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industrial hemp profile

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By Ray Hansen, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
Profile updated November 2009 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Currently, U.S. legislation makes it illegal to raise industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa) commercially. However, numerous state and national initiatives are working to return industrial hemp production to the United States, where it once was a major crop. Food and fiber uses for industrial hemp are growing rapidly and have increased over 300 percent in the past few years. Much of that growth is coming from the increased sales of hemp food products.

Hemp production originated in Central Asia thousands of years ago. The plant is one of the oldest sources of textile fiber. In fact, hemp rivaled flax as the main textile fiber until the middle of the 19th century.

The crop was first brought to North America at Port Royal, Canada, in 1606. Industrial hemp was the most important non-food crop in the early history of the United States, being used for sails, riggings, canvas, ropes, clothing and paper. Its diverse uses made it a required crop, for a farmer’s and the country’s existence.

The hemp industry thrived in Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois between 1840 and 1860 because of the strong demand for sailcloth and cording. From then until World War I, nearly all hemp in the United States was produced in Kentucky. During the war, some hemp cultivation occurred in Kentucky, California and most Midwestern states. With the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1938, hemp production in the United States essentially ended. World War II led to a brief revival of hemp cultivation in the Midwest, because the war cut off supplies of fiber for rope, boots, uniforms and parachute cording. (Small and Marcus 2002)
New manufacturing technologies, crop diversification, increased wood products usage and the development of synthetics all aided in the decline of hemp production. As hemp’s use declined, so did the loyalty to the crop. This decline allowed for even more confusion between the values of industrial hemp versus the problems associated with its similarity to marijuana.

In the 1950s, domestic opposition concluded in anti-drug legislation that made it illegal to raise any cannabis plant varieties. This total eradication of the crop was designed to improve drug enforcement of illegal marijuana production. During this time, all hemp became classified as a "drug" under the Controlled Substance Act and subsequently placed control of hemp production under the control of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rather than the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Hemp and Marijuana
The confusion between industrial hemp and marijuana is based on the visual similarities of widely differentiated varieties of plants. By definition, industrial hemp is high in fiber and low in active tetrahydrocannabinal (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes some cannabis varieties a valued drug. Canada and the European Union maintain this distinction by strictly regulating the THC levels of industrial hemp, requiring it to be less than 0.3 percent, compared to THC levels of between 3 to 15 percent in marijuana.

Most pro-hemp initiatives in the United States are now focused on defining and distinguishing between industrial hemp and marijuana. Some pro-hemp supporters would like to move the control of U.S. hemp production from the DEA to the USDA. Proponents of legalizing hemp also argue that new technology to distinguish THC levels both in the field and from the air will allow for adequate production enforcement.

Value-added Uses
Hemp is a crop that can be grown for food and non-food purposes. As a result of its numerous nutritional benefits, many new food products containing hemp seed and its oil are finding their way into the marketplace, including pasta, tortilla chips, salad dressings, snack products and frozen desserts. Non-dairy hemp "milk" beverages, which provide significant amounts of omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) and protein, are also available. Hemp oil is also used in nutraceuticals and health care products.

As a fiber source, hemp is undergoing rapid growth as a natural fiber in everything from clothing and textiles to automotive composites. The fiber is also gaining popularity as insulation.

A conservative estimate of the total retail value of hemp products sold in the United States in 2007 is $350 million. The current annual U.S. market for hemp yarn and fabric is estimated to be in the $15 million range. The Hemp Industries Association estimates that the North American retail market for hemp textiles and fabrics exceeded $100 million in 2007 and is growing around 10 percent per year. The retail health care market, including lotions and oils, is estimated to sell over $30 million worth of hemp products in the United States annually.

Hemp Seed
Hemp seeds can be used directly as a food ingredient or crushed for oil and meal. The seed is also used in bird seed mixtures. Canada is the main supplier of hemp seed products to the United States.

Whole hemp seed is composed of approximately 45 percent oil, 35 percent protein and 10 percent carbohydrates and fiber. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, hemp seed (and its byproducts) can be used to supplement diets poor in EFAs to maintain good health. Hemp is one of only two plants that contain both EFAs as well as gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA has been found to have many properties ranging from anti-inflammatory to anti-depression.

Hemp Fiber
Hemp "bast," the outer surface of the hemp stalk, has the longest fibers and is used for textiles. Hemp "hurds," the inner woody portion of the stalk, have shorter fibers that are extremely absorbent, thus making excellent animal bedding. Special machinery is required to separate the more valuable outer hemp fibers from the inner fibers.

The most important products made from hemp fiber are cigarette paper, bank notes, technical filters and hygiene products. Similar uses include art papers and tea bags. Other important hemp products are plastic composites for cars and thermal insulation. Several of these uses take advantage of hemp’s high tear and wet strength.

Well-known European companies, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, now use hemp for car interiors, including door panels and dashboards. U.S. auto industry suppliers are following the European example and have started to use hemp to make stronger, lighter and relatively less-expensive composite panels.

