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Up in smoke

Posted on November 28, 2004

From fabric to fuel and cosmetics to CDs, hemp is one of the world’s most versatile crops. So why does it still have a dubious reputation, asks Lucy Siegle

History is peppered with falls from grace. While it’s not the decline and fall of the Roman empire, the relegation of hemp from leading cash crop to slackers’ toke is a notable tumble. In fact, hemp’s heritage is worthy of quiz-show questions such as: Henry VIII passed an act fining farmers who refused to grow which crop? What “H” did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both cultivate?

But squeezed out by cotton and then by synthetic fibres, hemp became guilty by association with its cousin, cannabis. By the Thirties, US newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst was churning out reams of “reefer madness” stories, which ensured that the distinctive hemp leaves fell foul of the American public. According to hemp conspiracy theorists, his mission was to oust natural hemp in favour of industrialised (and highly profitable) cotton manufacture.

In any case, we’ve been missing out on a plant that is versatile and ecologically benign. Durable and resilient, hemp grows chemical free, unlike cotton production, now responsible for 25 per cent of the world’s agrichemical use. According to environmental organisation BioRegional, currently researching hemp textiles, it could also be an important element of global sustainable development; long roots which draw on untapped nutrients mean that it flourishes in “difficult” soil and can arrest soil erosion.

Thank goodness, then, that this wonder crop is making a comeback. The first UK Hemp Fair was held at Wembley, in London, this October, and government department Defra, hardly known for subversive high jinks, is looking at ways of encouraging UK farmers to diversify into hemp growing.

But where hemp retains an anti-establishment air, that can be useful too. The Hemp Trading Company does a good line in hemp-based urban eco wear, favoured by “many of the UK’s hip-hop and drum and base crus” (sic). But the potential of hemp reaches far beyond clothing.

There are around 25,000 hemp-based products floating round the world, according to Natural Collection, which carries a fair few itself, from lace-up ankle boots to the “first hemp plastic CD project” Fields of Green, hemp providing the material not only for the CD casing but also for the didgeridoo prevalent on many of the tracks.

Rich in omega-3 oils, hemp is a superfood. There’s coffee, cooking oil and award-winning hemp ice cream. Easily absorbed by skin, it’s the perfect eco cosmetic. Try the Canolio range.

It can even be used as a building material — hemp-fuelled bus. And A Modern Introduction to Hemp by Paul Benhaim (also from Natural Collection) contains a mind-altering array of applications, and nobody need inhale.

Copyright © 2004, The Observer Guardian. All rights reserved.

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