Hemp Forests

How Hemp Can Help Save The Forests

We can all help combat the climate crisis by decreasing the impact we have on forests and the biodiversity they provide, and by preserving forests’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. An opportunity presents itself to alleviate demand for wood products by transitioning to hemp-based alternatives.

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The True Value of Forests

When you think about forests, what comes to mind? Are they simply a large group of trees, or something far more complex? From an anthropocentric (people-oriented) point of view, forests are perceived as a resource that provides people with material and non-material benefits. In contrast, from an ecocentric point of view, forests are perceived for what they are and how they contribute to the environment, independent of how people benefit from them. In my humble opinion, the true value of forests is a combination of all past, present, and future environmental, social, and economic benefits.

There is a colossal list of environmental benefits from forests, which collectively play a major role in maintaining life on Earth. The biodiverse ecosystems we see today are a product of forests’ ability to: sequester carbon dioxide and absorb environmental pollutants, provide habitats and protection from the elements, rotate nutrients in soil and mitigate erosion, retain and filter water, and regulate regional temperatures and influence regional weather patterns.

Often taken for granted, there is also an extensive list of societal benefits from forests that play an important role in the long-term sustainability of cultures and societies. The act of pausing to reflect and appreciate forests rejuvenates us, as they provide us with: socio-cultural benefits (culture expression, generational sharing, knowledge and wisdom, and heritage), ethical benefits (intrinsic worth, stewardship, intergenerational equity, compassion, and social justice), spiritual benefits (sacredness, sanctuary, harmony, insight, purity, and peace), and aesthetic benefits (beauty, magic, majesty, natural state, and senses). 

Perhaps the most obvious benefits from forests are those to our economy, as a vast array of goods we use and consume every day are derived from forests. However, a relatively new source of revenue has emerged from forests in the form of forest carbon credits – types of forestry projects eligible for generating ‘carbon offsets’ which may be bought and sold through voluntary and compliance carbon markets. Eligible forestry projects include afforestation, reforestation, avoided conversion, and improved forest management. These projects help preserve forests for carbon dioxide sequestration, and the exchange of their carbon credits serve to incentivize polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By seeing nature through the lens of interconnectedness, our knowledge about the true value of forests will increase and so too will our perceived value of them. However, the continued exploitation of forests for short-term economic benefits has led to catastrophic levels of deforestation around the world contributing to long-term negative consequences.

The Weight of Deforestation

While not entirely due to humankind, the World Bank estimates approximately 10 million square km of forest has been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most recent estimate of net loss of forest worldwide is 7.3 million ha/yr.

When we cut down and process our forests for the short-term benefits of our economy, we do so at the detriment of long-term environmental and societal benefits they provide – ultimately resulting in negative impacts on our economy in the future. 

The most obvious consequence of deforestation is the risk of desertification of forest land if ecosystems aren’t able to fully recover. Desertification cripples Earth’s carbon, water, and soil cycles and the ability of ecosystems to rejuvenate – accelerating global warming and changes in climates around the world. However, an equally, if not more, serious consequence of deforestation is the loss of millions of species due to the destruction of their habitats and food webs, as complex ecosystems, biodiversity, and symbiotic relationships maintain the delicate balance of life on Earth as we know it.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, scientists estimate species are going extinct up to 1,000 times the natural rate and they predict more than one million species could face extinction in the coming decade. We are losing about one species every hour, never to be seen again. This is most concerning as the loss of one species has a cascading ripple effect on nature, and losing key species will lead to catastrophic, irreversible consequences to the environment, our societies, and our economies. Considering the far-reaching benefits of forests and the severe consequences of not protecting them, there is an inherent necessity to reduce our impact on forests through conservation, education, and sourcing sustainable alternatives for the many products derived from trees.

Mitigating Deforestation with Hemp

Hemp fibre has very similar properties to that of wood, many products made using wood can actually be made using hemp since they are both contain cellulose. Trees require 20-80 years to mature for harvest depending on the species, and average 32 (thinning) to 87 (clear-cutting) tons per acre. In comparison, hemp is an annual crop that takes an average of four months to mature for harvest, yielding on average ten tons per acre. Hemp’s rapid growth cycle allows for a more flexible supply of resources when faced with fluctuations in demand. 

Wood fibres have a typical composition of cellulose (~45%), hemicellulose (~25%), and lignin (~25%). In comparison, industrial hemp stems are a source of two natural fibres: bast fibres (~30%) and woody core fibres known as hurds (~70%). Its bast fibres contain cellulose (~67%), hemicellulose (~12%), and lignin (~7%), whereas its hurds consist of cellulose (~44%), hemicellulose (~21%), and lignin (~22%). The U.S. Department of Agriculture derived that one acre of hemp produces four times the amount of paper than one acre of trees. 

Lignin is an organic polymer that plays a crucial part in conducting water and providing structural rigidity in plant cells. It is also what makes paper yellow and brittle, both undesirable traits in paper products. Lignin is removed from pulp through the use of harsh chemicals (sodium sulfide, caustic soda, or acid bisulfite), which generates air pollutants such as particulates, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulfur oxides, and total reduced sulfur compounds (TRS). After extracting lignin, wood pulp is then often bleached with chlorine to make it white.

Due to lower lignin content, hemp fibres naturally resist yellowing or browning with age, meaning hemp pulp does not require as intensive bleaching or chemical treatment as wood pulp. By switching to hemp-based paper products, we could significantly decrease the number of toxins and chemicals used in the paper manufacturing industry and its negative impact on our environment while preserving valuable forest ecosystems.

