Hemp: what is it and how can you use it in your life?

By Cara Waudby Tolley | April 25, 2022

Author Mary Biles explains why hemp is the plant of the future – good for the environment and good for us, too.

What if I told you a plant existed that was a healthy source of protein and omega-3 essential fatty acids, could be used to make more sustainable alternatives to cotton, wood and plastic, while boasting a negative carbon footprint?

You might think this was all too good to be true and just the ramblings of a plant-based lifestyle über advocate. If I mentioned that this mystery plant is in fact hemp, the nonintoxicating variety of cannabis, you might begin to understand why most of us are unaware of its potential to improve not only our own health but that of the planet. For the last 60 years, cannabis prohibition has hidden hemp away from all but its die-hard fans. Sure, you might have seen the odd hemp T-shirt emblazoned with a cannabis leaf at a festival, or furtively rubbed some of The Body Shop’s hemp hand cream into your cuticles when no one was looking. The reality, though, is that most of us will never have heard hemp mentioned in the same breath as sustainable agriculture or as an alternative to plastic.

However, all this could be about to change, with the timely recognition of hemp’s versatility as a sustainable, multi-purpose crop that can be turned into everything from CBD oil to car interiors, that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and even cleans the soil after environmental disasters.

What is hemp?

The word hemp finds its origin in old English and describes cannabis sativa varieties that are low in the psychoactive compound THC. So, in essence, if you want to get high, you can forget about smoking hemp. While it’s estimated that humans have been growing hemp for 50,000 years, the earliest fragment of hemp cloth dating back to 8,000BC was found by archaeologists in what was ancient Mesopotamia.

Hemp’s strong fibres have been prized ever since and utilised for everything from rope and sails to clothing. In 16th century Britain, Henry VIII was such a fan of hemp that he insisted farmers sow a quarter of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned. While hemp seeds are a modern day go-to source of protein for lovers also been put to good use throughout history in a number of different ways. Lamps have burned brightly on hemp oil since the time of Abraham, and an early nomadic tribe, the Scythians, used hemp seed oil to purify and cleanse their skin.

For thousands of years, hemp flowers have also been enjoyed both in food and as a vital part of folk medicine. Everyone from ancient Chinese emperors to the early Romans have used hemp in medicines for treating everything from pain to burns and seizures. However, a rather unlikely culinary source provides evidence of an early hemp recipe. A dish destined for the table of the 14th century Pope, Martin V, included hemp flowers boiled in water and mixed with breadcrumbs, onion, saffron and spices. And, just a century later in what perhaps is the earliest example of CBD oil, crushed hemp flowers were mixed with oil.

By now you might be wondering, ‘if hemp is so amazing, how come in this age of modernity barely anyone has heard of it?’. There are plenty of theories – some erring towards the realms of conspiracy – as to why hemp fell out of favour. While the development of synthetic fibres such as nylon in the 1950s certainly played a role, international drug law, which largely regulated hemp in the same way as its psychoactive and illegal cannabis cousin, was perhaps the main factor in causing a subsequent decline in hemp farming.

A sustainable future

We are currently in the midst of a climate emergency, and around the world environmentalists are on the hunt to find actionable strategies to halt the damage to the planet caused by climate change. Of course, it would be rather simplistic to suggest that hemp might provide an answer to all our global warming woes, but from a sustainability perspective it has a lot to offer.

When we grow hemp, nothing goes to waste. Every part of the plant can be put to use, be it using the seeds to make food, cosmetics and fuel, the stalks for fibre or clothing or extracting CBD oil from the flowers. But unlike other food or fibre sources like cotton, wheat or soybeans, growing hemp doesn’t emit greenhouse gases and actually sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. That’s because the plants store considerable amounts of carbon in their stems and roots. The European Industrial Hemp Association estimates that 1.6 tonnes of CO2 is absorbed per tonne of hemp.

Not only that, but compared to other crops such as cotton, hemp requires little or no chemical pesticides or herbicides, and uses significantly less water for cultivation. Studies also suggest that growing hemp provides vital pollen to support greater bee diversity.

Despite all these environmental factors in hemp’s favour, the plant’s continued association with illegal cannabis means that UK farmers must get a license from the Home Office if they wish to grow the crop. For many, this is an off-putting barrier which is why organisations such as the British Hemp Alliance are calling on the UK government to adopt a more progressive and environmentally responsible position.

What about CBD?

Over the last two or three years, CBD has become a buzzword in the global wellness industry. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that CBD sales are greater than vitamins C and D combined. Otherwise known as cannabidiol, CBD is a type of compound found in hemp buds and flowers. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have any intoxicating effect, making it legal to consume.

So why has the world gone CBD crazy? It all started about ten years ago in the United States when some incredible anecdotal stories hit the headlines about some children with severe epilepsy who found seizure relief from CBD oil. Scientific research appears to back up these reports and only last year a CBD-based pharmaceutical drug called Epidyolex was approved to treat children with rare types of epilepsy. Other trials are taking place to see whether CBD could help with symptoms of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, fibromyalgia, sleep disorders, and anxiety.

It should be noted, however, that the types of CBD oil available online or on the high street cannot be compared with the purified CBD drugs generally used in medical research. A typical over-the-counter CBD oil is perhaps better described as a hemp extract as it contains other naturally occurring compounds found in hemp. This is by no means a bad thing, as these ‘full spectrum CBD oils’ are thought to offer their own wider benefits.

When it comes to making a transition towards hemp, change isn’t going to happen overnight. Like everything, it all starts with awareness. So, whether it’s choosing a hemp T-shirt instead of cotton, moisturising your skin with a hemp seed oil body lotion or putting hemp protein powder in your morning shake, it’s all supporting the growth of European hemp farming, which can only be of benefit to our planet.

About the author

Mary Biles is author of The CBD Book: The Essential Guide to CBD Oil and contributing writer for projectcbd.org. She also hosts the podcast, Cannabis Voices.

This article first appeared in issue 17 of Planet Mindful magazine. Explore more wellness techniques here.