jeans and other fabric-based products in addition to ropes, sails, paper, biodegradable plastics and even building blocks.

Château Maris, a vineyard in southern France, recently built what might be the world’s first hemp cellar. The 9,000-square-foot complex consists primarily of organic hemp straw made into bricks that capture carbon dioxide (CO2), reduce soil erosion, require no pesticides or fertilizers and naturally maintain temperature and humidity levels without the use of air conditioners or heaters. In the U.S., The New York Times recently described a similar product called hempcrete as flexible, airtight yet breathable, impervious to mold and pests, fireproof and free from toxins. In 2013, Motive Industries introduced the Kestrel, dubbed the “World’s Most Eco-Friendly Car,” which the Canadian company made entirely out of hemp.

Hemp in History

Historically speaking, Christopher Columbus brought hemp seeds to the New World, many of the Founding Fathers grew hemp and George Washington advised his gardener to sew hemp seed everywhere. Like the Mayflower, America’s oldest Navy Ship—the USS Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides”—made use of hemp fiber (more than 120,000 pounds worth). The U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are both on parchment, but several drafts were on hemp paper, as were early printings of the King James and Gutenberg Bibles. Hemp even played a role in protecting at least one recent president. As noted by the L.A. Times in 2014,  “The hemp webbing in his parachute saved George H.W. Bush's life in World War II.”

Prohibitionists cast hemp in a negative light, but historically, the crop was associated with strength and functionality. A certain 19th-century stud dog epitomizes this point. Born in 1893, the famed sheepdog became the progenitor of the prestigious Border Collie breed. If you want a hard-working dog, you probably want to give it a strong and sturdy name, and his owner did. He named his stud Old Hemp. Before anyone gets too excited, no, hemp is not the answer to low sperm counts or ED, but the crop certainly can be part of the answer to global problems in farming, health, construction, food, sustainability and the environment.  

 

 


 

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