Did you know the average person uses roughly 130 rolls of toilet paper per year? That’s roughly one roll every three days, equating to about 384 trees within one’s lifetime! Since toilet paper is such a highly-demanded, commonly-used product, and because hemp yields more cellulose, switching to hemp toilet paper would have a monumental reduction in the impact we have on forests – not to mention the health benefits.

Conventional toilet paper has been known to cause allergic reactions, yeast infections, and swelling due to chemicals in the manufacturing process.  Hemp on the other hand contains natural compounds that provide antibacterial and antifungal properties but also grant air permeability, high absorbency, and naturally soft fibres. These features make hemp great for sanitation and biomedical applications to prevent infection of broken skin. 

Another example of how hemp can be used in the place of wood is fuel pellets. People around the world use wood to heat their homes. The majority of fuel pellets for pellet stoves and boilers are derived from wood due to its combustion qualities. The quality of fuel pellets are classified according to their quantity of ash residues: premium (<1%), standard (1-2%), and industrial (>3%). Both premium and standard grades may be used in commercial and residential applications. 

Hemp fuel pellets have very similar combustion qualities to that of wood fuel pellets: only produce 2% ash content, do not produce clinker formations, and have similar ash melting temperatures and corrosive behaviours. These similar qualities, along with being a more sustainable raw material, make hemp fuel pellets a favourable alternative to wood fuel pellets.

While hemp-based paper products and fuel pellets are just some direct alternatives, hemp doesn’t stop there. Hemp can be used in the production of over 25,000 products! There is an awesome array of sustainable products in categories ranging from clothing and accessories, food and nutrition, health and beauty, home and office, construction, bioplastics, and biofuels. As the popularity of hemp continues to grow, so does the list of products that it can be made into.

Aside from sustainable, biodegradable products, it offers other solutions for combating climate change as well. It is one of the best crops for carbon sequestration in the fight against global warming, approximately 1.62 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of hemp. Its fast growth rate naturally makes hemp very competitive with weeds, resulting in little to no harsh herbicide requirements. While not aimed at preventing deforestation, there exists potential for hemp to remediate lands that have been devastated by wildfire and other catastrophes. When planted as a cover crop, hemp helps rejuvenate these lands by retaining water and nutrients, thus reducing soil erosion and nutrient depletion. It can also be used for environmental cleanup, as it proved successful when used to absorb heavy metals and radioactive strontium-90 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site – a process referred to as phytoremediation. So, why don’t we use hemp?

Why Not Hemp - A Brief History

It is very important to provide the distinction between marijuana and hemp, as the two terms are often confused. The term ‘marijuana’ is vernacular slang for strains of cannabis that contain high levels of the cannabinoid THC, and provide a psychoactive effect when heated and consumed for recreational or medicinal purposes. The term ‘hemp’, also known as industrial hemp, refers to a uniquely bred subspecies of cannabis (Cannabis sativa L. ssp. sativa) which contains less than 0.3 percent THC, and cannot produce a psychoactive effect when consumed as it has a high level of another cannabinoid called CBD, which counteracts the effects of THC. 

Hemp has been cultivated throughout history for many purposes. In fact, hemp is one of the first known human agricultural crops, dating back to pre-Neolithic times on the Oki Islands near Japan (8,000+ BCE). From ancient China’s Stone Age (~4,000 BCE) through the Qin and Hah dynasties (221 BCE to 220 CE), sowing, cultivation, and processing of hemp developed and became fairly advanced, producing various materials ranging from clothing, rope, food, medicine, and an early form of paper.

Various products have been made using hemp worldwide, including much of the world’s paper prior to the 19th century. However, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act in the United States and the global War on Drugs prohibited the cultivation, processing, and distribution of industrial hemp – due to its nearly indistinguishable characteristics from cannabis plants grown for marijuana. Hemp never fully recovered from the prohibition despite being touted as being on the verge of becoming a “billion-dollar crop” by Popular Mechanics in 1938 due to the recent improvements of the decorticator (a machine designed to mechanically separate the bast and hurd, significantly reducing labour). Many believe the prohibition was a political move driven by industry lobbyists intended to cripple the hemp industry, eliminating competition against wood-pulp, synthetic fibres, and oil.

During the Second World War, through its “Hemp for Victory” campaign, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army turned around and encouraged farmers to once again cultivate hemp due to the many products it could produce deemed essential for the war effort. It was a glimpse of hope for the hemp industry, however, after the war ended the government scrubbed the campaign’s existence from its records. Despite this, tremendous efforts have uncovered the campaign which can be found and watched on the internet today.

Hemp remained prohibited in Canada and the U.S. until 1998 and 2018 respectively. There is hope for the hemp industry today as fewer restrictions on hemp and a growing demand for hemp products have led to forecasts of the hemp market increasing from $4.6 billion in 2019 to $26.6 billion in 2025. However, hemp’s comeback won’t be easy, as many hurdles and barriers remain today and it is competing with industries that have been granted a 60-80 year head start.

Leveraging The Opportunity Hemp Provides

We can all help combat the climate crisis by decreasing the impact we have on forests and the biodiversity they provide, and by preserving forests’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. An opportunity presents itself to alleviate demand for wood products by transitioning to hemp-based alternatives. Leveraging this opportunity requires revitalizing the hemp industry and local processing capabilities, overhauling the pulp and paper industry, and educating consumers about the many benefits of hemp – ultimately increasing both the demand for and supply of hemp products.

I encourage you to try substituting hemp-based alternatives for tree-based products as a simple way to contribute towards a more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable future.

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Saving Earth is a quarterly environmental magazine that focuses on environment, conservation, climate change, green businesses, and creating a better world.

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