Week of 12/10/2006

Dear EarthTalk: A number of products, including paper and clothing—even food and beer—are made from hemp. What is it about hemp that makes it so versatile—and why is it illegal to grow in the United States? Is it also illegal in Canada?

—Doug Jones, via e-mail

What did the first Gutenberg bible, Christopher Columbus" ropes and sails, the Declaration of Independence and the first American flag have in common? All were made from hemp. Indeed, many of America’s forefathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, earned a living at one point in their lives growing and selling hemp, which was used to make everything from paper to rope to sails to clothing. During World War II the crop was of such strategic importance for making clothing that the U.S. government provided farmers with subsidies to convert other types of fields over to hemp cultivation.

Hemp is a renewable and easy-to-grow crop that is tough enough to substitute for paper or wood and malleable enough to be made into clothing and even a biodegradable form of plastic. Meanwhile, hemp oil is all the rage among natural foods gourmands, who enjoy its nutty flavor and its healthy amounts of protein and omega fatty acids. Hemp is also a popular ingredient in many new hand and body lotions.

Environmentalists and farmers alike appreciate hemp as an alternative to cotton for clothes and trees for paper. Unlike cotton, hemp does not require large doses of pesticides and herbicides as it is naturally resistant to pests and grows fast, crowding out weeds. To make paper, trees must grow for many years, while a field of hemp can be harvested in a few months and make four times the paper over a few decades. Also, the making paper from hemp uses only a fraction of the chemicals required to turn trees into paper.

In spite of hemp’s versatility, in 1970 the U.S. Congress designated hemp, along with its relative marijuana, as a "Schedule 1" drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow without a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Although industrial hemp does not contain enough psychoactive ingredients to make a smoker "high," farmers who grow it can risk jail time. Today, the U.S. is the only developed country that has not established hemp as an agricultural crop, according to the Congressional Research Service. Britain lifted a similar ban in 1993, and Germany and Canada followed suit soon after. The European Union has subsidized hemp production since the 1990s.

With their American competition out of the running, Canadian farmers have been reaping hemp’s financial rewards, especially following a ruling by a U.S. federal court that hemp-made products could be imported into the U.S. In 2005, the Canadian hemp industry tripled the amount of acreage dedicated to the crop to meet rising demand, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.

American farmers are intensifying their lobbying efforts to lift the U.S. ban. State legislatures in Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia have all passed laws that would make hemp legal if the U.S. government were to allow it. But a hemp farming bill introduced into Congress this past year by Texas Republican Ron Paul stalled out due to opposition from the DEA and the White House. For its part, the DEA maintains that allowing American farmers to grow hemp would undermine the "war on drugs," as marijuana growers could camouflage their illicit operations with similar-looking hemp plants.

CONTACTS: Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance; Vote Hemp.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that rainforests contain perhaps thousands of plants and herbs with medicinal properties?

—E. Wolfson, Brooklyn, NY

Tropical rainforests, which account for only seven percent of the world’s total land mass, harbor as much as half of all known varieties of plants. Experts say that just a four-square mile area of rainforest may contain as many as 1,500 different types of flowering plants and 750 species of trees, all which have evolved specialized survival mechanisms over the millennia that mankind is just starting to learn how to appropriate for its own purposes.

Scattered pockets of native peoples around the world have known about the healing properties of rainforest plants for centuries and perhaps longer. But only since World War II has the modern world begun to take notice, and scores of drug companies today work in tandem with conservationists, native groups and various governments to find, catalog and synthesize rainforest plants for their medicinal value.

Some 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants. And according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, more than two-thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants. Examples abound. Ingredients obtained and synthesized from a now-extinct periwinkle plant found only in Madagascar (until de-forestation wiped it out) have increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 to 80 percent.

Some of the compounds in rainforest plants are also used to treat malaria, heart disease, bronchitis, hypertension, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, arthritis, glaucoma, dysentery and tuberculosis, among other health problems. And many commercially available anesthetics, enzymes, hormones, laxatives, cough mixtures, antibiotics and antiseptics are also derived from rainforest plants and herbs.

Despite these success stories, less than one percent of the plants in the world’s tropical rainforests have as yet even been tested for their medicinal properties. Environmentalists and health care advocates alike are keen to protect the world’s remaining rainforests as storehouses for the medicines of the future.

But saving tropical rainforests is no easy task, as poverty-stricken native people try to eke out a living off the lands and many governments throughout the world’s equatorial regions, out of economic desperation as well as greed, allow destructive cattle ranching, farming and logging. As rainforest turns to farm, ranch and clear-cut, some 137 rainforest-dwelling species—plants and animals alike—go extinct every single day, according to noted Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Conservationists worry that as rainforest species disappear, so will many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.

Readers can do their part to help save rainforests around the world by following and supporting the work of such organizations as Rainforest Alliance, Rainforest Action Network, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, and by clicking special links on websites like The Rainforest Site, Red Jellyfish and Care2, which contribute funds to organizations working on the ground to preserve rainforest land.

CONTACTS: Rainforest Action Network; Raintree Nutrition; Rainforest Alliance; The Rainforest Site; RedJellyFish; Care2’s Race for the Rainforest.