Hemp has had a rich past, with communities finding use around the globe for this versatile plant. Hemp cultivation was widespread in post-neolithic ancient China. The Chinese used hemp to make a number of textiles and materials, including paper, and China does indeed boast the longest continuous history of hemp production.
The Scythians of ancient Iran were known to leave hemp as a tribute in the tombs of the dead, and hemp rope first makes an appearance on ships in Greece around the year 200 BCE.
Imported hemp rope later made an appearance in England in about 100 AD, brought there by the Romans. However, by the end of the 15th century, as Britain began to grow as a naval power, one of the biggest challenges they faced was securing enough hemp to fully outfit their sailing ships. This was a perennial problem for the British empire.
To solve this issue, Britain mandated that hemp be grown in the American colonies. The goal was to secure a steady supply of raw hemp, thus solidifying Britain’s position as a global naval and economic power. As prosperity grew in Colonial America, so did the colonies’ reliance on hemp.
Colonists produced ropes and cloth and extracted oil from hemp seeds for use in lamps. As a result, some colonies had laws requiring farmers to cultivate hemp. It was even used as legal tender in the young American economy.
Eventually, hemp cultivation would come to be outlawed in the U.S. due to hemp’s relationship to marijuana. Since both plants are of the Cannabis genus, non-psychoactive hemp is lumped in with its illicit cousin. It is only in modern times that hemp and its major cannabinoid, cannabidiol or CBD, are once again being fully utilized around the world.
Hemp is a highly sustainable crop that, when grown without the use of harsh chemicals, can replace many commercial items with minimal impact on the environment.
Hemp plants are naturally resistant to most pests, meaning they can be grown without the use of pesticides. Because hemp is an efficient bioaccumulator, it is important to avoid using chemical pesticides that can cause residual contamination of products. Toxic pesticides sprayed on hemp plants can also leach into nearby soil and water sources, negatively impacting local biological environments.
Hemp plants are known for growing very tall and in close rows, limiting the ability of weeds to establish themselves among hemp fields. Like with pesticides, many growers avoid using herbicides because they can affect local biological communities or be absorbed by hemp plants and transferred residually to commercial products.
Approximately 30 countries currently grow hemp across Europe, Asia, and North and South America, including the U.S., Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Chile, Japan, and South Korea, to name just a few.
Efforts to legalize hemp cultivation were furthered in 2014 after President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act, also known as the 2014 Farm Bill, into law.
Section 7606 of that Act legalized the growing and cultivating of industrial hemp for research purposes in states “where such growth and cultivation is legal under State law, notwithstanding existing Federal statutes that would otherwise criminalize such conduct.”
In the U.S., nearly 10,000 acres of hemp were planted in 2016 in a total of 15 states, with successful crops harvested in Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Since then, hemp cultivation in the U.S. has boomed.
By 2018, over 30 states had established hemp cultivation as part of government approved hemp pilot programs. These crops were part of state hemp pilot programs meant for research purposes, rather than commercial production, but they were an important initial step towards building a successful hemp industry in the U.S.
With the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill, restrictions on hemp were removed and hemp cultivation in the U.S. became legal, leading to a boom in the number of acres of hemp grown nationwide.