Conversation about cannabis tends to focus on marijuana and the contested legality of this controlled substance.
But cannabis is much more than its most notorious variety. In fact, it just might be the next big cash crop. And because it can be grown sustainably, environmentalists are cheering this development. While there are significant obstacles to cannabis becoming a mainstream crop, the future seems bright for growers.
Before getting into the details about cannabis cultivation, it’s important to disentangle some terminology that’s often confused:
- Cannabis: Think of Cannabis sativa as a species with varieties that include both marijuana and hemp. All these subspecies are genetically related to each other, but humans have cultivated and bred them for certain characteristics (particularly their mind-altering potency), causing variation within the species.
- Marijuana: the most familiar of the subspecies is Cannabis indica, or marijuana. It’s a smaller, stockier plant whose most notable characteristic is its concentrations of tetrahydrocannibol, or THC for short. THC is the psychoactive component that gets users stoned.
- Hemp: Hemp is the taller, slenderer relative to marijuana. Aside from formal differences, hemp differs from marijuana by its lower concentrations of THC. What hemp does yield is an oil called cannabidiol (CBD), which is less present in marijuana. (As a general rule, more THC means less CBD; more CBD means less THC, a genetic vestige of centuries of selective breeding for potency).
It’s hard to get straight on these distinctions, given that both varieties share so many characteristics. The key differentiator is THC concentration. Because they’re negligibly low in hemp, that variety can’t take you on a trip.
Until recently, however, even the US government didn’t make these distinctions. It was only in 2018 that legislation permitting farmers to begin growing hemp passed. Previously, Europe had supplied the American textile industry with most of its spun fibers. Now Asian countries like China are beginning to cultivate hemp as a cash crop as well.
Growing hemp holds a number of important advantages for cultivators.
- Multiple end products.
The buzz around hemp these days is CBD, which supporters are hailing as a panacea with uses ranging from fighting inflammation to managing anxiety. While many claims for its wondrous powers have yet to be scientifically established, there’s a huge demand for CBD.
But that’s not all. Hemp fiber is light and sturdy, and can be woven into textiles or processed into composites that can be used in buildings or vehicles.
- Ease of Cultivation.
Hemp is a weed. (Not weed, a weed!) Like other weeds, it doesn’t take much to grow. A little sun, a little rain, and it does its thing. No need for fertilizers, or pesticides. It grows rapidly even in poor soil, outcompeting other weeds, and doesn’t require excess tillage.
Hemp is sustainable both in cultivation and as a finished product. It cuts down on tillage, fertilizers, and pesticide, which means it sequesters carbon and reduces runoff. Once processed, it can be substituted for more resource-intensive textiles like cotton or recyclable alternatives to carbon or fiberglass.
Hemp has a lot going for it. While a lot is up in the air about the proven medical benefits of CBD or the lasting environmental impacts of industrial hemp production, the current business climate is favorable–and looking to grow.