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Industrial Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America*

 

Reprinted from: Trends in new crops and new uses. 2002. J. Janick

and A. Whipkey (eds.). ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

 

Industrial Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America*

Ernest Small and David Marcus

 

“Hemp” refers primarily to Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae), although the term has been applied to dozens of species representing at least 22 genera, often prominent fiber crops. For examples, Manila hemp (abaca) is Musa textilis Née, sisal hemp is Agave sisalina Perrine, and sunn hemp is Crotolaria juncea L Especially confusing is the phrase “Indian hemp,” which has been used both for narcotic Asian land races of C. sativa (so-called C. indica Lamarck of India) and Apocynum cannabinum L., which was used by North American Indians as a fiber plant.

 

Cannabis sativa is a multi-purpose plant that has been domesticated for

bast (phloem) fiber in the stem, a multi-purpose fixed oil in the “seeds” (achenes), and an intoxicating resin

secreted by epidermal glands. The common names hemp and marijuana (much less frequently spelled marihuana) have been applied loosely to all three forms, although historically hemp has been used primarily for the fiber cultigen and its fiber preparations, and marijuana for the drug cultigen and its drug preparations.

 

The current hemp industry is making great efforts to point out that “hemp is not marijuana.” Italicized, Cannabis refers to the biological name of the plant (only one species of this genus is commonly recognized, C. sativa L.). Non-italicized, “cannabis” is a generic abstraction, widely used as a noun and adjective, and commonly (often loosely) used both for cannabis plants and/or any or all of the intoxicant preparations made from them.

 

Probably indigenous to temperate Asia, C. sativa is the most widely cited example of a “camp follower.”

It was pre-adapted to thrive in the manured soils around man’s early settlements, which quickly led to its

domestication (Schultes 1970). Hemp was harvested by the Chinese 8500 years ago (Schultes and Hofmann

1980). For most of its history, C. sativa was most valued as a fiber source, considerably less so as an intoxicant, and only to a limited extent as an oilseed crop.

 

Hemp is one of the oldest sources of textile fiber, with extant remains of hempen cloth trailing back 6 millennia. Hemp grown for fiber was introduced to western Asia and Egypt, and subsequently to Europe somewhere between 1000 and 2000 BCE. Cultivation in Europe became widespread after 500 CE. The crop was first brought to South America in 1545, in Chile, and to North America in Port Royal, Acadia in 1606. The hemp industry flourished in Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois between 1840 and 1860 because of the strong demand for sailcloth and cordage (Ehrensing 1998).

 

From the end of the Civil War until 1912, virtually all hemp in the US was produced in Kentucky. During World War I, some hemp cultivation occurred in several states, including Kentucky, Wisconsin, California, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, and Iowa (Ehrensing 1998). The second world war led to a brief revival of hemp cultivation in the Midwest, as well as in Canada, because the war cut off supplies of fiber (substantial renewed cultivation also occurred in Germany for the same reason).

 

Until the beginning of the 19th century, hemp was the leading cordage fiber. Until the middle of the 19th century, hemp rivaled flax as the chief textile fiber of vegetable origin, and indeed was described as “the king of fiber-bearing plants,—the standard by which all other fibers are measured” (Boyce 1900).

 

Nevertheless, the Marihuana Tax Act applied in 1938 essentially ended hemp production in the United States, although a small hemp fiber industry continued in Wisconsin until 1958. Similarly in 1938 the cultivation of Cannabis became illegal in Canada under the Opium and Narcotics Act.

Hemp, grown under license mostly in Canada, is the most publicized “new” crop in North America.

Until very recently the prohibition against drug forms of the plant prevented consideration of cultivation of

fiber and oilseed cultivars in Canada. However, in the last 10 years three key developments occurred:

 

(1) much-publicized recent advances in the legal cultivation of hemp in western Europe, especially for new valueadded

products;

 

(2) enterprising farmers and farm groups became convinced of the agricultural potential of

hemp in Canada, and obtained permits to conduct experimental cultivation; and

 

(3) lobby groups convinced the government of Canada that narcotic forms of the hemp plant are distinct and distinguishable from fiber

and oilseed forms.

