Cannabis vs. Hemp: Understanding the Lesser Known Cash Crop

Hemp's sustainable and biodegradable properties offer enormous potential for many industries

Hemp, Cannabis

Hemp is the oft overlooked cousin of its more cerebral counterpart, marijuana. Where marijuana has become famous (or infamous) for its psychoactive effects, the other member of the Cannabaceae family, hemp, has quietly carried on in the background.

Even though the two come from the same plant, hemp and marijuana have evolved over the years for vastly different uses, both medicinal and industrial. The problem for hemp is that because of its links to marijuana, its legality over the years has often stood on shaky ground. (A short note: The distinction 'marijuana', can be a controversial, loaded term. However, for the sake of this discussion, 'marijuana' and 'hemp' are used here as the common distinguishers between the two different uses for Cannabis sativa).

Being one of the oldest domesticated plants has given hemp a versatility that few others can match. Much like marijuana, strains have been bred for a variety of purposes, such as textiles, building materials, and food. However, hemp does not contain THC, the component that gives marijuana it's euphoric, pain-relieving high that helps medicinal and recreational users. This makes it ineffective as a drug.

In fact, selective breeding in hemp has eliminated the psychotropic elements of the cannabis plant. Instead, the altering effects of marijuana have been sacrificed in favour of more tangible properties. Most people are aware of hemp’s use as a textile; its strong fibres can be used to make ropes or be woven into fabrics to make everything from t-shirts to diapers. These products are more durable and more absorbent than their cotton counterparts, making hemp a viable alternative and showcasing its desirable attributes.

Beyond this, for centuries hemp has served as an agricultural commodity; its seeds became a stable food source because of their high nutritional value. Their health properties have even caused some to label hemp hearts as a superfood. Much like other seeds, hemp seeds can also be pressed for their oils, which are then used as a nutritional supplement or further refined into highly sustainable biofuels.

cannabis hemp crop agriculture

As governments relax laws regarding the cultivation of the non-psychoactive plant, innovators have been finding uses for it that they never thought possible.

In particular, growers and developers are interested in hemp's sustainable and biodegradable properties. As a building material, it not only bestows insulation properties, but also carries a carbon neutral footprint, unlike concrete. When partnered with standard construction methods, it can be used to create strong, environmentally-friendly buildings. This is especially of interest in today's increasingly green scene. Hemp is also being used to create composite materials similar to fibreglass, which for automakers has been a boon in helping cultivate a more eco-friendly image.

As science is allowed greater access to hemp, researchers are making even more interesting discoveries that could potentially change how electronics are powered too. In 2014, researchers discovered that hemp nanosheets might be superior to graphene in the production of supercapacitors, which could unlock a sustainable and green replacement for batteries currently used in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Adding another A-grade to hemp's report card.

These are all important developments, many of which are happening here in Canada, where the cultivation of hemp has been legal since 1998. In the United States, hemp is controlled at the state level, but many states are now permitting small plantings for research purposes. Combined with China’s full backing of hemp as an agricultural and industrial crop, this new research could lead to even more practical uses for hemp as part of our sustainable future and a significant part of the global economy, while leaving marijuana to be used for medicinal and mood-altering purposes.

Photos: UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment

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