Hemp is a great source for for textiles, food and some medical applications, but the United States does not capitalize on it because it is a cousin to marijuana. Hemp production is not expensive relative to other agricultural products and could be very helpful economically to the United States.
Chinese hemp production is doing very well and they are one of the largest cultivators in the world. What is keeping the United States from growing and taking advantage of hemp, especially considering that it has no euphoric compounds like marijuana has?
Every year in April, Jiang Xingquan sets aside part of his farm in northern China to grow cannabis. The size of the plot varies with market demand but over the last few years it has been about 600 hectares.
Like every other hemp farmer in Hexin in Heilongjiang province near the Russian border, Jiang is growing the plant legally.
The growers sell the stems of the crop to textile factories to make high-quality fabric, the leaves to pharmaceutical companies for drugs, and the seeds to food companies to make snacks, kitchen oil and drinks.
For the farmers, the crop is green gold – hemp brings in more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) per hectare, compared to just a few thousand yuan for more common crops like corn. It also has few natural enemies so there’s little need for expensive pesticides.
“That’s pure profit,” Jiang said.
Jiang’s farm is in China’s frosty north and is one of the country’s major centres for the legal crop. Authorities in the province turned a blind eye to its production before legalising and regulating it last year. Another major growing area is in Yunnan province where the plant’s production has been regulated since 2003.
Together, these areas account for about half of the world’s legal commercial cropland under hemp cannabis cultivation, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Thanks to government support and a long tradition, China has quietly become a superpower in the plant’s production and research.
There are no official figures for the amount of the plant China produces each year but plantations are flourishing – both for commercial and illicit drug use.
This growth has in part been made possible by government-funded scientists who study the plant’s military uses, including as medication and fabric for uniforms.
Over the decades, researchers developed various hybrid species that not just survived but thrived in China’s disparate environments, from the Arctic conditions in Heilongjiang, to Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to the subtropics of Yunnan.
In 2014, the Ministry of Public Security said it found a large number of unregistered hemp and marijuana plantations across the nation, particularly in Jilin and Inner Mongolia.
Hemp cannabis is one variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, which also includes types better known as marijuana. The difference between the two is the amount of the psychoactive component THC, with hemp varieties containing just trace amounts of it.
Both the hemp and marijuana strains of the plant also contain cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound that has been used to treat a wide range of conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
Cannabis sativa has been cultivated in China for centuries, mainly for the plant’s strong fibres which can be turned into rope, fabric and paper. Hemp fabric dating back more than 3,400 years has been found in Shang Dynasty tombs in Hebei, and the fibre is believed to have been the basis of the earliest forms of paper made in the country.