Hemp is a herbaceous annual believed to have originated from the Himalayan region, from where it spread to China and then across the world. The earliest trace of human industry so far discovered is a trace of hemp fabric from ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), dated at around 8000BCE.
Until the late 19th century, hemp remained the world’s primary fibre crop, chosen for rope and sails due to its strength and used for textiles, paper and medicines. It was grown by George Washington; Queen Victoria took it to relieve menstrual cramps.
As modern technology evolved, hemp found itself in an increasingly embattled position. Steam ships replaced the need for hemp sails and chemical breakthroughs enabled paper to be sourced from wood.
Last century, its image took a nosedive when it became regarded as little more than a weed demonised for the psychoactive effects of some varieties. Fortunately, it’s now being rehabilitated as an important jigsaw piece in the global quest for a more sustainable world. Behind the hype, there is a widespread belief that it has a key role to play.
Prohibition and beyond
By the 1930s, technological advances in manufacturing had made hemp a serious rival to the timber and paper industries. The Hearst newspaper group, which owned timber industry interests, stirred up the public with sensational reports about “marijuana-crazed Negroes” playing “voodoo-satanic” jazz music. The real target of course was the industrial crop.
In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act passed through the US Congress. This was in effect a prohibition law; taxes and elaborate red tape coupled with serious fines for non-compliance made the crop too risky to cultivate. Strangely, US authorities found themselves temporarily reversing this stance five years later, producing the film Hemp for Victory when a Japanese naval blockade led to a domestic shortage of raw materials.
Prohibition, which later spread across most of the world, has indirectly caused huge environmental damage by preventing an ecologically sound fibre crop from competing in the marketplace. As a policy, it has caused untold damage to forests and the widespread use of synthetic petroleum-derived fibres has resulted in unnecessary industrial pollution.
In the early 90s, the few countries left growing hemp included India, China, Ukraine, Korea and Romania. At that time, following awareness-raising by a handful of activists about its benefits, Western governments started to make a distinction between the low-THC (9-tetrahydrocannabinol) industrial crop and the high-THC psychoactive plant. Today, industrial hemp is being cultivated in many countries.
Closer to home, commercial-scale hemp is now legal to grow in New Zealand and the Australian states Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and the ACT. In an encouraging recent development, after 13 years of hemp trials New South Wales has dropped its opposition to commercial cultivation. Legislation is about to be introduced to the state parliament and it is anticipated that industrial hemp licenses will soon be issued.
As the crop is significantly more water-efficient than cotton, some believe a large-scale switch to hemp could ease water pressures in the Murray Darling Basin.
Dr Keith Bolton, hemp cultivator and director of Ecotechnology Australia, has been receiving a stream of enquiries from interested farmers around the state and is saving seed in preparation.
The plant grows from two to four metres in height and the expected hemp yield in the Australian subtropics is around 25 tonnes per hectare. While forest plantations take approximately 20 years to mature, hemp grows to maturity in about four months. Over the long term, a field of hemp will yield nearly four times the harvestable fibre of an equivalent tree plantation.
Hemp shades out weeds and, being largely unaffected by pests, it grows well without the use of pesticides. Its fertiliser and irrigation requirements are also small.