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Hemp is being touted as the Midwest’s next big cash crop. What would that mean for the environment?

Even if the market for industrial hemp becomes viable, a green revolution isn’t likely to result from mass production of the crop. 


Even if the market for industrial hemp becomes viable, don’t expect a green revolution from mass production of the crop.
REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Industrial hemp has attracted excitement and headlines lately as a potential crop of the future, poised to shower America with a long list of beneficial uses in textiles, biofuel, personal-care products and food. It’s also a source of cannabidiol (CBD), a trendy product billed as a cure-all for everything from headaches to chronic pain and anxiety.

One cannabis-related media group billed hemp as the “next biggest cash crop,” while Pacific Standard Magazine recently wondered if it could be “a lifeline for struggling farmers.”

In a bid to find out if those statements are true, Minnesota and at least 38 other states are currently allowing some form of the crop’s production, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A state-run pilot project authorized in Minnesota in 2015 has been exploring the crop’s potential as an alternative to corn and soybeans as the state looks to diversify its agriculture industry and boost the environment, particularly water and soil quality.

But even if the market for industrial hemp becomes viable, don’t expect a green revolution from mass production of the crop. While researchers in Minnesota say growing industrial hemp could have some environmental benefits compared to existing cash crops, it may not offer a huge departure from the status quo.

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“My take is that it’s pretty much equivalent to corn,” said Donald Wyse, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading researcher for the U’s Forever Green project, which is dedicated to expanding the state’s current stable of profitable crops with an eye on enhancing soil and water health.

Some environmental benefits

The Forever Green initiative focuses on developing winter annual and perennial crops like Kernza and Pennycress to supplement traditional summer crops like corn. When a farmer only grows summer annuals, the land can be empty for much of the year, which leaves it vulnerable to erosion and makes it easier for fertilizer and other chemicals to find their way into water.

Wyse said Forever Green is not studying hemp because it’s also a summer crop. Historically, farmers planted a mix of perennial and annual crops, but the agriculture industry has largely moved toward planting only summer annuals. “Adding another summer annual doesn’t add a lot of ecosystem services to that landscape we’re trying to produce,” Wyse said.

While hemp may be grown in the summer like corn and soybeans, George Weiblen, a professor at the U’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, said it still may have some environmental positives compared to the two main cash crops, corn and soybeans. Weiblen said he has been researching hemp at the university since 2002 and leading field and lab tests on hemp as part of the state pilot project.

Weiblen said hemp grows fast and dense, so much so that it can “outcompete weeds” better than corn and soybeans. Hemp can also be planted relatively late in season, Weiblen said, meaning farmers can till aggressive weeds in the early spring and then plant hemp on top of them.

Taken together, that means, under the right conditions, farmers could avoid using herbicides entirely, Weiblen said.

Hemp, unlike it’s better known cousin, marijuana, does not have enough THC — the main psychoactive component in pot — to get anybody stoned. Yet it does have cannabinoids and terpenes, naturally occurring chemicals in hemp that deter insect pests, Weibler said, leading to “very little need to control for pests here in Minnesota.” Hemp is “naturally chemically defended,” he said.

A third positive Weiblen has observed: Hemp appears to be popular with bees. When the plant’s flowers bloom, fields are full of them, Weiblen said. Away from the fields, biodegradable hemp products can be used instead of plastics, Weiblen said.

Still, Weiblen said he hasn’t found much evidence to back up some environmental benefits of hemp touted by supporters. Two of those claims are that hemp grows well in poor soil and that it cleans the soil of toxic material, Weiblen said. (Farmers in Italy have been trying to use cannabis to remove toxins from soil, and it was deployed for the same purpose after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.)

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Weiblen also said hemp needs moisture and nitrogen fertilizer just as much as corn and soybeans.

Finding a market

There is another big barrier to reaping any large-scale benefits from hemp: Farmers must be able to sell the product. And despite its buzzy reputation, there have been growing pains for the hemp market.

Professor Burton Johnson, a lead researcher at North Dakota State University for that state’s hemp growing pilot project, said participation increased between 2016 and 2017, but fell the next year. Prices have dropped since the program began, too, he said. Johnson blamed both in part on the difficulty of selling hemp outside North Dakota.

Due to hemp’s association with marijuana — which is still a controlled substance and can only be grown with authorization from individual states — regulations on the market are tight, depressing outside investment, Johnson said. Each state has its own set of rules for what can be done with industrial hemp and there are federal restrictions on buying and selling hemp seeds and products.

“We can grow it, it grows fairly well, but if we can’t sell it easily that’s a problem,” Johnson said.

Johnson said more research and economic development is needed to create a real market for the product. For example, “farmers don’t have the equipment to be CBD oil extractors with hemp” or to process the plant fibers, which can be used in textiles.

Weiblen echoed those concerns, saying “no one is making money growing hemp right now in the United States” because of  a lack of market demand and a reliable supply chain.

“We’re in one of those chicken and egg situations,” he said. “There are many products that can be made from hemp, but they can’t be produced unless there’s a reliable supply.”

Weiblen also said he was unsure if the booming CBD market is sustainable, calling it a “fad” standing on uncertain legal ground. CBD products claim to offer relief from a remarkable range of maladies, including pain and anxiety.

Johnson and Weiblen said they are still optimistic about hemp becoming a part of the Midwest’s rotation of crops, especially because Canada has had success growing the plant since it was legalized in 1998.

Congress could substantially help the industry by legalizing it nationwide, an idea approved in the GOP-led U.S. Senate this year, but one that hasn’t made it to the president’s desk.

“It can be part of a more diverse mix,” Weiblen said. “Is it the next corn or soybeans? I doubt it.”