HEMP was the first plant known to have been domestically cultivated: the oldest relic of human history is hemp fabric dated to 8,000 BC from ancient Mesopotamia. So why has hemp as a crop lost favour? Julie Shelton spoke to professional hemp manufacturer, Phil Warner to find out. in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, as well as in central Queensland, the Hunter region, Tasmania and beyond.
According to founder and Managing Director, Phil Warner (pictured far right), Australia is perfectly placed to competitively supply international and domestic markets with bast fibres in both raw and processed form (bast fibre is plant fibre collected from the inner bark surrounding the stem of certain plants such as flax, hemp and ramie). Importantly, this can be done without loss of food- production capacity.
“Industrial hemp is one of a few multi-functional crops that can produce commercially viable levels of both food and fibre,” he explains.
Hemp’s multi-functionality is astonishing – in fact it is claimed to be the most useful and beneficial plant in nature. It has been widely used for centuries for food, paper, textiles, fuel, paper, plastic and construction.
As a food, hemp seeds are extremely nutritious and a valuable source of vegetable protein. Hemp oil extract is an ideal raw material for plant-based plastics such as cellophane as well as more recently developed cellulose- based plastics.
Hemp is also ideal as an agricultural rotation crop. Soil nutrients are concentrated in the plant’s roots and leaves, which are left behind during harvesting and the bulk of the plant’s nutrients are thus returned to the soil.
Given such an impressive set of valuable qualities, it is difficult to understand why governments around the world are not actively promoting this important crop.
IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to imagine a world where supply of fossil fuels is limited to an expensive trickle, the consequences being little or no oil, petrol or petrochemical plastics. Some argue this materials supply drought is not too far into the future.
Imagine, then, an alternative resource ready and waiting to be encouraged – a proven bio-commodity that is fast- growing, harnesses renewable solar energy and can be integrated into existing activities without necessarily requiring new land resources.
Now, temper your enthusiasm with the knowledge that development of that resource is caught up in a quagmire of misunderstandings, prejudice, fear and politics – so much so that it has taken decades of committed lobbying and advocacy to make even small advances.
One of Australia’s most prominent enterprises in the field of hemp activism is based in Maleny. Since 1997 Ecofibre Industries Operations Pty Ltd has been researching and developing subtropical varieties of hemp suitable for Australian conditions, with crop experiments on properties
Herein lies the tragedy of hemp’s familial line – its distant cousin, from within the Cannabis family, is the plant known as marijuana. Phil explains:
“Marijuana contains an intoxicating substance called delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Of the more than 2,000 different varieties that make up the cannabis family, only 10% have a high level of THC while 90% produce harmless seed, oil and fibre. Thus, industrial grade hemp is not marijuana.”
However, that hasn’t stopped hemp from being subjected to a campaign of misinformation and demonisation, much of which has been driven by corporate interests in paper pulp and plastics.
It wasn’t always so. By the third millennium BC, at least 80% of the world’s textiles were hemp. For the first few hundred years into the second millennium, most countries in Europe were utilising it for fibre and medicine. In the 16th century it was brought to the Americas and, later, Australia was settled partly as a hemp colony.
The turning point in hemp’s fortunes began in the 1920s, when new materials began to be developed based on petroleum rather than plants. Plastic, nylons and polyester became the basis for a new wave in fashion, and took the place of old, traditional, rustic materials in both the markets and the minds of the populace.
Hemp was dealt a further blow in the late 1930s via a U.S. government-backed campaign that made cannabis synonymous with the mind-altering drug called ‘marijuana’, a term used by Mexican immigrants. The campaign was supported by a number of influential businessmen, especially Randolph Hearst with his wood paper industry, and Lammont DuPont with his petrochemical and synthetic fibre conglomerates. Fuelled by racist sentiments of the time, hemp in all its forms – including industrial hemp – was soon widely referred to as marijuana and subjected to astonishing prejudice that resulted in prohibition of its cultivation.
By 1938, this campaign had reached Australia (“A Mexican drug that drives men and women to the wildest sexual excesses has made its first appearance in Australia” screeched one Australian newspaper) and prohibiting legislation and eradication programs soon followed.
Hemp’s public relations nightmare continued throughout the 20th century: of the one-and-a-half billion cannabis plants found and destroyed by U.S. drug agents between 1993 and 1997, only fourteen million (or 0.9 per cent) were marijuana.
Outside of the U.S. and Australia, interest in industrial hemp is experiencing a resurgence. In 2003-2004, 79% of the world’s hemp production came from China, however Russia has stepped up its interest.
“I’ve just returned from Europe where we have the world’s largest genetic seed stock research project – we’ve hooked up with the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in Saint Petersburg,” Phil says.
Back in Maleny, Phil and his agronomist, John Muir, are managing several plots in a parent seed selection process, through which seeds are chosen for their tropical fibre production characteristics. They are also developing systems for production.
“We could be anywhere in the world but we choose to be here in Maleny,” declares Phil. “It’s because we choose to live in a good environment.”
“Ecofibre Industries is developing farming systems to suit the hardest conditions anywhere in the world. Most other countries have a far more supportive government structure for agriculture. In Australia, farmers are just thrown to the wolves and we have to compete with subsidised imported products.”
While Phil continues to lobby for bipartisan support for hemp production, it seems that if you can make it work in Australia, you can make it work anywhere.
[Colour fonts and bolding added.].
The Trillion Dollar Plant (3rd Edition). See: http://abundanthope.net/pages/Health_and_Nutrition_37/The-Trillion-Dollar-Plant-3rd-Edition.shtml
The Marijuana Conspiracy. See:http://abundanthope.net/pages/True_US_History_108/The_Marijuana_Conspiracy_3872.shtml
Hemp farming: the nutritional foundation for ecological self-sufficiency & Intentional Communities? See: http://abundanthope.net/pages/Self_Reliance_116/Hemp_farming_the_nutritional_foundation_for_ecolog_3862.shtml
Car parts made from hemp. See: http://abundanthope.net/pages/Environment_Science_69/Car_parts_made_from_hemp_4092.shtml