What Is Industrial Hemp? Description And Uses

Industrial hemp is an incredibly useful plant, one with literally tens of thousands of applications.

Industrial hemp (cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa var. sativa), while closely related to cannabis sativa subsp. indica (medicinal cannabis), is a very different crop and grown in a very different way.

Industrial hemp - cannabis sativa
Image: Public Domain

Industrial hemp farmers tend to aim to grow the plants up, not out as is the case with medicinal cannabis – and the taller, the better. This is because some of the great value of industrial hemp in fibre based applications is primarily in its stalk rather than leaves. Industrial hemp is grown at quite high density – another major difference to the cultivation of subsp. indica.

Another very important difference in the plant is industrial hemp has very low levels of  tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive compound present in much higher quantities in  cannabis sativa subsp. indica. Industrial hemp generally has less than 1% of THC where marijuana produces between 5 – 20 % THC

Industrial hemp can grow to 5 metres high, with very long fibers. The stem is comprised of the outer “bark” or bast, sought after for textiles; and the inner material callled hurd, which is used for other applications. Another very valuable component of industrial hemp is the seed, which is technically a nut.

Industrial hemp is a very hardy plant, able to be be grown in areas where other crops will fail. It can withstand periods of drought, heat and frost and also be cultivated without pesticides or other chemicals in many instances – however, it can be subject to attack by insect pests. It doesn’t have huge water requirements or a great need for ongoing care. The plant grows quite quickly, achieving heights of 4 metres in four months.

The Many Uses Of Industrial Hemp

The plant is easy to work with and can be readily transformed into an amazing array of products and used in a multitudes of applications, including:

Industrial Hemp As A Food Source

Hemp’s potential widespread adoption as food for humans is also very promising. Hemp seed has high levels of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, essential fatty acids and trace elements.  Oil from hempseed, which can comprise nearly a third of the seed’s weight, makes it an ideal source for cooking oil, lighting and biofuels.  Hempseed oil is also valuable as a component of personal care products such as soaps, conditioners and lotions.

Hemp As Medicine

Another very important application for hemp is improving health outcomes. While industrial hemp is low in the cannabinoid THC, it can contain commercial viable levels of cannabidiol (CBD). Medicines based on CBD have been shown to be beneficial in managing the symptoms of a number of debilitating conditions. As the plant has negligible levels of THC, this can address concerns authorities have of allowing cultivation of its high THC cousin. Hemp may also contain other therapeutically beneficial cannabinoids, but more research needs to be done to determine the medical potential.

Hemp – Unfairly Targeted

Industrial hemp is one of nature’s wonders, unfairly villified due to it being associated with illicit use of cannabis sativa subsp. indica.

Hemp used to be the one of the world’s most popular crops – even in the USA farmers were encouraged by the government to grow it. In 1942, the US government released a film titled “Hemp for Victory” outlining the various uses of the plant and urging the nation’s agricultural sector to cultivate as much of it as they could as part of war efforts.

Hemp’s troubles began with the powerful cotton industry, which feeling threatened by the superior crop, lobbied for its ban based pretty much on the (also unfounded) reputation its cousin, subsp. indica. That legacy still haunts hemp today, with its cultivation banned in some countries.

The great irony of the legal mess concerning industrial hemp is hemp products often aren’t banned in countries where cultivation is; meaning consumers in those countries are spending millions on importing products that could be made locally. Even more perplexing is situations such as in Australia, where most hemp products can be imported, but not hemp seed as food. Yet, poppy seeds can be purchased at the local supermarket.

One of the many myths about the legalising of hemp cultivation is that those growing it will be able to hide the more potent marijuana amongst it. This isn’t viable as the intoxicating variety needs a great deal of space and is easy to pick. The other argument about high THC marijuana pollinating hemp and creating a higher THC hemp is null and void – this simply doesn’t happen. In fact, cross pollination will result in lower-THC marijuana.

A Brighter Future For Industrial Hemp

As with medicinal cannabis, outdated legislation and thinking is starting to change and soon industrial hemp will be an important crop in many countries where it is currently forbidden.

For farmers, industrial hemp can be a highly profitable crop; returning much more per acre than other more damaging crops such as soy. A well regulated hemp industry will also create jobs and help create a more environmentally friendly agricultural sector.