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Hemp (from Old English hænep, see cannabis (etymology)) is the common name for plants of the genus Cannabis, although the term is often used to refer only to Cannabis strains cultivated for industrial (non-drug) use. Hemp is cultivated virtually everywhere in the world except for the United States, and its cultivation in western countries is growing steadily. For example, Canadian Hempseed exports surged 300% last year, according to VoteHemp. China, and other eastern countries, never prohibited its cultivation and use it extensively.
Industrial hemp has thousands of uses, from paper to textiles to biodegradable plastics to health food to fuel. It is one of the fastest growing biomasses on the planet, and one of the earliest domesticated plants known. It also runs parallel with the “Green Future” objectives that are becoming increasingly popular. Hemp requires little to no pesticides, replenishes soil with nutrients and nitrogen, controls erosion of the topsoil, and converts CO2 to oxygen very well, considering how fast it grows. Furthermore, Hemp could be used to replace many potentially harmful products, such as tree paper (the process of which uses bleaches and other toxic chemicals, apart from contributing to deforestation), cosmetics (which often contain synthetic oils that can clog pores and provide little nutritional content for the skin), plastics (which are petroleum based and cannot decompose), and more.
Licenses for hemp cultivation are issued in the European Union and Canada. In the United Kingdom, these licenses are issued by the Home Office under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. When grown for non-drug purposes hemp is often called industrial hemp, and a common product is fiber for use in a wide variety of products. Feral hemp or ditch weed is usually a naturalized fiber or oilseed strain of Cannabis that have escaped from cultivation and are self-seeding.
Cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa var. sativa is the variety grown for industrial use in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, while C. sativa subsp. indica generally has poor fiber quality and is primarily used for production of recreational and medicinal drugs. A major difference is the amount of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) secreted in a resinous mixture by epidermal hairs called glandular trichomes. Strains of Cannabis approved for industrial hemp production in Europe and elsewhere produce only minute amounts of this psychoactive drug. Some botanists use a different taxonomic classification to circumscribe the various taxa within the genus Cannabis.
Hemp is used for a wide variety of purposes, including the manufacture of cordage of varying tensile strength, clothing, and nutritional products. The bast fibers can be used in 100% hemp products, but are commonly blended with fabrics such as linen, cotton or silk, for apparel and furnishings, most commonly a 55/45 Hemp/Cotton blend. The inner two fibers of hemp are more woody, and are more often used in non-woven items and other industrial applications, such as mulch, animal bedding and litter. The oil from the fruits (“seeds”) dries on exposure to air (similar to linseed oil) and is sometimes used in the manufacture of oil-based paints, in creams as a moisturising agent, for cooking, and in plastics. Hemp seeds are often added to wild bird seed mix. In Europe and China, hemp fibers are increasingly used to strengthen cement, and in other composite materials for many construction and manufacturing applications. Mercedes-Benz uses a “biocomposite” composed principally of hemp fiber for the manufacture of interior panels in some of its automobiles. Hemp cultivation in the United States is suppressed by laws supported by drug enforcement agencies, for fear that high THC plants will be grown amidst the low THC plants used for hemp production. Efforts are under way to change these laws, allowing American farmers to compete in the growing markets for this crop. As of 2006, China produces roughly 40% of the world’s hemp fiber and has been producing much of the world’s Cannabis crop throughout much of history.
Hemp seeds are highly nutritious, and contain beneficial omega fatty acids, amino acids, and minerals. The seeds can be eaten raw, ground into a meal, sprouted, made into “milk” (akin to soy milk), prepared as tea, and used in baking. The fresh leaves can also be eaten in salads. Products range from cereals to frozen waffles, hemp tofu to nut butters. A few companies produce value added hemp seed items that include the seed oils, whole hemp grain (which is sterilized as per international law), hulled hemp seed (the whole seed without the mineral rich outer shell), hemp flour, hemp cake (a by-product of pressing the seed for oil) and hemp protein powder. Hemp is also used in some organic cereals. Hemp seed also being used to make a non-dairy “milk” somewhat similar to soy and nut milks, as well as non-dairy hemp “ice cream.” Given that seeds account for 50% of the weight of a female plant grown for seed, these products can be made cheaper than with soy, almonds, or flax.
Within the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) treats hemp as purely a non-food crop. Seed can and does appear on the UK market as a legal food product although cultivation licenses are not available for this purpose. In North America, hemp seed food products are sold in small volume, typically in health food stores or by mail order.