Nature’s nearly perfect plant
In part III of our series on the mighty hemp plant, we count the ways hemp can lead us to a sustainable, healthy future, including (and beyond) giving us CBD.
The hemp plant has 25,000 uses.
You hear this figure and you’ve got to wonder what somebody’s been smoking. That number can’t be right. Can it?
It can. Hemp, the star of the 2018 Farm Bill, has the potential to be a player and disruptor in industries ranging from nutrition and transportation to fashion and agriculture. It could even help save us from the climate crisis. And let’s not forget its wildly popular and promising component, CBD (cannabidiol). Early research shows this buzzy ingredient in hemp oil supplements may help with poor sleep, pain, the effects of stress, and more.
Not bad for a humble little super nutritious, super fibrous super plant.
“Hemp, in my mind, is the super ingredient of the future,” says hemp advocate and educator Morris Beegle, who produces the largest industrial hemp event in the world. “Hemp can be used as an ingredient in thousands and thousands of products. I think it is about as close as we get to perfection in nature.”
Down on the farm
It’s no secret that family farms are on the ropes. Young bucks these days often aren’t into fixing that combine and toting that bale. But hemp has an undeniable cool factor. It holds the possibility of an economic rebirth of the American farm and small-town America.
“My son is corporate, but he’s going to tend to our CBD crop,” said Michael “Mr. Hemp” Bowman, a hemp farmer in Colorado and the founding chair of the National Hemp Association, during a recent talk on the state of hemp. “Never in a million years would he come back to grow corn. If we want to reverse the demographics in our rural communities, hemp is about opening the door for young people to come back.”
Some farmers express optimism that hemp could be a major crop, alongside corn and cotton.
“If there is a shred of truth to that,” says Sean Murphy, chief editor of Hemp Business Journal, “that would mean hemp is poised to be a big-time agricultural commodity and not just a niche or novelty crop.”
Even old-guard farmers are salivating at the prospects of hemp, which offers a lifeline as crops like soy and tobacco have fallen from favor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addressed Congress in April 2018 to build support for the pro-hemp 2018 Farm Bill (which eventually became law, legalizing hemp and all its parts). “As the tobacco industry has changed,” he said, “some farmers in states like Kentucky have been searching for a new crop that can support their families and grow our agricultural economy. And many believe they’ve found such a product: industrial hemp.”
Paving the way
Working on a farm isn’t for everyone, and even farmers like to drive into town. The freedom of the open road is a big part of the collective American psyche and essential to road-trippers and everyday commuters alike.
Think of the three main things that make that work: Cars. Fuel. Roads.
What if I told you hemp can be used to make all the above?
“We can add hemp to concrete in our roads and make them last 10 years longer because it will expand and contract with the temperatures,” says Cindy Sovine, CEO of Sovine Consulting, who specializes in cannabis policy.
Luxury automobile manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW are using hemp instead of plastics to make components ranging from dashboards to panels for cars thanks to a European Union eco-material requirement. Hemp fits the bill as a sustainable material.
“There is a car made totally out of hemp, and there is this 75 percent hemp airplane,” says Murphy. (The plane is designed to run on hemp biofuel, by the way.) “These are isolated attention-grabbers, but they go to show hemp can do it.”
In high fashion
China may well be the world’s largest grower of hemp—more than 100,000 acres of it were grown there in 2017, according to Hemp Business Journal. Murphy says roughly three-quarters of China’s $1.1 billion domestic market is spun into fiber for clothes. (Compare that to the US market, where three-quarters of all hemp grown is used for CBD, according to HBJ.)
Hemp clothes have improved from their old reputation of being coarse as a burlap sack. New processing methods, along with combinations of hemp with other fabrics, are making hemp comfy to wear.
“There are hemp-silk blends out there that are incredibly soft,” says Beegle. “I expect you’ll see more and more hemp fabric options coming to market over the next several years.”
Cotton, notes Sovine, requires more water for the production of a single T-shirt than the person wearing that shirt would drink in a year.
“Plus, hemp is nontoxic,” she says. “It improves the condition of the soil and the ecosystems around it.”
A civilization savior?
Hemp requires few inputs to grow and is pest resistant. It’s an ideal crop for organic farming and regenerative agriculture. As it grows, hemp absorbs lots of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change. (Surprisingly, climate solutions are not all centered around cars and coal—Project Drawdown notes that 10 of the top 25 climate solutions involve farming practices.)
