It’s been more than two years since the 2018 Farm Bill was passed—a bill that, among other things, functionally legalized domestic hemp production—and there remain many unknowns about the future of hemp.
But maybe that’s a good thing.
Although hemp was once widely grown in the United States—at one point, the government required farmers to dedicate a portion of their land to growing the crop—the industry was kneecapped in 1937, when hemp was rolled into the Marijuana Tax Act. In 1970, hemp, a material that many of the country’s founders had personally grown, was outright banned.
(To clarify, hemp is not marijuana. While both are cannabis plants, hemp sold in the U.S. has no more than 0.3% THC, a psychoactive compound, while marijuana typically has 17-35%. Hemp doesn’t get you high.)
As a result of federal policy, the hemp industry never became a substantial part of U.S. agriculture, even as America became a top global exporter of staple crops in the mid-twentieth century. Instead, other materials—like plastic, concrete, and synthetic fibers—were often used in place of hemp.
When hemp was needed, it was imported from other countries, particularly China, which produces more than half the world’s hemp supply. The material that had once been grown in American backyards now had to be shipped across the globe, with a price tag of about $500 million annually.
At the end of 2018, when President Trump signed the Farm Bill (nicknamed ‘The Hemp Bill’) into law, there was widespread approval from Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists, farmers, industry professionals, and much of the consumer base—but there was a catch.
While the bill federally legalized the industrial production of hemp, its language was vague: For example, states were permitted to create their own regulations regarding production and testing, but those regulations had to be approved by the USDA. This—and the delay between the passage of the federal bill and the USDA’s updated rules, as well as the arbitrary 0.3% policy—led to confusion among farmers, retailers, and regulators. (Farmers must have their product tested for THC concentration before it can be sold. Currently, hemp that surpasses the 0.3% threshold must be disposed.)
Fast forward to 2021, and the future of the hemp industry is still uncertain. In terms of regulation, there’s been some stabilization. The USDA has issued new guidelines that clarify much of the language in the Farming Bill. Many state, local, and tribal governments have passed their own testing regulations in compliance with federal standards.
But growing an industry that was smothered by regulations for 80 years will take time. Building a new industry is complex—hemp is, essentially, a ‘new’ industry in the U.S.—and while it won’t take another 80 years, it will take years for farmers to learn best practices, for consumers to buy into the product, and for an ecosystem of producers, distributors, processors, marketers, and retailers to emerge.
During that time, public policies will shape the standards, practices, and makeup of the industry.
Who gets to participate, how profits and power are distributed, what communities benefit (and what communities don’t), how ecosystems are impacted, what the industry ultimately values—it all comes down to policy.
Why being unestablished can be an advantage
Compared to other agricultural markets, the U.S. hemp industry is young and unestablished. Its roots don’t run particularly deep.
Here’s why that’s a good thing: It’s much easier to shape a fledgling industry, where many of the norms have yet to be established and the key players are still emerging, than it is to reshape an entrenched, deep-rooted institution. The power dynamics in a young industry are more fluid, meaning that creating change is more feasible, and it can happen quicker. Many of the most fundamental policies surrounding production and distribution are still being debated, which means that groups that have historically been excluded from other industries can, at least in theory, have a hand in writing the rules of this one.
Currently, hemp also has the advantage of bipartisan support—two words that are rarely paired together these days. While the House was fairly divided on the 2018 Farm Bill (due to an issue related to labor rights), it passed the senate with 86 yeas and only 11 nays.
For progressives, legalizing industrial hemp production is a step toward sustainability in agriculture. Hemp is a highly efficient crop, capable of producing large yields for minimal resource investment; it can replace environmentally harmful materials; and it helps regenerate soil health when used in rotation.
As a growing industry, hemp is also an opportunity to bring more economic power to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), the people who have historically been hit hardest by U.S. land-management practices and the so-called War on Drugs, the same policies that shut down the U.S. hemp industry for decades.
Meanwhile, even the most conservative officials are cheering for hemp, as the industry presents an immense economic opportunity. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell was an enthusiastic proponent of the 2018 Farm Bill and an avid user of #HempFarmBill. (His home state of Kentucky is among the country’s best places to grow hemp.)
