The Story of Hemp
The Story of Hemp
Hemp has its origin long before historical times, having been excavated in tombs dating back 8,000 B.C. It is found on every continent in this hemisphere, with the first documented writings originating from China. Written in 5000B.C. , emperor and herbalist Chen-Nung, outlined a number of medicinal uses in his pharmacopoeia, listing both observations and effects.
Around 600 BC., India was using the plant in a variety of forms, gradually flourishing throughout the Middle East around 450 B.C . Word of this plant's multiple benefits spread to Europe as early as 500 A.D. , eventually making it's way to the New World in 1495.
Hemp was already established in North America, having been harvested by the native Indians. When the Puritans arrived in New England, they were obliged to grow hemp for the Crown. As a colony, they were not allowed to spin and weave material, instead, they were to ship raw product back to England, where they completed the process, selling finished products back to the settlers. Several colonies of the new world passed "legal tender" laws, where hemp was important enough to be used to pay taxes. As hemp thrived and immigration opened up, Irish settlers taught locals how to spin and weave material, primarily as a method to gain more independence from the Crown. Eventually, a ban was implemented on finished English fabrics and textiles, setting up some of the conditions leading to the War of Independence.
Founding fathers of America, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, noted experiences in their diary of themselves farming hemp. In 1790, George Washington recorded superior results with "Indian Hemp" over common hemp, being quite particular about seed stock. His original signing of The Declaration of Independence was done on hemp paper, the preferred choice at that time. Thomas Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia in 1781, used hemp as currency when the government coffers ran low. He was issued the first U.S. patent in 1815 for a "hemp breaking" machine, a mechanical design that reportedly could improve production equal to 10 men.
With the approach of the 20th century and the abolition of slavery, many
machines were invented to overcome its hard and tedious processing. New products were rapidly being developed and tested throughout the "dirty" thirties. Popular Mechanics, writing in 1938, judged that this cash crop would be worth a billion dollars in the near future. One year later, the
Marijuana Tax Act HR 6385 was enact ed.. amid much speculation about its motive. Companies, like Hearst, owned timberland for pulp and paper, having much to gain with this new levy. The newspaper chain, coining the phrase "marijuana madness", relayed messages of sex, violence, racism and concerns for women and children. After this campaign, the prohibition of hemp was soon enacted. Legislation was pushed through Congress for tax breaks to oil companies, yet fuel was also being tested with hemp. Controversy swirled about Andrew Mellon as he was acting as both Secretary of the Treasury and owner of Gulf Oil. The government has since vested financial and industrial interests in both petrochemical and paper production. Fifty years later, no permit has been issued for substantial commercial hemp farming, yet the world looks at it differently.
The plant is capable of creating a number of products, Leading authorities indicate 25,000 different items are currently being produced, with many countries targeting specific markets. Currently, China is the largest producer of hemp paper and textiles in the world. In Europe, Romania is known to produce the most raw hemp, exporting it to countries like Germany.
Germans have new technologies specializing in hemp textiles and are developing a thriving hemp and flax pulp industry. Poland produces fabric and partial board for construction. Spain makes rope and textiles, plus exports hemp pulp for specialty paper. Chile produces seed oil used for food and cosmetics, primarily in the U.S. Most Soviet and Baltic countries grow hemp, along with India, Egypt and Portugal. To date, it is widely known that France, England, Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands are testing a variety of methods to develop this industry.
Canada, in tandem with the United States, banned the production of hemp for over 40 years. In 1994, due to the decline of tobacco use, awarded its first license for cultivation. Since then, it has issued 240 permits and boasts 30,000 acres under cultivation. Being the first Western country to reverse this decision, the results have been positive. Requiring no pesticides, it is hearty and resilient to natural predators, pointing to a much greater success rate than that of wheat or barley. Water tables on the farm have improved and actually have given the farmer new opportunities unavailable before. The seed can be used for oils and nuts, the husk for pulp, the inner plant "silk" for fabric and the core for fine paper.
Manufacturing and technology has taken the lead to develop new products for what the government sees as a sustainable industry. New procedures for weaving hemp fabric are refining the look, color and selection. Today, it is not uncommon to see a wide range of products from rugged back packs to delicate evening wear. Food items abound...from nuts, salad oils, nutrition bars and even candy: many people trying products without the stigma of "novelty" attached to it. This is primarily due to greater publicity from the media and an awareness of its nutritional value.
The cosmetic and toiletries sector has also recognized the value of the oil for the skin. What was once a negligible market in the early 90's, has turned into a formidable sector today, generating tens of millions of dollars. Containing essential fatty acids, a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals, along with Omega 3 & 6, this cold pressed oil has created a number of new products with outstanding qualities. The industry has had great success, frequently, demand stripping supply.
As supplies of hemp become more plentiful and processing costs decrease, what was once a cottage industry will compete with pulp, paper, fibre, and a new variety of nuts ,oils and grains. Governments the world over are seriously re-assessing their policies, many currently conducting pilot research. Even in the U.S. , 14 American states are reviewing current legislation. From fad to fact, this crop is slowly moving into mainstream products, eventually becoming a typical commodity...as it once was.
Written by Elizabeth Robson - December 1999
Department of Agriculture Yearbook. L. Dewey pgs. 291, 293, 296 : 1913
Zend-Avesta: Sacred book of India
Industrial Hemp: Practical Products-Paper to Fabrics to Cosmetics: 1995
Hemp Horizons: The comeback of the Worlds most Promising Plant: 1997
The Hemp Commerce and Farming Report : Volume 1, Issue 1& 6: 1999
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