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Basic Uses of Industrial Hemp: Food, Fuel, Fiber
by Mari Kane

Cannabis Hemp really can provide all the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing and medicine. It has been said that "anything made from a hydrocarbon can be made from a carbohydrate." Hemp is the cousin of marijuana. They are from the same plant -- Cannabis sativa L. There are over 1,000 strains of Cannabis Hemp bred for various uses. The term "Hemp" refers to the industrial use of the stalk and seed of certain varieties; Cannabis or "marijuana" refers to the smoking or ingesting of the flowers and leaves of certain other varieties.

Psychoactivity requires high levels of THC -- Tetrahydrocannabinol. Cannabis contains 5%-10% THC. Industrial hemp contains only .3%-1.5% THC, yet has a higher concentration of Cannabidiol, or CBD, which maintains an inverse relationship with THC and tends to moderate its effects.

The plant itself is easy to grow in temperate as well as tropical climates, and requires the usual amount of fertilizer and water, but no pesticides nor herbicides. A hemp crop is usually harvested in 100-120 days after reaching a height of 4-15 feet, depending on the variety. At that point one can make it into whatever suits their needs.


The hemp seed is the only source of food from the hemp plant. It is not really a seed, but an achene -- a nut covered with a hard shell. Hemp seed is used for people and animal food, and industrial use. Whole hemp seeds imported to the United States or Canada must be sterilized to prevent sprouting. This is not the case in Europe where fresh seeds are used. Shelled hemp seeds are the latest technological advance.

Whole Seed
The whole seed contains roughly 25% protein, 30% carbohydrates, 15% insoluble fiber, Carotene, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc, as well as vitamins E, C, B1, B2, B3 and B6. Hemp seed is one of the best sources of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) with a perfect 3:1 ratio of Omega-6 Linoleic Acid and Omega-3 Linolenic Acid, good for strengthening the immune system. It is also a source of Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA) which is otherwise available only from specialty oils like evening primrose oil or borage oils. Whole seeds are made into snack bars, cookies and porridge, or they may be roasted and consumed alone or in a trail mix, or brewed with coffee or beer. Wild and domestic birds love hemp seeds, too.

Shelled Seed
Removing the outer coating of the hemp seed produces a wonderful nut that is being used in many different food applications, including snack bars, cookies, nutbutter, chips, pasta, tortillas and hummus. The flavor is nutty and can be used as a topping on just about anything. It can be roasted with spices or just eaten raw.

Seed Oil
Hemp seed is 30% oil and is low in saturated fats. Hemp seed oil is good for lowering cholesterol levels and strengthening cardiovascular systems. The oil has a pleasantly nutty flavor. Among the foods hemp seed oil is made into are sauces, butter, salad dressings, condiments and pesto. Processing of hemp seed oil starts with drying the seeds to prevent sprouting. The seeds are then pressed and bottled immediately under oxygen-free conditions. Hemp seed oil is fragile and should be kept refrigerated in dark, air tight containers.

Seed Meal and Presscake
The meat of the seed is also highly nutritious and versatile as a seed "meal" and may be made into hemp milk and cheese, non-dairy ice cream, burgers, and anything else one might conceive of. Left over from pressing the oil is the "presscake" -- high in amino acids, which can be crushed for animal feed or pulverized for flour to make breads, pastas or pancakes.

Throughout history, hemp has provided a nourishing food supply to many cultures around the world. In Asia, roasted hemp seed is eaten as a snack, like popcorn. In Russia, hemp butter was used as a condiment by the peasant folk. In Poland, seeds are used for holiday sweets. Hemp seed was eaten by Australians during two famines in the nineteenth century. The most famous hemp seed consumer is Buddha himself, who ate them during his fast of enlightenment.

Body Care
One of the fastest growing market sectors for hemp seed oil is body care products. The phenomenal essential fatty acid content of hemp oil makes it ideal as a topical ingredient in both leave-on and rinse-off bodycare products. The EFAs help soothe and restore skin in lotions and creams, and give excellent emolliency and smooth after-feel to lotions, lipbalms, conditioners, shampoos, soaps and shaving products.

