In a scrubbed-out cow shed at the end of a rutted track in East Sussex, a seed packed with all the potential to transform British agriculture and save the planet is slowly taking root. Where cows once crapped and chewed the cud, Henry Gage is hunched over a lap-top germinating his plan to free one of the most 'dangerous' plants on the planet. This year Gage plans to grow 1,000 acres of hemp (Cannabis sativa L) across Britain. Yet Gage is no home-grown drugs baron but an energetic young farmer, and he doesn't want us to smoke his crop but eat it.
Hemp poses little threat to you or I, but the plant's incredible versatility could have an explosive effect on a vast array of unsustainable industries. Gage's crop is the same plant as the cannabis consumed by recreational drug users, but it contains so little THC (tetrahydrocannabinol - the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) that you'd need to smoke a joint the size of a telegraph pole to get stoned. In fact, considering hemp's estimated 25,000 other uses (for producing food, fuel, medicine, paper, plastics and even dynamite), the most useless thing you could do with the crop is smoke it. Yet huge industrial interests created and perpetuated the myth that one of the world's most useful plants is one of the most dangerous. But now the serrated green leaves of the plant are beginning to cut through the hysterical haze that has engulfed hemp for over 60 years.
Gage explains that hemp truly is a wonder weed with a huge potential to help British farmers diversify and convert to organic agriculture. 'It grows freely on almost any ground without the use of pesticides or herbicides,' he says. 'It needs minimum attention from the farmer, and leaves the fields where it is grown virtually weed free for the next crop.' He describes society's continuing irrational fear of the plant as 'cannaphobia'.
At the relatively young age of 27, Gage doesn't seem like your average farmer. He says he didn't even consider working the land until he heard about hemp. But with access to a 1,000-acre family farm in Sussex, he started the firm Mother Hemp with his friend Sarah Yearsley in 1998. Five years on, the pair have yet to turn a profit, but have become an unofficial hemp marketing board. Finally, however, their emotional and financial investment may be about to yield economic fruit.
As holder of Britain's second commercial hemp licence, Mother Hemp will this spring be licensing farmers to grow a highly nutritious variety of hemp called Finola. Unlike Britain's other commercial hemp licensee, which largely produces hemp fibres for the interiors of expensive German cars, Mother Hemp's produce will be available on the shelves of British food shops.
Attempting to persuade Britons to overcome their collective cannaphobia and eat hemp might seem like a PR job from hell, but Mother Hemp is well-armed. Its most powerful weapon, hemp-seed oil, turns out to be one of the most nutritious oils on the planet.
Yearsley says: 'While hemp-seed oil is relatively new to the modern Western pallet, it has been used as an inexpensive substitute for butter in most eastern European countries, particularly Russia.' Recent clinical trials on Finola, conducted by nutritionist Dr Jayce Callaway at the University of Kuopio in Finland, found that hemp-seed oil relieved eczema and helped combat flu. 'Hemp-seed oil is an exceptional source of the essential fatty acids (EFAs) that we must obtain from our daily diet because, like vitamins, we can't produce them on our own,' says Callaway. 'Judging from the fatty-acid profile of hemp-seed oil, numerous anecdotal reports and the results of our clinical investigations, I'd have to conclude that this is probably the healthiest oil on the market.' Ironically, given the plant's narcotic associations, hemp-seed oil may even help keep you happy. Nutritionists are increasingly recommending EFAs omega-3 and omega-6 (found in high quantities in fish and hemp-seed oil) to help combat clinical depression. So, if hemp is more of a benefit than a threat to public health, why is its cultivation still strictly licensed under Britain's Misuse of Drugs Act?
The answer lies in 1930s America, and it has nothing to do with hemp's narcotic or nutritional properties. The forgotten history of hemp provides an instructive lesson in how powerful industrial interests have always sacrificed sustainability at the altar of profit to set society on an environmentally destructive course. Hemp activists say the plant's prohibition started in the US (and spread throughout the world) because of the threat the plant posed to the unsustainable, but highly profitable, plastics, textiles and paper interests of media magnate William Randolph Hearst and the US government's chief munitions and textiles manufacturer DuPont. No man has done more to document this forgotten history than cannabis activist Jack Herer through his best-selling book (now in its 11th edition) The Emperor Wears No Clothes. The book records in painstaking detail how hemp was one of mankind's most significant crops from 8,000 BC until the beginning of the 20th century. Up to the late 19th century, for example, the majority of all twine, rope, sails, rigging and nets were made from hemp fibre. Herer claims that the plant's importance to the British was so great that Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 primarily to stop the Russians selling hemp to the British navy. Hemp has had many other interesting footnotes in human history - both the Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.