One way to look at the hemp industry is as a fresh start, a chance to avoid the missteps of other industries. Here is an opportunity to build a large, powerful industry that is more sustainable, more ethical, and more socially responsible.
But that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. And it certainly isn’t going to be easy.
Toward a more sustainable ag industry
To understand hemp’s potential for good, it helps to appreciate the scope of ecological destruction wrought by American agriculture.
For much of the twentieth century, industrial agriculture enabled the U.S. to amass vast sums of wealth and global power. The country had rich soil and vast expanses of “open” land—perfect for farming. (Of course, it was only “open” in the sense that it could be taken from its Native inhabitants.)
With advancements in mechanized farming, along with fertilizer and, later, genetically modified seeds, the U.S. produced more than enough crops to feed its rapidly growing livestock industry, as well as its human population. (Despite the abundance of food, many continued to suffer from hunger. Also, the intensive development of a small handful of staple crops led to malnourishment for millions.)
In fact, the U.S. produced such a massive crop surplus that it began distributing food to countries across the world, which had the dual benefits of amassing wealth while breeding dependency on U.S. crops—which could be used as political leverage—as well as equipment produced by American corporations. The crops that weren’t pushed on other countries sparked the beginning of a new industry: ultra-processed “junk” food, which could sit on a shelf indefinitely.
All of this came with a hefty price tag for people and ecosystems.
Let’s start with the environment. First, there was the destruction of native species. Vast expanses teeming with diverse plants and animals were cleared to make room for monocropping: the practice of growing a single crop on a plot. Monocropping allowed the U.S. to focus on quantity over quality, on fast cash over sustainability. By focusing on the intensive production of one or two staple crops, the industry could produce a massive surplus. The rise of large-scale farms and advancements in farming equipment, pesticides, herbicides, and genetic modification put the industry into hyperdrive.
Beyond destroying native species and disrupting ecosystems, these irresponsible (but profitable) farming practices had widespread effects on communities across America. The Dust Bowl, which involved a series of killer dust storms in western states that traveled as far as New York City, was the result of damage to prairies caused by irresponsible farming techniques. These dust storms caused lasting damage to ecosystems across America.
Then there’s the soil itself.
The problem with heavy monocropping is that it can sap the soil of nitrogen, which is necessary for plant growth, while also disrupting a delicate balance of microorganisms. Eventually, the well-funded scientists of the U.S. ag industry learned the art of crop rotation—a technique that, along with intercropping, had been used by tribes long before Europeans arrived. This restored some of the soil’s health.
Unfortunately, any good that came from the practice has been overshadowed by the dawn of pesticides and other harmful chemicals; the carbon pumped into the atmosphere by farm equipment and livestock; a growing global population that demands more food; and shifts in popular tastes toward meat and dairy, which lead to further energy waste and more methane, not to mention the suffering of millions of animals.
That’s all to say that the U.S. agriculture industry’s ecological record is… less than perfect.
But what about hemp?
As a crop, hemp has several advantages that are good for farmers, good for everyone else, and, yes, actually good for the environment.
Remember nitrogen content? One of the keys to soil health? Some crops deplete the soil of nitrogen; others restore it. Hemp restores, meaning it can either be grown on its own or rotated with other crops to keep the soil healthy.
Hemp production also requires fewer herbicides and pesticides than most crops. It needs less water—about half as much as corn. The size and shape of the plant keeps the soil shaded, which prevents the growth of weeds and reduces the need for herbicides. When harvested, hemp leaves behind plenty of biomass, returning nutrients to the soil.
A green bullet?
Given the eco-friendly features and economic potential of the plant, it’s easy to see why people who care about the environment get excited by hemp. It almost seems like a ‘green bullet’—a relatively easy, quick, uncomplicated solution to our environmental woes, with bipartisan support and the potential to make lots of money along the way.
But it’s not. There is no green bullet.
Corn, wheat and soybeans—three of the country’s top crops—aren’t inherently bad. Indigenous Peoples grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and many other crops, without laying waste to the environment.
The difference isn’t the crop itself. The difference is the industry that produces it, which is ultimately shaped by government policy.
When it came to corn, wheat and soybeans, the U.S. agriculture industry opted for maximum short-term profits over everything else. That meant environmentally and socially destructive practices: harmful pesticides, carbon-pumping machines and clear-cutting, as well as a zero-sum global trade system that was bad for everyone except a privileged few.
