Hemp’s super green powers

Sara Mullen, Assistant Editor

A few short years ago at the MLK Now conference, a discussion between U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Ta-Nehisi Coates took an awkward and somewhat frightening turn when Ocasio-Cortez said: “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.”

This statement may seem a bit hyperbolic, but as science and history have taught us, things will continue to get drastically worse unless we do something different.

According to Rebecca Lindsey, senior science writer and editor at NOAA’s Climate.gov said: “The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2005, and seven of the 10 have occurred just since 2014.”

Unfortunately, with each temperature rise comes an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and wildfires. In addition, atmospheric conditions worsen, respiratory diseases increase and coastal waters rise.

A viable, cost-effective replacement for fossil fuels would help, but only for some of the problems currently affecting our environment. There are also problems caused by landfills full of plastics and other waste products. In addition, our oceans and waterways are filling up with pharmaceuticals that do not readily break down after digestion.

Chris Petty, co-owner of Tri-R Disposal in Nokomis, Illinois, agrees we are running out of time.

“What we are doing is not sustainable,” Petty said. “We have to do something and quick. Everyone keeps talking about the air and the ozone, but our lands and water ways are filling up too. There is trash and toxic waste everywhere.”

As it turns out, there is an alternative to fossil fuels, which may also provide a broad range of pharmaceuticals. It sounds impossible, but it’s true. Hemp has been found to have so many properties and potential uses that it has been called a super plant.

Hemp is a renewable, non-toxic, viable alternative resource.

Research has shown that Hemp was used more than 10,000 years ago for fiber and as far back as the first century for medicine. Hemp is considered one of the Fundamental Herbs in China and has been used in the Western world as a medicine, as well. Hemp is known for its uses as a diuretic, antiemetic, antiepileptic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic and antidepressant. Before it was outlawed in the early 20th century, it was the most prescribed ingredient in medicines. For most, the healing properties of Hemp are well known due to the recent efforts to legalize Marijuana.

Marijuana and Hemp are one and the same with one notable difference. Just as tomatoes have been bred to be lower in acidity, Hemp, in a similar way, has been bred to be lower in THC, the component in marijuana  that gives a euphoric or “high” feeling.

Many people believe that fear of the consequential actions of people getting high was the source of negative press surrounding implementing the Marijuana Tax Act of 1932. But the truth is it was purely business.

William Randolph Hearst was a newspaper publisher, investor and politician. He was well known as a newspaper publisher and had the largest chain of newspapers in the country at the time. To increase revenue for his paper business, he bought forests, sawmills and paper processing plants to cut costs and streamline production. It was a grand idea until Hemp was found to be cheaper, easier and less toxic than wood for making paper.

But it wasn’t just good for making paper. Hemp is also an excellent source for binding compounds—the same kind of binding compounds found in petroleum and used to make plastics. Plastics were coming of age in the 1930s. For these reasons, the DuPont family company, which headed the research into chemical compounds, and William Hearst combined efforts with a few other businessmen to make Marijuana/Hemp illegal.

Initially, it was just considered one plant. Then, it was called Cannabis and was the most prescribed medicine when it was made illegal. But with the help of yellow journalism and a few well-crafted lies, Hearst convinced the public that a terrible new plague was infecting the U.S. from Mexico. Articles in Hearst’s papers made it seem as if it was something strange and mysterious instead of the familiar weed that grew everywhere and was familiar to everyone. So, he gave Hemp a new name: marijuana. And he was able to convince everyone something needed to be done to rid the civil society of the devil’s lettuce. So, during Congress’s Christmas break, the 1932 Tax Act was passed.

This act was devastating to farmers. Before Hemp was made completely illegal, the well-known magazine Popular Mechanics called hemp the first billion-dollar crop.

Chuck Graden of Ohlman, Illinois, remembers it growing on the heritage farm where he lives now and where his father, and his father before him, worked the land.

“I can remember my dad complaining that our family had been hemp farmers for years before it was criminalized,” Graden said. “He had to change the whole operation and the crop rotation. It was a difficult time. Now they want to bring it back, but I don’t see how. Farmers can’t just change what they’ve been doing for decades.”

Bill Harmon, professor of agronomy at Lincoln Land Community College, agrees: “Farming has progressed along with all the other industries. It’s become mechanized. With Hemp not being in use for more than 50 years, its production has fallen behind the times. Growing hemp is extremely time consuming and labor intensive.”

Harmon goes on to explain how there is no market yet, and no processors available for farmers.

“Because this is an emerging market, there is little momentum in getting things rolling,” Harmon said. “Processing plants are scarce. Farmers don’t know what to do with their crop once it is harvested. There are no weed killers or pesticides developed for Hemp.”

And there are other concerns. For example, a Hemp farmer must be licensed, and if the THC level gets above a certain standard, the farmer must destroy the entire crop. That’s a risky chance many farmers aren’t willing to take.

Except for the concerns over THC levels,  the soybean faced similar challenges in the beginning of its production and was not always a marketable crop. It had been used as a meadow crop between corn and wheat plantings to keep the soil nourished. But as entrepreneurs began to find uses for soybeans new markets grew. Soybeans have now become a hot commodity and one of Illinois’s biggest exports.

Jeff Helgen of Helgen Consulting & Farm Management believes it is only a matter of time.

“This is an excellent crop. It is a multi-purpose crop that can be used as a grain, a fiber and for oil,” Helgen said. “It’s an efficient crop and needs less fertilizer than other crops, and it ties up more carbon than it produces during production.”

Hemp oil can be used for so many different purposes in health but can also be used as a replacement for petroleum in petroleum products. Unlike plastics and other polymers, these products are less toxic and break down more easily without being harmful to wildlife in the ways that petroleum plastics are.

Helgen believes that it will become a prevalent crop once people learn about its potential uses and the processing plants open.

“We all know we need to do something. We all want to do something. This is something we can do,” Helgen said. “There is going to have to be an adjustment period. Maybe there should be a subsidy to help jumpstart the market. The government is spending trillions of dollars to go green. This would be a good place to invest.”

Professor Harmon believes it will all work out in the end.

But, he says: “That’s the one thing capitalism is good for, if there is a profit to be made, someone is going to find a way to take advantage of it.”

As natural disasters and wildfires increase and our air, land and water are filling up with waste and toxins, hemp might be the old product to put our time, money and efforts into.