 

In March 1998, new regulations (under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act) were provided to allow the commercial development of a hemp industry in Canada, and since then more than a thousand licenses have been issued. Hectares licensed for cultivation for 1998–2001 were respectively, 2,500, 14,200, 5,487, and 1,355, the decreasing trend due to a glut of seed produced in 1999 and pessimism over new potential regulations barring exports to the US. Information on the commercial potential of hemp in Canada is

in Blade (1998), Marcus (1998), and Pinfold Consulting (1998). In the US, a substantial trade in hemp products has developed, based on imports of hemp fiber, grain, and oil.

 

The American agricultural community has observed this, and has had success at the state level in persuading legislators of the advisability of experimental hemp cultivation as a means of evaluating the wisdom of re-establishing American hemp production.

 

However, because of opposition by the federal government, to date there has only been a small experimental plot in Hawaii. Information on the commercial potential of hemp in the US is presented in the following. Cannabis sativa is extremely unusual in the diversity of products for which it is or can be cultivated.

 

Popular Mechanics magazine (1938) touted hemp as “the new billion dollar crop,” stating that it “can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.” Table 1 presents the principal products for which the species is cultivated in Europe, all of which happen to be based on fiber. This presentation stresses the products that hold the most promise for North America, which also include a considerable range of oilseed applications

 

(Table 2; Fig. 1).

 

BASIC CATEGORIES OF CANNABIS AND THEIR FIELD ARCHITECTURE

 

Cannabis sativa is an annual wind-pollinated plant, normally dioecious and dimorphic, although sometimes

monoecious (mostly in several modern European fiber cultivars). Figure 2 presents the basic morphology

of the species. Some special hybrids, obtained by pollinating females of dioecious lines with pollen from

 

Table 1. Hemp fiber usage in the European Union in 1999 (after Karus et al. 2000).

 

Quantity consumed     Relative   Class of product                (tonnes)     percentage

Specialty pulp (cigarette paper, bank notes, technical filters,     24,882     87

and hygiene products)

Composites for autos                                                                  1,770     6

Construction & thermal insulation materials                                1,095     4

Geotextiles                                                                                  234     0.8

Other                                                                                           650     2.2

Total                                                                                         26,821     100

 

Table 2. Analysis of commercial Cannabis product potential in North America in order of decreasing value

toward the right and toward the bottom.

Female floral            Whole

“Seeds” (achenes)            Long (“bark”) fiber                 Woody stem core          (perigonal) bract           plant

 

Confectionary, baked       Plastic-molded products          Animal bedding              Medicinal                  Alcohol

goods                               Specialty papers                     Thermal insulation         cannabinoids              Fuel

Salad oil                          Construction fiberboard              Construction               Essential oil (for         Silage

Body care                        Biodegradable landscape       (fiberboard, plaster        flavor & perfume)

“cosmetics”                      matting & plant culture                board, etc.)                Insect repellant

Animal food (whole          products

seeds for birds, press-      Coarse textiles (carpets,

cake for mammalian          upholstery)

livestock)                          Fine textiles

Gamma-linolenic acid

dietary supplements

Specialty industrial oils

 

monoecious plants, are predominantly female (so-called “all-female,” these generally also produce some hermaphrodites and occasional males). All-female lines are productive for some purposes (e.g. they are very

uniform, and with very few males to take up space they can produce considerable grain), but the hybrid seed is expensive to produce. Staminate or “male” plants tend to be 10%–15% taller and are less robust than the

pistillate or “female” (note the comparatively frail male in Fig. 3). So prolific is pollen production that an

isolation distance of about 5 km is usually recommended for generating pure-bred foundation seed.

 

A “perigonal bract” subtends each female flower, and grows to envelop the fruit. While small, secretory, resin-producing glands occur on the epidermis of most of the above-ground parts of the plant, the glands are very dense and productive on the perigonal bracts, which are accordingly of central interest in marijuana varieties. The root is a laterally branched taproot, generally 30–60 cm deep, up to 2.5 m in loose soils, very near the surface and more branched in wet soils.

 

Extensive root systems are key to the ability of hemp crops to exploit deep supplies of nutrients and water. The stems are erect, furrowed, and usually branched, with a woody interior, and may be hollow in the internodes. Although the stem is often woody, the species is frequently referred to as a herb or forb. Plants vary enormously in height depending on genetic constitution and environment (Fig. 4), but are typically 1–5 m (heights of 12 m or more in cultivation have been claimed).

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