In 2018, American farmers grew nearly 80,000 acres of hemp. Not a lot, but triple the year prior, according to Vote Hemp, a national nonprofit advocacy group.
“Down the road, 5 million acres, 50 million acres,” says Beegle, dreaming of the day when hemp becomes a significant commodity crop in America. “The big win … is not just going to be the health and wellness of our bodies with the nutraceuticals and the food. It’s going to be fiber.”
This fiber could be used to make an eco-friendly version of virtually everything you see in the room you’re sitting in right now. Walls. Plaster. Insulation. Carpets. Even the papers on your desk.
Murphy says we’re in only the second or third inning of this ballgame.
“Of the 25,000 uses of hemp,” he says, “I would say we are talking 75 to 100 product types making a dent. That’s still a remarkable number for one crop. Compare that to corn or soy, where just about everything is food or feed.”
So yes, 25,000 is a big number. But if we settle on 100, that’s still clearly a win.
“Hemp is America’s next great industry,” says Murphy.
All the terms you’ve ever wondered about
2018 Farm Bill: Signed into law in December 2018 and officially called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, this federal legislation lasts five years. This bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, eliminating the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to regulate hemp. The Food and Drug Administration maintains its authority over supplements.
Hemp: Cannabis sativa, the same genus and species as marijuana, only with THC levels lower than 0.3 percent (THC is the primary cannabinoid that gives marijuana its psychoactive effect). Hemp is the source plant for hemp oil containing CBD. Hemp has thousands of other uses, from nutrition to textiles, fiber to fuel, and paper to bioplastics.
Hemp oil: A full-spectrum extract of the flowering parts of the hemp plant that includes CBD. Hemp seed oil, on the other hand, is oil pressed from the hemp seeds and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, not CBD.
CBD: Cannabidiol, one of more than 100 different cannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa plant. While CBD has a range of health effects, getting high is not one of them. CBD as an isolated compound is listed as a Schedule V controlled substance, akin to cough syrup. CBD as part of hemp oil is not considered a controlled substance.
Cannabis: A larger group of plants including Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. While cannabis is technically also hemp, cannabis is more commonly used as a synonym for marijuana.
Endocannabinoid system (ECS): A network of receptors found in cell membranes throughout the human body that affects the central nervous system and is seen as being responsible for keeping the body in a state of balance, or homeostasis. The ECS appears to help regulate a range of body actions and conditions, from anxiety and pain to depression and memory.
Cannabinoids (also called phytocannabinoids): Plant chemicals that are the active constituents of the Cannabis sativa plant, such as THC and CBD, that interact with the ECS and produce physiological effects.
Terpenes and flavonoids: Terpenes are molecules responsible for the aromatic properties of the cannabis plant. Terpenes are found in other plants as well, such as cinnamon and ginger. The hemp plant contains an estimated 20 flavonoids (aka plant pigments) that are responsible for a range of health effects, from anti-inflammatory to antioxidant.
Entourage effect: The idea that the hemp plant’s best health effects come from all of its components working together. This includes hemp’s cannabinoids, such as CBD, as well as other parts, such as terpenes and flavonoids.
The entourage effect
Just as the hemp plant has many uses across industries, it also contains many components that can affect human health and internal balance. CBD may be the most famous one, but it’s not the only one.
The hemp oil supplements you buy usually top out at perhaps 15 percent CBD, with the rest of the oil containing other cannabinoids, terpenes, and plant parts. Many people believe there is more power in the sum of the plant—that the pharmaceutical model of isolating single chemical constituents can’t measure up to the teamwork of total plant synergy. This concept is called “the entourage effect.”
“The entourage effect means that the whole plant is better than isolated compounds,” says Alex Capano, DNP, a faculty member and senior fellow at the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Carl Germano, RD, CNS, author of Road to Ananda: Simple Guide to the Endocannabinoid System, Hemp Phytocannabinoids/CBD and Your Health, says, “There is not one ginsenoside in ginseng. There is not one ginkgolide in ginkgo. There is not one curcuminoid in curcumin. So why does anyone expect that one phytocannabinoid (CBD) is responsible for the total activity that hemp provides?”
Researchers have begun to validate this whole-plant approach. A study on mice found that a full-spectrum hemp material was superior—and at a lower dose—to just isolated CBD for reducing inflammation and pain in study subjects. Other research has shown terpenes and flavonoids in the cannabis plant may increase blood flow to the brain and kill respiratory pathogens.“If you look at the science, it’s incredibly supportive,” says Capano of the entourage effect.