The promise of hemp to heal a fragile world: Energy, food, housing, environment
By Steve Allin
If the COVID-19 pandemic was, as UN Secretary-General Antonio António Guterres said, “like an X-ray revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built”, and if climate change is a major cause of these fractures, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s as if the painkillers were taken out of this discomfort.
All the issues of energy dependency, food security and the housing crisis were all present before but in a somewhat distant form, vaguely felt through the haze of rising fuel prices, overcrowded supermarkets and images of strangers on the sidewalks. As we now contemplate the grave problems looming before us, we urgently need to identify solutions as soon as possible.
So how do we tackle these seemingly unrelated issues? I suggest that they are not at all unrelated and that the solutions could be found in a single plan based on industrial hemp.
Addressing food security is of paramount importance. Despite the growing number of stories of farmers protesting unsustainable market prices, we all agree with the concept that food should be cheap and indefinitely supplied. We now realize that many of the foods we consider essential, such as bread and the foods we give to our other food sources, especially meat products, come from Russia or Ukraine!
With food and fuel supplies disrupted by the horrific invasion of Ukraine, the costs of this unsustainable system are impacting food production everywhere else.
Many people are familiar with hemp foods these days, but there are still many ways hemp can be used to transition to a low-meat diet and provide us with a highly nutritious meal.
To solve the problems of rising nitrate costs and the loss of fertility of much of the western farmland, we need crops that do not require large amounts of fertilizer and that could improve the quality land for future crops such as industrial hemp. Hemp could be grown with human waste, which we currently literally flush down the toilet.
Although this waste should be filtered for microplastics and toxic elements that may be present, treating animal and human waste with anaerobic digesters can provide not only completely safe fertilizer, but also energy in the form of much needed gas. .
Hemp also provides an ideal crop to begin the return to tillage agriculture currently being promoted by governments in response to the war in Ukraine, as it grows extremely quickly, smothers competing weeds, reduces the use of herbicides and improves the soil for future crops of especially winter wheat or barley or green cover plants sown immediately after the hemp harvest.
The accommodation of our young populations as they try to start their studies or their career in our cities, or the desire of young families to have a first comfortable home does not seem possible at the present time because there seems to be a housing shortage in most cities. The fact that so much of the available space is also energy inefficient and expensive or unsanitary is a sad reflection of current building standards.
Materials extracted from the hemp plant can be used as a natural fiber alternative to mineral wool and plastic foam insulation products or as an aggregate in hempcrete. These materials have a combination of positive behaviors, damping heat changes inside and outside a building while regulating humidity. This is especially true of hempcrete, which can easily be formed to provide a seamless fireproof thermal blanket to a structure that resists mold and does not off-gas toxic.
These breathable, heat-storing, and insulating materials are now being used to make healthy upgrades to existing structures or new buildings all over the world. Preformed in blocks, particleboard or panels, hemp-based materials are also incorporated into modular housing systems.
Addressing this range of problems with the cultivation of a single plant may seem ideal, but without the essential primary processing facility there is no market for the raw material. The process of dehulling and separating materials or crushing chaff to extract bast fibers and kernel particles, called hurds, into a marketable form is not possible until there are mills to do the job. This would require a site in the center of the most suitable tillage area in a region to serve a community of farmers growing hemp as part of a sustainable crop rotation system.
It is possible to have a factory where a bale of hemp goes in at one end and bricks or whole houses of modular panels come out the other end. The plant would require an investment of €3,000,000 to €30,000,000 depending on the number of additional products to be manufactured at the same site. This is nothing if we include in the financial statement the employment of 8 to 60 people with the additional labor created by the delivery and installation of the product.
Add to that both the calculated carbon sequestration and reduction for the materials, and the entire process would then be measured as “net zero” for emissions, just like most hemp homes built internationally. right now.
In times of ’emergency’, basic needs such as food and shelter become paramount. And if there are good new systems to meet these basic needs, we should do everything we can to invest in this vital crop to reap these opportunities.
Steve Allin is a consultant, teacher and author of “Building with Hemp” (2005, 2012) and “Hemp Buildings 50 International Case Studies” (2021). An advisor to HempToday, Allin is the director of the International Hemp Building Association.