Non-Food Oil Uses
Other non-food uses for hemp seed oil are lamp lighting, printing, lubrication, household detergents, stain removers, varnishes, resins and paints. In this area, hemp seed oil is similar to linseed oil.


One of the most valuable parts of the hemp plant is the fiber, commonly referred to as "bast," meaning that it grows as a stalk from the ground. Other fibers such as sisal, manila hemp and jute are mistakenly referred to as hemp, yet only Cannabis sativa is considered "true hemp." Among the characteristics of hemp fiber are its superior strength and durability, and its resistance to rot, attributes that made hemp integral to the shipping industry. The strong, woody bast fiber is extracted from the stalk by a process known as decortication. Hemp fiber contains a low amount of lignin, the organic glue that binds plant cells, which allows for environmentally friendly bleaching without the use of chlorine. In composite form, hemp is twice as strong as wood. All products made with hemp fiber are biodegradable.

Long Fiber
Extracted from the bark of the stalk, this type of fiber is called "long" because it stretches the entire length of the plant. The length of the fiber enhances the strength and durability of the finished goods. Hemp can grow to 15 feet or more, making it excellent for textile production. Hemp is most similar to flax, the fiber of linen products. By contrast, cotton fibers are approximately 1-2 cm in length and are prone to faster wear. Hemp fiber also has insulative qualities that allow clothing wearers to stay cool in summer and warm in the winter. It also provides UV protection. Long hemp fiber is used in twine, cordage, textiles, paper, webbing and household goods.

Short Fiber
The short fibers, or 'tow," are the secondary hemp fibers. While not as strong as the long fibers, the tow is still superior to many other fibers. Tow is extracted from the long fibers during a process called "hackling," a method of combing and separating the fiber from hurd. Short fibers are used to make textiles, non-woven matting, paper, caulking, auto parts, building materials and household goods.

As long ago as 450 BC, the Scythians and Thracians made hemp linens. The Chinese first used hemp for paper making in 100 AD. Hempen sails, caulking and rigging launched a thousand ships during the Age of Discovery in the 15th century. The American Declaration of Independence was drafted, but not signed, on hemp paper.

Also known as hurds or shives, the core is the woody material found in the center of the hemp stalk. It is rich in cellulose, a carbohydrate that can be made into paper, packaging and building materials, as well as plastic composites for making skate boards, auto bodies and interior auto parts such as door panels and luggage racks.


Hemp biomass as a source of fuel is the most under-exploited use of hemp, due to the fact that it is economically unfeasible at this time. Hemp stalks can be used in the generation of energy through a process called "chemurgy" which is a cross between chemicals and energy. The hemp stalk can be converted into a charcoal-like substance through a process called pyrolysis, and used for power generation and to produce industrial feed stocks. Auto giant Henry Ford was a pioneer in the pyrolysis process, and operated a biomass pyrolytic plant at Iron Mountain in northern Michigan.

Hemp as an auto fuel is another potential use. Almost any biomass material can be converted into methanol or ethanol, and these fuels burn cleanly with less carbon monoxide and higher octane. In fact, the diesel engine was invented to burn fuel from agricultural waste, yet ended up burning unrefined petroleum. Hemp seed oil can also be refined to produce a type of biofuel. Woody Harrelson recently toured the west coast with a diesel bus run on hemp biofuel, and a hemp-powered car toured North America a few summers ago, demonstrating the environmental benefits of biofuels.



The Hemp Industries Association (http://www.hempindustries.org)

Nutritional/Medicinal Guide to Hemp Seed by Ken Jones, Rainforest Botanical Laboratories

The Great Book of Hemp by Rowan Robinson, Inner Traditions International

Hemp: Lifeline to the Future and Hemp for Health by Chris Conrad, Creative Xpressions

Hemp Today edited by Ed Rosenthal, Quick American

Journal of the International Hemp Association, International Hemp Association

HempWorld -- The International Hemp Journal, updated from Hemp Pages, 1997, published by Mari Kane

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