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Christian Benke

We’ve heard about the promise of hemp before: Its fibers can be stronger than steel. Its seeds make for antioxidant-loaded superfood for you and your chickens. It can compete with fossil fuel as a viable alternative energy source. But ever since the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the U.S. has skunked hemp’s potential.

Now, Mary Jane’s younger cousin is having a moment. Included in the recent farm bill is an amendment that allows research of the plant at colleges and universities. And more states have taken up the charge recently. Hawaii just passed an industrial hemp bill for research purposes. Both New York and Illinois are introducing similar legislation, and Missouri just passed a bill (now heading to the governor’s desk) allowing hemp extract to be used to treat epileptic seizures. And of the two states where cannabis is legalized, it’s already growing in Colorado.

Enter Doug Fine, author of the new book Hemp Bound and one of the miracle plant’s biggest cheerleaders. He’s met hemp farmers and researchers, checked out a hemp house in Canada, and even rode in a hemp-powered limo, all to prove that the plant is the next big thing for a sustainable future. He sat down with Grist to talk about why he believes hemp holds the key to “a food and energy revolution” that will also become a vital part of climate change mitigation.

Q. It seems like a very promising time for hemp! Now that research is allowed, what hemp possibilities are you most excited about?

A. It’s all coming together so rapidly. It’s such a magical time. When I went to research Hemp Bound I had no idea that the farm bill was going to include a hemp provision. I just knew that hemp was really important for the future of energy. That’s what I think is the most exciting thing about hemp – its potential for energy, its massive biomass that can be used to replace fossil fuels. While researching the book I found some very forward-thinking, sustainable farmers who said the cellulose stalks of hemp have big energy potential. So I wanted to connect the dots and see if there really was potential for hemp as a fossil fuel application. And it turns out there is.

Q. How does hemp work as an alternative energy source? And is it truly a feasible replacement for fossil fuels?

A. Individual farms can produce energy from their biomass waste and sell it to their regional grid. There are basically small power plants that use biomass, and the carbon exchange is all on the sustainability side of the ledger. The town of Feldheim in Germany turned one of Europe’s highest unemployment rates into zero unemployment by building a regional utility that put people to work collecting and using their farm waste in this kind of process. We can do this with hemp.

Santa Fe, N.M., actually had a similar plan for their whole utility system. It was scalable in size, affordable, carbon friendly, and community-owned, and the only reason it didn’t happen is that fracking kind of took the wind out of the sails of this project. So there are plans in place about how to do this in the U.S. But it’s not like old-school utilities are going to be happy to just lay down and say, “Sure, hemp farmers and communities, create your own utilities, bye, thanks, it was nice serving you.”

Q. You claim that hemp can potentially bring in “even more taxable revenue into the economy than its smokable relative.” How would that work?

A. Hemp-minded communities can do three things: invest in profitable seed oil presses, create textiles or fiber of some kind from it, and use products like hempcrete for building – and still have this biomass left over, this cellulose that we can use to create regional energy grids out of hemp.

The element that’s still coming together that we couldn’t really have predicted are these incredibly high prices that Canadian farmers are getting for their hemp-seed oil. They are making $300 per acre on it, 10 times what they make on GMO corn. And that is why hemp is going to end up being planted here. The demand curve for hemp as a super food is just happening now. Mainstream society is realizing how beneficial this is.

Q. So now that hemp is going mainstream, what would stop the cotton, synthetics, and paper industries from trying to oppose it?

A. I think it’s too late to fight it. The bipartisan cooperation on this issue almost makes you understand why the Rastafarians call the cannabis plant the “healing of the nation.” It’s getting unbelievably strange bedfellows together. There are Kentucky Republicans on the horn with the DEA saying let our farmers plant this, unbelievable stuff. The concern that some people have is not so much opposition from Big Ag but co-option. As long as there’s non-GMO hemp, I’m fine with there being millions of acres of hemp cultivated by everyone.

Q. You also mention in your book that hemp has some very practical uses for farmers. Can you talk about some of them?

A. An old-timer Nebraska rancher lady told me that her daddy used to plant hemp along the irrigation ditches in the spring. No matter how much flooding there was, it built this incredible root system that culled water and was erosion control and flood control. And then of course it’s also a high-protein snack for the cows and the fowl.

Hemp also filters toxins; it’s been used around Chernobyl to release radiation from the soil. The water demands are relatively low: One of Colorado’s first commercial hemp farmers, a very conservative farmer in Eastern Colorado struggling with drought and monoculture-damaged soil, found that planting hemp is using half the water than the previous wheat crop was.

Q. What about some industrial uses of hemp?

A. I saw an entire body of a tractor made out of a bio-composite of hemp fiber. It’s stronger than petroleum-based plastic and lighter, not to mention easily replicable – all the dangers and the horrors of plastic potentially removed. I mean, you know, thanks petroleum, it was a great century, you guys made a lot of things happen with plastics. But now we’re going to take what we know and go back to using biomaterials like hemp so that we have a future as a species.