The tribes that originally grew these same crops took an entirely different approach. They respected the land; they grew crops in countless small farms, each using its own techniques fit for the unique local climate and soil character. They also grew multiple crops on the same land (intercropping) without harmful chemicals.
This sustainable farming may have been less ‘productive’ by today’s standards, but it also meant that the soil was healthier, the ecosystem was healthier, and the people—who could benefit from a diverse assortment of locally grown foods—were healthier, too.
History’s small tribes and giant industries demonstrate that there is more than one way to do agriculture. It’s up to us whose footsteps we follow.
Toward a more just society
U.S. agriculture has a dismal record with the environment. Its history with people is no better.
In 1830, as the U.S. sought to expand its farming practices into western territories, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This made it federal policy to force tribes off their land, pushing them into less-fertile territory and making way for so-called settlers—Euro-Americans whom the government approved to use the land.
In 1862, the Homestead Act accelerated settlement by granting U.S. adults large plots of land for a small fee. While the act was touted as an opportunity for all Americans, nearly every acre went to whites. (And, despite the high-minded rhetoric, most of the land didn’t go to small farmers. In the first 42 years of the program, small farmers acquired about 80 million acres, while about 420 million went to speculators and cattle ranchers, as well as lumber, mining and railroad companies.)
For decades, U.S. government policy forced Indigenous Peoples onto smaller and smaller regions of subpar land, making it increasingly difficult to farm. Even when reservation land was suitable for farming—which it often wasn’t—the government divided the land into small plots for nuclear families. This made it next to impossible for tribes to practice communal farming.
Meanwhile, the laws that long restricted hemp use in the U.S. were used to jail and oppress Black and Brown Americans. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1930 and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 were used to incriminate countless people of color and target Black and Brown communities.
The legacy of these policies continues today, as nearly 80% of federal prisoners charged with drug-related offenses are Black or Latino. In the courtrooms, prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense.
These laws have also been used as a cudgel against Latino immigrants. In 2012 and 2013, more than 13,000 people were deported for simple marijuana possession.
So how does hemp play into this?
Just as hemp isn’t a ‘green bullet’ for a healthier ecosystem, it isn’t a quick, easy solution for social justice.
Instead, it’s the industry’s newness—its lack of well-established rules, big players, and rigid systems—that makes it ripe for change.
The rules are still being written, and they can be written to include communities that have historically been excluded and harmed by industries and governments. Policies that provide free resources and reliable capital for BIPOC entrepreneurs across the hemp supply chain, while directing tax revenue into communities that were disproportionately impacted by federal land policies and the War on Drugs, can go a long way toward making a more just industry and society.
There are some reasons to be hopeful. On January 19th, 2021, the USDA published its final rules on domestic hemp production. (This was a follow-up to the 2018 Farm Bill and the 2019 interim rules that updated and clarified the policy.) In the updated rules, the agency clarified that tribes are permitted to exercise jurisdiction and regulatory authority over the production of hemp. It’s a small step, but a step nonetheless.
There are also reasons for concern. The current rules ban felons from participating in the hemp industry, meaning that thousands of Black, Latino and Indigenous Americans—the very people who have been most harmed by the same federal laws that banned cannabis—will be barred from participating in and profiting from the industry.
Despite the potential for change, disparities persist. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, less than one percent of those currently growing legal cannabis are people of color. Policy will determine whether that number changes.
It’s important to remember that hemp is not the hemp industry. Although hemp has many features that are potentially good for the environment—as well as the potential to create positive social change—it isn’t inevitable that the industry that produces hemp will be a force for good.
If we approach this industry how we approached other staple crops, the results will be familiar.
If we pursue maximum profits at the expense of all else, then ecosystems and human communities will pay the price. Agriculture’s migrant workers will still be forced to work in subpar conditions for barebone wages; chemical companies will bully their way in; profits will be funneled to the already-rich; economic disparity and racial injustice will carry on; and hemp will be just another product.
Or we could do things differently. We could enact policies that support sustainable and renewable agriculture techniques, small farms, BIPOC entrepreneurs, oppressed communities, and practices that are good for humans and the planet where we live.
Hemp is good. The hemp industry is whatever we make it.