Hemp is arguably one of the most useful plants humanity has ever cultivated, with some claiming more than 25,000 applications for the crop.
That number and higher has been bandied about the place over the years and we’re yet to see a definitive list of all these uses – but something not in doubt is its incredible versatility.
What Is Hemp?
Hemp refers to Cannabis sativa varieties with very low levels of the cannabinoid, THC. It’s this low THC level that legally distinguishes the plant from marijuana. However, hemp can be high in non-psychotropic and very useful cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD), but more on that in a bit.
Here are just some of the many uses for hemp in broad categories.
We’re somewhat biased, so we’ll put food at the top of the list. The part of the hemp plant that is prized as a superfood is the seed (technically a nut). It’s what is used to make the Byron Bay Labs range of hemp protein powder and other products.
The seed wears the superfood crown well given it is so rich in protein and omega 3-6-9, among other important nutrients. And unlike some superfoods that have a taste leaving a lot to be desired, hemp seed is delicious – but as we said, we’re biased!
Hemp seed is also used to create a highly nutritious oil containing greater levels of essential fatty acids than olive oil.
Hemp is being increasingly pursued for its medicinal potential; particularly for extraction of cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabidiol has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and there is growing evidence it can be useful in managing anxiety and other conditions.
There is very little CBD in the seed, stem and leaves – but CBD can be present in very high quantities in the flowering head before the seed is set. Specific varieties of hemp have been developed and continue to be refined to maximise their CBD yield.
In Australia, hemp is regulated under specific strict laws in each state and territory, but once it is cultivated for medicinal purposes such as for the extraction of CBD, it is then subject to medicinal cannabis regulations that are even tougher.
Hemp fibre has been in use for thousands of years, appearing in everything from cushion stuffing, to ropes and fine textiles. Among its attributes, hemp fibre is among the strongest natural fibres, it has anti-bacterial properties, excellent breathability and is resistant to mold and mildew.
Hemp can be used as feedstock for producing fuels including biodiesel, ethanol, methanol, solid fuel and biogas. One of the advantages of using the crop for biofuels is the amount of biomass that can be produced each year given how fast it grows.
Cosmetics And Personal Care
Hemp seed oil is becoming more commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products, as is cannabidiol due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Hemp seed oil is very high in essential fatty acids (EFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These attributes aren’t just beneficial for dietary purposes, but also in topical applications.
Hemp shiv, or hurd, is the woody core of the plant. Among its applications in building, it is being used to make a high quality chipboard. Usually mixed with other materials such as flax, hemp chipboard is lighter, stronger and more moisture resistant than conventional chipboards.
Another important application in building is hempcrete. Again using hemp hurd, this is mixed with a lime-based binder to create an environmentally friendly, lightweight but robust product that can be used in the construction of houses. Among its many advantages, hempcrete is a very good insulator, it breathes and has low flammability.
Stock Feed And Bedding
Hemp cake or seed meal is what’s left over after cold pressing the seeds to extract their oil; but this residue is still highly nutritious and suitable as a stock feed – although some countries still don’t allow it.
Hemp hurd also makes for a cheap and super-absorbent animal bedding material that can then be used as a fertiliser.
Hemp is an efficient phytoremediator, cleaning up contaminated soils through the plant drawing up contaminants such as heavy metals into its stems and leaves.
Of course, hemp used for this purpose can’t then be used for food or medicinal applications.
Hemp can also grow in compacted soils, helping to repair and aerate them, and crop residue can add back in important nutrients.
Yes, even plastic. Hemp contains high levels of cellulose, which can be used to make plastics such as cellophane. A hectare of land under hemp cultivation can provide around 5 tons of cellulose a year.
Just within the categories above, there would be thousands of separate uses. Whether it’s 25,000 or more is anyone’s guess, but what’s very clear is that hemp is incredibly useful – and we are still far from discovering all possible applications for the crop.
Among the many positive attributes of hemp generally as mentioned is it grows very quickly with comparatively minimal inputs compared to other crops.
It makes you wonder why it was ever banned; but thankfully this is a situation being rectified across the world and the crop is now appearing in more fields, including here in Australia.