The future of industrial hemp and biofuels

Hemp is a low-cost alternative to a variety of products, and when you add that introducing would go a long way to reducing climate change, there is no question that we should be using it.

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SOURCENationofChange

I first met Ellen H. Brown in 2014 when she came to San Miguel de Allende to work on a conference entitled “Moving Past Capitalism.”  The conference was the brainchild of Cliff DuRand, one of the founders of the Center for Global Justice, and others in the SMA political sphere.  Ellen Brown was well known for promoting Public Banking, and that’s what she talked about at the conference.

A few days ago I read a recent article by her, “The Cheapest Way To Save The Planet Grows Like A Weed.”  She published her article in L.A. Progressive, which is where I publish, too.  (She also published it in Truthdig). I had been reading articles which said the planting of a trillion trees around the world might stave off climate change. It certainly isn’t a permanent solution and it would cost $300 billion to do it.  “The chief drawback of reforestation as a solution to the climate crisis, per The Guardian, is that trees grow slowly. The projected restoration could take 50 to 100 years to reach its full carbon sequestering potential.”  This was seen as “cheap.”  But Brown’s article proposes something even cheaper.  

“Fortunately, as of December 2018 there is now a cheaper, faster and more efficient alternative – one that was suppressed for nearly a century but was legalized on a national scale when President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. This is the widespread cultivation of industrial hemp, the non-intoxicating form of cannabis grown for fiber, cloth, oil, food and other purposes. Hemp grows to 13 feet in 100 days, making it one of the fastest CO2-to-biomass conversion tools available. Industrial hemp has been proven to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop, making it the ideal carbon sink. It can be grown on a wide scale on nutrient poor soils with very small amounts of water and no fertilizers.”

There are several additional plusses to industrial hemp.  It can replace plastic made from petroleum.  “Hemp products can promote biodiversity and reverse environmental pollution by replacing petrochemical-based plastics, which are now being dumped into the ocean at the rate of one garbage truck per minute. One million seabirds die each year from ingesting plastic, and up to 90 percent have plastic in their guts. Microplastic (resulting from the breakdown of larger pieces by sunlight and waves) and microbeads (used in body washes and facial cleansers) have been called the ocean’s smog. They absorb toxins in the water, enter the food chain, and ultimately wind up in humans. To avoid all that, we can use plastic made from hemp, which is biodegradable and non-toxic.” 

Finally, hemp can be used to produce oil and replace fossil fuels.  “The competitive threat to other industries of this supremely useful plant may have been a chief driver of its apparently groundless criminalization in the 1930s. Hemp is not marijuana and is so low in psychoactive components that it cannot produce a marijuana “high.” It was banned for nearly a century simply because it was in the same plant species as marijuana. Cannabis came under attack in the 1930s in all its forms. Why? Hemp competed not only with the lumber industry but with the oil industry, the cotton industry, the petrochemical industry and the pharmaceutical industry. Many have speculated that it was suppressed by these powerful competitors.

“William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper mogul, owned vast tracts of forest land, which he intended to use for making wood-pulp paper. Cheap hemp-based paper would make his forest investments a major money loser. Hearst was a master of “yellow journalism,” and a favorite target of his editorials was “reefer madness.” He was allied with the DuPont Corporation, which provided the chemicals to bleach and process the wood pulp used in the paper-making process. DuPont was also ready to introduce petroleum-based fibers such as nylon, and hemp fabrics competed with that new market.

“In fact hemp products threatened the whole petroleum industry. Henry Ford first designed his cars to run on alcohol from biofuels, but the criminalization of both alcohol and hemp forced him to switch to the dirtier, less efficient fossil fuels that dominate the industry today. A biofuel-based infrastructure would create a completely decentralized power grid, eliminating the giant monopolistic power companies. Communities could provide their own energy using easily renewable plants.”

Basically, if the government planted industrial hemp instead of trees, it would get a higher impact on climate change, plus products which would replace fossil fuels, plastics, and timber produced paper. This is something that can be done now to combat climate change, both as a means of sucking CO2 out of the air and providing a replacement for the very fuels that put the CO2 into the air.  The government could join with investors, plant the hemp, and then have a ready market for the hemp when it was grown.

“Hemp can also help save our shrinking forests by eliminating the need to clear-cut them for paper pulp. According to the USDA, one acre planted in hemp produces as much pulp is 4.1 acres of trees; and unlike trees, hemp can be harvested two or three times a year. Hemp paper is also finer, stronger and lasts longer than wood-based paper. Benjamin Franklin’s paper mill used hemp. Until 1883, it was one of the largest agricultural crops (some say the largest), and 80 to 90% of all paper in the world was made from it.  It was also the material from which most fabric, soap, fuel and fiber were made; and it was an essential resource for any country with a shipping industry, since sails were made from it. In early America, growing hemp was considered so important that it was illegal for farmers not to grow it. Hemp was legal tender from 1631 until the early 1800s, and taxes could even be paid with it.”

The progressives in the Democratic Party should make hemp a centerpiece of their fight against fossil fuels and climate change.  The only real problem is to make it clear that hemp is not marijuana.  Fortunately, since President Trump legalized the growing of hemp, he can hardly be heard to say it is illegal or morally wrong to grow it.

How can we convince the fossil fuel industry, lumber industry, and other industries that would be displaced by hemp to support its use?  Fortunately, we have time – not much, but undoubtedly enough.  The hemp needs time to grow.  We can probably convince the competing industries to join in the effort to find investment funds for hemp.  And to the extent that they stop producing fossil fuels and cutting down trees to make paper, their production of hemp will be given a priority place.

The U.S. subsidizes fossil fuels to the tune of $649 billion in 2015.  World-wide, the subsidies totaled $5.2 trillion in 2017.  “[T]he negative externalities caused by fossil fuels that society has to pay for, [is] not reflected in their actual costs. In addition to direct transfers of government money to fossil fuel companies, this includes the indirect costs of pollution, such as healthcare costs and climate change adaptation. By including these numbers, the true cost of fossil fuel use to society is reflected.” 

We could probably take a third of the U.S. subsidies and plant enough industrial hemp to make a huge dent in climate change.  Plus we could give the fossil fuel industry first dibs on using the hemp production to replace plastic and fossil fuels for vehicles.  Might that not work politically?

It would be indeed amazing to see Bernie Sanders and the fossil fuel industry join together to get hemp planted and harvested, thereby taking CO2 from the atmosphere and simultaneously producing fuel that does not promote climate change.  I certainly wouldn’t guarantee that the competing industries would cooperate.  But giving them an opportunity to invest would help.  Hemp is a low-cost alternative to a variety of products, and when you add that introducing would go a long way to reducing climate change, there is no question that we should be using it.

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