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As the recession renews interest in the growing hemp marketplace as a potential boon for the green economy -- even Fox Business News has touted it -- hemp is becoming impossible to ignore.
But the plant's potential extends far beyond consumer-generated greenbacks. A low-input, low-impact crop, industrial hemp can play a significant role in our desperate shuffle to avoid catastrophic climate change.
"In terms of sustainability, there are numerous reasons to grow hemp," says Patrick Goggin, a board member on the California Council for Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial-hemp advocacy group.
Goggin launches into its environmental benefits: Hemp requires no pesticides; it has deep digging roots that detoxify the soil, making it an ideal rotation crop -- in fact, hemp is so good at bioremediation, or extracting heavy metals from contaminated soil, it's being grown near Chernobyl.
Hemp is also an excellent source of biomass, or renewable, carbon-neutral energy, and its cellulose level, roughly three times that of wood, can be used for paper to avoid cutting down trees, an important line of defense against global warming.
When it comes to hemp, environmental gains are inexorably intertwined with economic ones. The auto industry, hardly synonymous with being green but which has had the research dollars to apply new technology, can vouch for Goggin. For years European car makers have been using hemp-fiber-reinforced composite materials to replace fiberglass and in other components, such as door panels or dashboards. And now their American counterparts have joined in.
Blending hemp with plastics is not only cheaper for producers, but natural-fiber composites are roughly 30 percent lighter, which in turn leads to greater fuel efficiency for customers. And when they finally hit the junkyard, those parts partially biodegrade. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Honda all use this technology.
Now, where there are cars, there's fuel, or these days biofuel, which has become a contentious issue as America fights for energy independence while attempting to combat climate change.
Biofuels -- fuels derived from plants -- actually are nothing new. Rudolph Diesel, who invented the diesel engine, designed his machine to run on peanut oil, and his contemporary, Henry Ford, intended his Model-T to run on ethanol, of which hemp provided the major feedstock until the 1930s. Even Thomas Edison championed bio-based fuels, suspicious of the growing dominance of the petroleum industry, which boomed after America began taxing alcohol -- as both a beverage and a fuel -- to help pay for the Civil War.
To wean ourselves off foreign oil, the U.S. heavily subsidized the corn-based ethanol industry to the tune of $7 billion in 2006, according to zFacts, a Web site run by economist Steve Stoft.
Critics argue that the production of corn-based ethanol is problematic because corn consumes more energy from fossil fuels (such as petrochemical, nitrogen-based fertilizers) than it yields, and its production has a negative impact on the price and availability of edible corn, a staple in countries such as Mexico.
In 2007, because so many farmers north and south of the border switched to growing industrial corn, the price of corn flour in Mexico skyrocketed 400 percent, sending rioters into the streets. People need to eat and to do so, they have to be able to afford food, which begs the question: How green is ethanol when it deprives folk of basic food?
"In reality, corn isn't a viable option," says Goggin, who explains that hemp, which can be grown both as food and fuel -- its seeds, harvested for protein and essential amino and fatty acids, or for oil, which is converted into biodiesel -- has roughly four times the cellulose biomass potential of corn. "Compared to hemp, which can be harvested for multiple purposes, it's very inefficient."
As biomass, hemp can be converted into fuels such as methane, methanol and gasoline, which can help curb the world's growing appetite for palm oil used to make biodiesel, and which is having a colossally negative environmental impact.
In densely populated Indonesia, companies are draining local peat swamps and clearing virgin tropical forests, home to the endangered orangutan, to make room for palm oil plantations. This alone has resulted in 2 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions being released into the atmosphere a year, according to the conservation nonprofit Wetlands International.
The same is happening in Brazil's biodiverse cerrado region south of the Amazon, where sugar cane and soy plantations are replacing native vegetation. Deforestation now accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Global Canopy Program, an alliance of rainforest scientists based in Oxford, England. Tropical forests are essentially the planet's lungs -- and without lungs, well, it's a no-brainer ...