What do bibles, Adidas sneakers and the first draft of America’s Declaration of Independence have in common? The fact that they’ve all been made from hemp, the hippest and most controversial plant material around. Strong, fast-growing and resistant to weevils, hemp’s versatility is lauded by its fans. “It can save the world,” suggests Anita Roddick, Body Shop’s never-knowinglyunderstated founder, who is using hemp’s oil-rich seeds to make her gloppy moisturisers.
Popular for centuries, hemp was gradually supplanted by commercially grown cotton and political prejudice (because of its kinship to marijuana). But now it is creeping back. Its toughness has attracted Daimler-Benz, which is looking at its potential as an alternative to fibreglass. It is also being considered as a supplement to wood pulp in paper. And fashion designers such as Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani-who created an all-hemp tuxedo for actor Woody Harrelson-swear by its softness and durability. It is being used in a number of niche products as well. For example, its super-absorbency makes ideal bedding for England’s royal horses, while eco-friendly young things seem to like its nutty taste in beer.
Hemp is grown freely in much of the world. In March, Canada legalised its commercial planting after a 60-year ban; and the EU subsidises its production. But, not surprisingly, the plant is causing a problem in puritanical America. Although importing sterilised hemp seeds into the United States is permitted, America’s Drug Enforcement Administration cracks down on anyone growing it, and spends some $5oom a year trying to wipe out wild hemp. The DEA worries that hemp and marijuana plants are indistinguishable, and that hemp plots could be used to hide marijuana bushes.
These are bitterly contested points. Though both are members of the cannabis family, hemp and marijuana are not the same plant. Hemp contains only a small fraction of marijuana’s active narcotic, THC In May, this led a bunch of Kentucky farmers to try their luck and sue the federal government for the right to grow industrial hemp.
Their case is not being helped by marketing campaigns elsewhere which play on the link with the cannabis family. A slogan for Body Shop’s hemp moisturiser, for example, claims: “it softens your hands without short-term memory loss”, while the Mill Creek Brewery named its “420 Hemp Ale” after the code for police officers doing a drug bust.
It is also unclear whether hemp will ever be a commercial success. Jeffrey Gain, chairman of the Department of Agriculture’s venture-capital arm, argues that hemp could be a useful alternative for America’s suffering wheat and tobacco farmers, boosting the yields of crops rotated with it and offering protein levels in its seeds as high as soya’s. However, he admits that the real challenge is harvesting it. Hemp is woody and grows up to 15 feet tall-separation of its long and short fibres is labour-intensive and requires specialist machinery.
The strength of demand is also uncertain, given the faddishness of many potential markets. However, if America’s farmers were given a chance to grow the stuff, consumers would be better able to decide whether to make hemp a habit.
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