ENVIRONMENT | Industrial Hemp: Green Economic and Environmental Solutions for BC and the World

By Darcy Benjamin —

Yes, it is Green, and you would be surprised what a positive impact this super plant is making in the world wherever it is allowed to be grown and processed into any of its 25,000 different end uses.

Field of industrial hemp. This plant is not a drug but a resource. It contains hardly any THC. Photo: David Maska

Field of industrial hemp. This plant is not a drug but a resource. It contains hardly any THC. Photo: David Maska

No, this isn’t medical marijuana or the kind some people recreationally smoke. You will not get high from smoking industrial hemp. The two are cousins of the cannabis plant, but the difference is in the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content—the psychoactive element. The government classes industrial hemp as cannabis with a THC content with less than 0.3 percent. Hemp has quite a long history; the cultivation of it going back over 5,000 years for its recognized textile applications and health benefits.

Finally, in 1998, it was legalized again to grow by farmers all across Canada under a licensing program, since the government prohibited it in 1937, just when synthetic fibers were being developed. It was even commercially grown here in BC up until 1938. Health Canada regulates it and issues licenses for free to farmers who want to grow it for processing its seed and / or fiber.

In BC, why haven’t we heard anything in the mainstream media about this thriving, lucrative, Green industry going on in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and more recently, Alberta? The Canadian hemp industry is growing 20-25 percent a year, and creating a revenue of close to $1 billion a year projected for 2015. Farmers in the prairies are getting $250 USD / acre for just the hemp seed versus $50-$100 USD / acre for wheat.

It also works great as a rotational crop with its excellent phytoremediation properties, which balance and stabilize the soil. It has 12-inch long roots, which aerate the soil and choke weeds out, so no weed control is needed. That said, hemp won’t grow well in compacted ground, and likes well-draining, loamy soil. Growing hemp also requires no pesticides, and hemp can be grown without using any agrochemicals, meaning it grows well organically (see SEI-Study).

Farmers in Ontario and the prairie provinces can’t even keep up with demand, selling most of their seed crop to the US. The fiber side of the crop is still in the early stages of development in Canada, but has huge potential with so many different markets it can supply. This is still early days and we need to develop a model that will work for the smaller farms in BC, as well as more research and development to find the right seed cultivars for BC. We also need to finish developing the harvesting/processing machinery, so we can feed these exciting new markets. Many sustainable and much needed Green jobs could be created from all the value-added local industries to manufacture any of the plants’ end use products.

Growing and processing hemp can help us transition away from fossil fuels and away from petrochemically-derived raw materials, and lower our carbon emissions at the same time. Processing natural fibers like hemp is much less energy intensive than creating synthetic fibers. As well, they are lighter in weight, which translates into increased fuel efficiency and fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

Hemp absorbs 10 tons of CO2 / acre on the field in its 100-day average growing cycle. Hemp also produces four times more fiber / acre than trees.

With hemp you can harvest the seed (seed oil and food) and/or the stalks (fiber). The leaves go back into the soil, adding valuable nutrients. Either way the whole plant is used in a sustainable way. The seed cultivars are also a shorter plant variety (up to five feet tall) and the fiber cultivars are 8 feet to 12 feet tall, creating higher fiber yield.

In my opinion, the fiber end holds the most possibilities with value-adding, especially for BC. The outside long fiber, called the bast fiber, is separated from the inside woody core, which is called hurd. After processing it can be used for textiles, paper, clothing, geo-textiles and composite materials that can be used for machinery or automobile parts.

"Hempcrete" wall construction building course. Photo: Steve Allin (International Hemp Building Association)

“Hempcrete” wall construction building course. Photo: Steve Allin (International Hemp Building Association)

The hurd fiber is a valuable component used in making Hempcrete, a building material comprising hurd, water, and a lime binder. Hempcrete walls are structural, lightweight, and cast somewhat like concrete in a formwork, 12”-16” thick depending on the climate. They have a high R-value at 2.5/inch, and hemp walls are fireproof, and breathe and filter the indoor air.

 

Currently hemp biodiesel can be made from the seed oil, but this method is expensive to process. Technology is being developed to use the stalks of the plant (the fiber) and harness the energy to produce biofuels. It’s just a matter of time and tractors will one day be able to run on hemp fuel to harvest hemp.

Still other uses are opening up through new technologies like nanotechnology. A new generation of energy storage called supercapacitors is being developed as we speak using crushed hemp in micro form on graphene sheets, which will revolutionize the battery industry, making them much cheaper, more powerful, and cleaner.

So, what could a BC hemp fiber model look like in the developing industry? It can’t just grow viably anywhere due to specific soil and water requirements during the three-month growing cycle. Unless you are on the coast, irrigation is likely needed, especially for the first six weeks because it grows so fast.

The Peace in Northeastern BC might be able to grow it with a land type similar to Alberta’s. The rest of BC’s suitable farming areas would likely be smaller, at 40-160 acres, but could still supply enough fiber to feed local value-adding businesses. This would boost local economies, provide Green jobs, and be good for the environment. Growers could harvest the fibers or contract this work out to another local farmer.

Hemp is baled, depending on the processing system used, and gets transported to a local fiber processing plant or is processed right on the farm with a mobile processor. Transport costs are minimized and so are emissions. Hemp hurd is bagged and marketed mainly to the local construction industry for Hempcrete or animal bedding. The fiber, once decorticated and de-gummed, is ready to go to other local businesses for further refining.

Research and development should be subsidized in BC by the federal and provincial governments, as they have already helped the prairie provinces and Ontario get started. It might be less expensive to innovate, design, and build our own harvesting/decorticating system than buying large, expensive systems from Europe. Regional area co-operatives could also be formed to help keep the ownership and control of the supply chain with the people.

The hemp industry has the ability to revitalize and empower the people in BC communities. It’s important that hemp does not get hijacked by big corporations as they see its huge potential. Some type of a co-operative would help ensure this from happening.

 

For more info on hemp, visit these sites:
Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance – http://www.hemptrade.ca/grow_hemp.php
Canadian Government site on Hemp – http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/substancontrol/hemp-chanvre/index-eng.php
Hemp Industries Association – http://www.thehia.org/education.html
Hemp Technologies – http://www.hemp-technologies.com

 

Darcy Benjamin is a hemp advocate and homebuilder in the McLeese Lake area, living and sustainably farming with his wife Simone and all their animals on Dragonfly Farmz.

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