Herer says hemp's use declined at the beginning of the 20th century because of a 'lack of mechanised harvesting and breaking technology needed for mass production'. But in 1916 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that new technology would soon be developed to make hemp the US's number-one crop. The USDA reported that one acre of hemp in annual rotation over a 20-year period could produce as much pulp for paper as 4.1 acres of trees being cut down.
'In the 1930s when the new [harvesting and breaking] machines became state of the art, available and affordable,' says Herer, 'the Hearst Paper Manufacturing Division, Kimberley Clarke and virtually all other timber, paper and large newspaper companies stood to lose billions of dollars.' But the resurgence of hemp in the late 1930s didn't just threaten forestry and publishing interests. Its strong natural fibres were also ideal for producing textiles, plastics and even explosives. DuPont had just patented nylon, as well as processes for making plastics from oil and coal, and new highly polluting techniques for making paper from wood pulp.
'According to DuPont's own corporate records and historians,' explains Herer, 'these processes accounted for 80 per cent of the company's railroad car loadings over the next 60 years. If hemp had not been made illegal, 80 per cent of DuPont's business would never have materialised.'
So, in 1937 hemp was made illegal in the US, when the Marijuana Tax Act effectively removed it from the market. But before hemp was outlawed it needed to be demonised. That's where William Randolph Hearst, the subject of Orson Welles's film Citizen Kane, came in. Hearst used his chain of newspapers to spread anti-hemp propaganda despite several contemporary official British and US reports concluding that cannabis smoking was safe.
'In the 1920s and 1930s Hearst's newspapers deliberately manufactured a new threat to the US and a new campaign to have hemp outlawed,' says Herer. 'For example, a story of a car accident in which a "marijuana cigarette" was found would dominate the headlines for weeks, while alcohol-related car incidents made only the back pages.' Herer says this theme of cannabis-related crime was repeatedly burned into the minds of Americans through the use of hysterical headlines like 'Reefer madness' and 'Marijuana - assassin of youth'. Throughout the 1930s, Hearst's network of tabloids ran sensational stories about 'marijuana-crazed negroes' raping white women and playing a type of 'voodoo satanic music' now known simply as jazz. Hearst's long-running campaign would seem laughable today if it weren't for the enduring cannaphobia it helped to create. The Hearst Corporation, owner of Britain's National Magazine Company and publisher of Cosmopolitan and Esquire, has proved equally resilient.
THE GREAT HEMP FIGHT BACK
But if hemp's resurgence was (quite literally) nipped in the bud by industrial interests in the 1930s, it is now finally waking from its Rip-van-Winkle years. Across the world, farmers, environmentalists and entrepreneurs are coming together to promote it as a panacea plant for many of industrial society's environmental problems. Hemp is now in agricultural production in Australia, New Zealand and across the EU. Britain is the only EU country that still requires licences for hemp cultivation.
In France hemp fibres are combined with lime to make a lightweight plaster with environmentally friendly insulating and pest-resistant properties. The French also use hemp to make cigarette papers and bibles. In Germany, where hemp cultivation was legalised in 1996, a multi-million euro hemp-product market includes environmentally friendly paints, detergents, foods, body-care products, papers and textiles. In Hungary, Romania and Poland farmers are producing an ever increasing amount for export for use in rope, textiles and building materials. China, by far the world's largest consumer and exporter of hemp, has been cultivating the plant for over 6,000 years. The annual output of Chinese hemp linen alone is currently worth over 10 billion yuan (about $1.2 billion).
John W Roulac, author of Hemp Horizons: The Comeback of the World's Most Promising Plant, says: 'The world is slowly moving toward a carbohydrate economy that relies on plant materials and away from a petroleum economy. Hemp fits well into this resource shift, and can transform our over-reliance on petroleum-based products and services. 'Imagine a crop more versatile than the soya bean, the cotton plant and the Douglas fir tree put together, one whose products are interchangeable with those from timber or petroleum, one that grows like Jack's beanstalk with minimal tending. There is such a crop: industrial hemp.'
