Although it may never get past its specialty crop designation, hemp has the potential to come in cheaper, more environmentally-friendly, and more useful than certain staple crops that grow today. It’s some are considering replacing crops they’re used to with the more forward thinking plant.
Its viability in a variety of industries and quick grow time could make it a better option than other crops we’ve come to rely on for everyday items. But, is it possible to see hemp replace one of our staple crops like cotton, wood, or even corn and soybeans (aka biofuel)?
The textile of choice
Of course, cotton is king when it comes to textiles, but this predominantly occurred because hemp was illegal up until a few years ago. As far as plant materials go, hemp might be a better choice.
The argument starts when the plants begin to grow. Hemp requires significantly less water than cotton. In fact, hemp uses something like 88 percent less water than cotton plants.
Hemp plants also take up less space. Per acre, hemp can yield crops three times the size of cotton. This, combined with a much faster growing time, puts hemp on top no matter how you look at it.
Even shifting to the final product, fabrics produced with hemp are often more durable, stretch out less, and are overall stronger than cotton. As a textile, hemp is also very versatile, with applications in construction, paper, plastics, and more.
With all these positives, hemp isn’t yet a perfect substitute. It’s still not produced in high enough quantities to take over the industry, and it’s not always comfortable as a fabric. To date, hemp clothing is often made from softened fibers or a cotton-hemp blend.
When it comes to wood
When it comes to replacing wood, hemp has much more potential to displace trees. This is a huge positive, since a reduction in deforestation is a good move for the environment. And, while hemp will most likely not replace all items made from wood, using trees less gives forests time to regrow and doesn’t take as high of an ecological toll.
In order to stop 3/4 of the U.S. annual wood consumption, we’d need to dedicate 2.6 percent of U.S. farmland to growing industrial hemp. That doesn’t feel like a lot.
As far as products go, hemp could easily replace wood when it comes to paper, but it also has applications in the construction industry that could save the trees. Hemp composite building material can be stronger than wood alternatives, and hemp chips can replace their wooden counterparts in products like particle board.
Still trying to get itself off the ground as a widespread product, biofuel has been a topic of conversation much longer than hemp has been legal. First, it was your used cooking oil that everyone wanted, then talk of corn and soybeans fueling all our vehicles. Nothing has taken off, but practically any plant materials, including plant waste, can become biofuel. That puts hemp in the running.
Considered one of the next generation biofuel crops, the high oil content of hemp seeds give the plant an advantage. Even on poor land, and minimal water, hemp thrives. It’s a much more robust crop than others already used in biofuel production.
Hemp is in good company here. The other contenders for the future of biofuel include switchgrass, carrizo cane, jatropha, and algae.
Of course, to make a transition like this with hemp, we’d need a lot more of it. And, biofuel would really need to gain some traction when it came to consumer demand.
The potential of hemp
It’s fun to think about how hemp may one day be replacing crops and other materials across many different industries. People are working on it, but with limited crop supply, right now, we won’t see any huge shifts any time soon. Currently, it’s all about baby steps.
To stay on top of all the latest hemp news, visit Arbor Vita8. Our resource center covers all things hemp, speaking to farmers, manufacturers, and consumers alike.