Hemp and the way forward for forests

Vital documents [including] the Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet of the declaration of independence, and the Magna Carta were printed on hemp paper. — Jennifer Okafor, sustainability researcher

If we are to save the planet’s forests, and thus help save the planet, from the ravages of climate change and the biodiversity crisis, we need to undo our bad decisions of the past — and quickly.

One of those bad decisions, made in the United States, was to impose legal restrictions designed to marginalize or eliminate hemp production in favor of wood production for the manufacture of a wide variety of important products — paper, cardboard and structural wood panels among them.

Although hemp cultivation was widespread in America since colonial days — George Washington grew it on his plantation — the versatile agricultural product was deemed a source of narcotics and essentially outlawed by the U.S. Congress in 1937.

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Many experts considered the rationale for this act to be bogus. It was correctly pointed out that commercial hemp, with its various industrial uses, was a different variety of the plant than the one grown for its psychotropic properties.

But strong lobbying by the newspaper industry and DuPont Chemical won the day. The newspapers were trying to protect their vast investment in forests, which they would eventually turn into pulp for paper, from competition with hemp fiber used for the same purpose.

DuPont wanted to eliminate competitors, including hemp fibers, to its newly developed product nylon. Both lobbies realized that intentionally conflating marijuana and industrial hemp, and therefore having hemp production virtually outlawed, was a backdoor way to achieve their objectives.

It took until the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018 for the production of U.S. hemp to be authorized and for hemp to be removed from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s schedule of controlled substances.

So, growing hemp is now legal. Problem solved, right?

Well, not quite. During the years of hemp’s exile, U.S. industry became almost entirely dependent on wood as its source of essential fiber for manufacturing everything from paper to plywood. Huge investments are tied up in forests and the equipment and infrastructure to harvest and process forest products. There is, for all practical purposes, a wood-products monopoly in the U.S.

But why would we want to change a system that’s working well, or well enough? Two critical reasons are the preservation of natural forests and the preservation of diminishing resources such as land, water, fertilizer and fuel.

Natural forests, especially old-growth but second-growth forests as well, are our best, and virtually free carbon sinks, helping us offset the effects of global heating. But these treasures are rapidly disappearing globally, and in the U.S.

While its’s true that some trees come from monocultural “plantations,” farmed wood cannot keep up with the ever-growing demand for wood products. One principal reason is that it takes between 20 and 40 years or more to bring farmed wood to harvestable maturity, whereas hemp is ready to harvest in 100-120 days.

Despite the digital revolution, global demand for paper products has grown 3% since the 1990s, and at least 36% of the annual U.S. wood harvest is allocated to making paper pulp. But the cellulose composition of wood, the part used for making paper, is only around 30%, while that of hemp stalks is 85%. Also, the amount of hemp’s cellulose production per cultivated acre is three to four times that of plantation wood.

Additionally, hemp fibers are used to make structural panels that are far stronger than comparable wood-based panels. And some engineered hemp panels are much more water-resistant than any comparable wood-based product.

In short, hemp is superior to, and more sustainable than wood for meeting most of our fiber needs. Next, we’ll explore ways to dramatically expand hemp’s use at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz is an environmental researcher and writer. Read more articles from his series Your Ecological House on his website at firebirdjournal.com.

So the EPA can simply tell the coal-fired plants to clean up their act and, unable to offer them positive alternatives, let them figure out how to do it — enforcing a far-more-costly transition in the long run. Preventing that would require a much deeper foray into the legal morass of adjudicating Congress’s regulatory intent than the Court probably should have waded into in the first place.