This Crop Could Revolutionize American Farming—So Why Is it Illegal?

June 6, 2016

In semantics, one word can make all the difference. That’s certainly the case with cannabis L.—not to be confused with cannabis sativa L., or as you may know the latter, marijuana.

Cannabis L. is the scientific name for hemp, a benign plant with no psychoactive properties. Despite their differences, hemp is often equated with its mind-altering cousin. It’s a slight that hemp advocates have been working to undo for decades—and they’re finally starting to make some progress.

Hemp’s actually incredibly useful: The fibers can be made into construction materials, plastics, paper, fabric. Hemp seeds and hemp oil—both of which are full of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids—have gained popularity as healthy additions to salads and smoothies. One serving of hemp seeds also provides 10 grams of protein with all nine essential amino acids, and they’re high in fiber, magnesium, and iron, too.

Perhaps the best thing about hemp is its environmental impact. As Eric Steenstra—president of the grassroots hemp advocacy organization Vote Hemp and executive director of the nonprofit Hemp Industries Association—points out, the plant thrives in almost any climate and doesn’t require any help from pesticides or herbicides. As it grows, it spreads out to naturally suppress weeds. Hemp is hardy, drought-resistant, and very easy on soil—it actually returns up to 60 percent of the nutrients it uses to grow, when dried in the field. Some farmers who cultivate it in rotation with wheat and other crops have even seen a 20 percent increase in yields. Compare that to cotton, which can only be grown in the South, requires a ton of water, and is typically heavily sprayed with pesticides.

There’s a reason you don’t see fields of hemp waving in the wind anywhere in the U.S. Cultivating hemp has been illegal here since 1937—that’s why your hemp products are all made in Canada. The connection to marijuana, however slight, is still the biggest obstacle to taking hemp mainstream, Steenstra says. “We’ve had people tell us that you can grow marijuana in hemp fields, which is actually ridiculous. Marijuana growers wouldn’t want hemp anywhere near their crops because they would be worried about cross pollination.”

Little by little, that perception is changing. Steenstra and his colleagues have been lobbying to reintroduce hemp on American farms, and had their first big breakthrough in 2014. A provision in the most recent farm bill allows farmers in 28 states to grow hemp for research or pilot programs. Still, Steenstra says his battle is far from won. “We still have a ways to go to full-scale commercial hemp farming. That’s where we need to be.”

Want to see hemp farming legalized in your lifetime? Hemp History Week starts today, and it’s the perfect time to throw your support behind the cause. Check out to see how you can help!

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.


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