The current environmental crisis that looms over us is nothing short of an impending catastrophe. This bleak yet realistic outlook has led to a recent surge in activism around the world as people look to promote alternative and more sustainable ways of living.
Hemp had a long and rich history in human civilisations until it was demonised and outlawed in the early part of the 20th century. Contrarily, cotton has a dark history rooted in slavery, an environmentally unstable present, and an uncertain future.
Cotton severely degrades soil quality as it requires pesticides, insecticides, and artificial fertilisers to grow. It also robs the soil of large amounts of potassium and nitrogen which farmers than replace with synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. These fertilisers, in turn, emit nitric oxide which has a major detrimental impact on the ozone layer.
Hemp, on the other hand, is an excellent rotation crop as its roots go deep into the ground holding soil together while loosening the topsoil to allow more delicate plants to grow afterwards. It also improves soil quality by safely removing heavy metals and toxins as well as introducing plant biomass which returns nutrients to the ground.
Hemp grows so quickly that there is no need for herbicides or weed killers as it blocks out competing weeds. It is described as a natural botanical pesticide and repellent and has, for centuries, been used as a “companion” cover crop which would ward off disease and pests from other crops.
Cotton requires 6 months on average to grow whereas hemp takes only 3 months to fully mature, but what really strikes you when you look at the statistics is the amount of water required to grow and produce cotton textiles.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton uses around 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton which is equivalent to one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Hemp, on the other hand, is said to require astonishingly 50-70% less water.
Cotton is best known for textiles such as t-shirts and jeans but its seeds when pressed are used in many food products such as vegetable oil, crackers, mayonnaise, crisps etc.
Hemp far out-seeds cotton in terms of products providing the greatest variety of uses from all agriculture crops on this planet including food, fuel (biodiesel and ethanol biofuels), medicine, clothing, plastics, paper and thousands of other uses.
As cotton is widely available it has flourished around the world, particularly in China, India and America where it is cheap to buy. Hemp, on the other hand, has been banned around the world for the best part of a century and as such it currently comes at a premium. Until we see greater worldwide adoption.
Hemp absorbs more CO2 than any other forest or commercial crop. It is an ideal carbon sink as the carbon is permanently bonded in the fibre and it releases oxygen as a byproduct. Cotton, on the contrary, has a large carbon footprint.
The future does have a glimmer of hope following the passing of the Hemp Farming Act in America, along with a growing acceptance of hemp around the world. In the EU alone it is now predicted that hemp and its derivatives will be worth $419m by the end of 2019 and will rise to an estimated $22 billion by 2022 according to research group Brightfield which includes the larger CBD oil dog market that has proved to be huge in the US.
Great political and industrial will power is required to overhaul the current state of affairs, but given hemp is clearly better for the environment, can supplement existing jobs and create thousands more, optimists feel it is only a matter of time for hemp to grow to freely and maybe, in turn, for our species to grow up and save this planet.