China is the source of most hemp fiber for the U.S. hemp clothing industry, cultivating nearly 2 million acres of hemp.

Hemp Seed Oil
One of the fastest growing markets for hemp seed oil is health care products. The significant amounts of EFA in hemp oil makes it an ideal topical ingredient in lotions, lip balms, conditioners, shampoos, soaps and shaving products. Hemp oil can also be used as cooking oil and in salad dressings, spreads and dips.

Hemp seed contains 30 percent of its weight in EFA-rich oil, providing an ideal combination of omega 3 and omega 6 for long-term use. Hemp seed oil may have potential health benefits for diabetes, cancer, lupus, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and hypertension.

Cultivated industrial hemp plants usually consist of a spindly main stalk covered with leaves. Considered a low-maintenance crop, hemp plants typically reach between 6 to 15 feet in height. Depending on the purpose, variety and climatic conditions, the period between planting and harvesting ranges from 70 to 140 days. One acre of hemp can yield an average of 706 pounds of grain, which in turn can be pressed into 21 gallons of oil and 529 pounds of meal. The same acre will also produce an average of 2.4 metric tons (MT) of straw, which can be transformed into approximately 0.6 MT of fiber.

Experts indicate that production costs can be lowered by cultivating hemp as a dual-purpose crop, using both the grain and fiber of each plant. Of the 27 varieties legally authorized for cultivation in Canada in 2007, certain varieties were best suited for fiber production, others produced significant amounts of grain and some produced a dual harvest of grain and fiber.

Industrial hemp may be an excellent rotation crop for traditional crops, because it suppresses weeds and decreases outbreaks of insect and disease problems. Hemp may also rebuild and condition soils by replacing organic matter and providing aeration through its extensive root system.

U.S. Status of Hemp Production
In 2002, Hawaii became the first state to reopen licensing for research production of hemp under strict regulatory oversight. Since then, 23 states have conducted dialogues at the legislative level that may pave the way for eventual re-introduction of hemp production. Of those states, 14 have passed a policy resolution to further advance the issue. Five additional states have joined Hawaii in reducing the barriers to production of hemp at research levels. Nationally, legislative efforts continue in hopes of changing federal policies restricting the industrial hemp industry.

The domestic hemp industry continues to import hemp seed, hemp oil and hemp fiber for numerous products. These products can all be legally traded in the United States. Most industrial hemp used in U.S. products is imported from Canada.

Such hemp food manufacturers as French Meadow Bakery, Hempzels, Living Harvest, Manitoba Harvest, Nature's Path, Nutiva and Ruth's Hemp Foods make their products with Canadian hemp. Other U.S. companies that make or sell products made with hemp include Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a California company that spends more than $100,000 a year to import hemp oil from Canada, and FlexForm Technologies, an Indiana company that manufactures natural fiber materials for cars.

Canadian Status of Hemp Production 
Canada re-legalized industrial hemp in the late 1990s. The government has supported the country’s re-emerging hemp industry through changes in legislation and regulations, and through market development funding.

Canada has allowed the commercial production of industrial hemp for seed and for fiber since 1998. Permits are required, and there are strict guidelines as to who can grow the crop and what varieties they can grow.

Close to 180 Canadian farmers are currently taking advantage of the market for hemp and are growing the crop. The provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the leading producers of industrial hemp, having licensed the most acreage for hemp production. According to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA), the trade association representing the Canadian hemp industry, Canadian farmers planted over 48,000 acres of hemp in 2006, a new record. This is twice the 2005 acreage and six times the 2004 acreage of about 4,000 acres. Canadian farmers are reporting net profits of $200 to $250 per acre. 

Some Canadian companies active in the hemp industry have reported a 20 to 40 percent growth of business over the past few years. Retail sales of all Canadian-derived hemp seed products are now estimated to be as high as $20 to $40 million annually. The farm-gate value of Canada's hemp industry is about $7 million per year.

According to Statistics Canada, the country exported 876 MT of hemp in 2007, which was valued at $3.5 million Canadian. That same year, Canada exported 700 MT of hemp seed, 99 MT of hemp fiber and 77 MT of hemp oil. Nearly 60 percent of Canada's hemp exports were sent to the United States.

World Status of Hemp Production
Worldwide research and development has sparked an increase in new, innovative uses for hemp. In contrast to the United States, over 30 countries have continued to grow and process industrial hemp. World leaders of hemp production include Canada, Germany, England and France.

The European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) says between 15 to 20 companies in the European Union (EU) and between 5 to 10 companies in Eastern Europe process hemp. In 2001, the seven largest companies had a total of about 25,000 acres under contracted cultivation, producing an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 metric tons of fiber, about one-third of global production.


In Eastern Europe, the traditional hemp-producing countries (Hungary, Poland and Romania) are struggling to upgrade their traditional hemp farming and processing methods and to establish modern facilities. Hungary produces twine and pressboard, while Romania is the primary European supplier of hemp yarn and fabric. (EIHA)