Roulac has been described as a 'new age Johnny Appleseed' in the US. As founder of the hemp food business Nutiva, he not only sells and eats hemp foods but wears hemp clothes and writes books about the plant. Hemp cultivation is illegal in the US, but not in Canada where it is flourishing and from where Nutiva imports the seed used to manufacture its products. Just as the rest of the world is giving hemp a break, prohibition is intensifying in the US. Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) declared hemp foods containing even trace amounts of THC illegal.
'The US government has a long history as a "market enforcer" for fascist corporations that choose to eliminate competition rather than compete in a free-market economy,' comments Roulac. 'Tens of millions of Americans realise the greatest terror threat we face today is from a handful of corrupt Americans who run roughshod over civil society.'
With their livelihoods under threat, hemp businesses have joined forces to sue the DEA in the hope of overturning the ban. The case is currently before the US Court of Appeals and should be resolved this year. But some individuals aren't prepared to wait for the US government to become more enlightened.
A SIOUX REBELLION
On the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, Oglala Sioux farmer Alex White Plume has become the first person in over 40 years to grow industrial hemp in the US. Hemp cultivation may be illegal in America, but White Plume says that Pine Ridge 'is not part of the US'. In 1998, the Oglala Sioux tribal council voted to legalise hemp. Tribal members say that because the Oglala Sioux tribe is a sovereign nation, its laws should apply on the reservation. Initial attempts at hemp cultivation were stopped when armed federal agents destroyed and removed the crop.
For the Oglala Sioux, the fight to cultivate hemp has now become synonymous with the long struggle for native sovereignty White Plume's home lies just 10 miles north of Wounded Knee, where in 1890 US army soldiers massacred between 150 and 300 Oglala Sioux men, women and children. The 7,000-square-mile Pine Ridge reservation is home to 18,000 descendants of the Oglala Sioux pushed out of South Dakota's Black Hills after gold was discovered there. The unemployment rate on the reservation is 80 per cent.
'I was going to be the first Indian millionaire,' White Plume says wryly. But in 2000 and 2001 the federal authorities destroyed his crop. Last year, however, he finally succeeded in harvesting and selling his crop before federal agents could remove it. 'Before, I have always had to stand by helplessly,' he says. 'I felt like our grandfathers at Wounded Knee watching helplessly while our people were killed. But I do not want to be helpless anymore.' White Plume has a $1 bill bearing the portrait of another US hemp farmer - George Washington - on his wall.
Given hemp's contribution to US history, you'd think the Bush administration would be a little kinder to the plant. Hemp activists love to point out that when George Bush Snr bailed out of a US Air Force plane over the Pacific Ocean during WWII, the parachute that saved his life was made from hemp. Not even the wonder weed, it would seem, has made an entirely positive contribution to world history.
With the notable exception of the US the world is finally beginning to embrace hemp for its environmental benefits. 'But none of these hemp benefits will occur,' warns Roulac, 'without increasing the market demand for hemp products. People need to vote with their money and help jump-start hemp commerce.'
Such a vote would prove that even the most powerful industrial interests on earth cannot keep a good weed down.
Modern Uses For Hemp
Elimination of pesticides
Soil improvement with crop rotation
(from Flowers and Leaves of medical hemp only - THC levels in industrial hemp are too low )
Treatment for: glaucoma, insomnia, multiple schlerosis, cancer, anorexia
Compression moulded parts
Apparel; Nappies; Fabrics; Bags; Work clothes; Denim; Socks; Shoes; Fine textiles
Twine; Rope; Nets; Tarpauline; Carpets; Bed covering; Geotextiles
Hurds & leaves
Stucco and mortar
Fine and speciality paper
Technical filter paper
Cardboard and packaging
[after pressing seeds for oil]
Soap; Shampoo; Bath gels; Cosmetics
Oil paints; Varnishes; Printing links; Fuel; Solvents; Machine part lubricants; Putty; Coatings
Food supplement [source of efas]
Food: http://www.motherhemp.com/; http://www.nutiva.com/ Fibre: http://www.hemcore.com/ Textiles & paper: http://www.bioregional.com/ http://www.livingtreepaper.com/. Clothing: http://www.ecolution.com/ http://www.minawear.com/ Medicine: http://www.gwpharm.com/.
Jake Bowers is a freelance journalist.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003