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As Pricey Cotton Eats Up Food-Producing Acres, Hemp Looks Smarter Than Ever

4/1/2011 5:41:29 PM

Tags: cotton, cotton prices, cotton shortage, hemp, hemp cultivation, , Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailCotton stocks are at their lowest level since 1925, and prices have surged—up 170 percent since last year and 40 percent since the beginning of this year. Demand for textiles, particularly from China, and poor cotton crops in Pakistan and Australia mean that prices aren’t going down any time soon, Tony D’Altorio predicts in Investment U Research. “There’s very little cotton out there,” states U.S. Department of Agriculture chief economist Joe Glauber.

Farmers in the southern United States are responding to the squeeze by planting cotton where they once grew corn, soybeans or wheat, William Neuman reports in The New York Times. The USDA predicts Southern farmers will plant 12.8 million acres of upland cotton, a 19 percent increase from last year. The National Cotton Council expects substantial increases in all cotton-producing states, including large jumps in North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, according to the Times. While this will likely help bring down prices, this loss of food-producing acres is cause for concern, says Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton and Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. "Those people in poor countries that have a hard time affording food, they’re going to be even less able to afford it now," he told Neuman. Already, Bloomberg reports, corn prices have risen 79 percent since July 1 and soybean prices have climbed 50 percent, driving global food costs to a record. An extra 44 million people were driven into “extreme” poverty since June, according to the World Bank. 

What can we do? The simple alternative—made maddeningly complicated because of outdated laws—is hemp. With its long, strong fibers, hemp has been used to make paper, clothing, textiles, rope, sails, fuel—and food—since ancient times. Hemp fabric is seven times stronger than cotton, breathable and absorbent, naturally resistant to UV light and anti-microbial, making it an ideal textile for home decor. (The versatile fiber is even being used to make a concrete alternative.) Hemp is considerably less water- and chemical-intensive to grow than cotton.

In 2008 the Hemp Industries Association estimated that industrial hemp sales in the United States reached $360 million. Yet in most of the United States, federal laws prohibit farmers from growing hemp.

A relative of the marijuana plant (that won’t get you high, no matter how much you smoke), hemp suffers from its association with its mind-altering cousin. Since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 banned hemp production in the United States, all industrial hemp sold here has been imported from Canada, China and Europe, where it can be legally grown. Oregon, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Vermont have passed laws making hemp cultivation legal, and Michigan farmers are lobbying for the same, but growers face major difficulties in getting the federal government to grant the licenses needed to grow it. Farmers must obtain a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency before they can grow hemp without fear of prosecution, and those aren’t forthcoming. The DEA treats hemp as marijuana.

I like to think that the silver lining in skyrocketing cotton prices could be a renewed interest in hemp, a crop that could pump millions of dollars into the U.S. economy. A world threatened by a major food security crisis should just say yes to hemp. Check out the Facebook group I Want to Grow Hemp Like George Washington to learn more.

hemp harvest 

A Kentucky farmer harvests hemp in 1943.

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4/30/2011 9:58:49 AM
Farmers need a cash crop, people need work, why not start manufacturing some useful hemp products in the US? While most textiles are produced overseas, we could certainly be producing here too. After all, textiles are far from the only use for hemp. GO HEMP! I'm cautiously optimistic that hemp may have a future in the's hoping!

4/28/2011 8:10:43 PM
Seems like they should also make medicinal hemp and recreational hemp as cash crops with high taxes and mandate that all taxes from the sale of hemp go towards paying down the US debt. ronie

Jack Veggie
4/27/2011 8:11:07 PM
WE farm in the middle of cotton country and it is some kind of nasty neighbor. Airstrikes at dawn everytime they find a boll weevil. Airstikes against weeds. Anything would be an improvement.

4/27/2011 3:14:36 PM
Why not just cultivate it in Asia since it would then be closer to the factories that produce textiles anyway? It seems wasteful to grow in the U.S., use resources to ship it to Asia for production of products, then ship the products back. It's unfortunate that we don't produce these products in the U.S. anymore.

4/7/2011 12:09:02 AM
Couldn't some farmland currently under the program to pay farmers NOT to farm be converted? I think what would also happen is that some of that timberland would be converted by paper companies. No it won't be perfect, but the idea is that people would have the option to grow hemp for any of the thousands of uses. Its uses actually mean that if it replaces some corn, cotton, soybeans or wheat, that we also potentially won't cut into our food supply. We will diversify it.

Robyn Griggs Lawrence
4/4/2011 6:08:02 PM
Thanks for these comments. I agree with you--turning cotton fields into hemp fields won't solve our food issues, and turning strawberry patches into hemp fields would be a disaster. But one of hemp's beauties, for me, is that it is also an edible plant with myriad uses. Primarily, I just wish we had the option to cultivate hemp rather than soaking more fields with poisons to grow water-intensive cotton. (The food-producing part of this argument was probably overstated, and if I could rewrite it, well, I would...)

4/3/2011 7:41:03 AM
An unspoken assumption in this article has bugged me for a couple of days. There's an assumption that a shift toward hemp would magically transfer acres grown in cotton to cereals and produce. Agriculture doesn't work that way, and I humbly submit the Georgia experience with kenaf. What's kenaf, you ask? It's a woody plant grown for the fibers in its stem. No native pest in Georgia; critters won't mess with it; low maintenance; good crops if you can find a place to buy it. I saw acres and acres of kenaf just a few short years ago, all in fields that once grew corn, peanuts, and watermelon. There lies the rub: Adopting a new crop only shifts acreage production to the new plant. It doesn't free up acreage. If we awoke to find hemp fiber the new textile of choice, all you would find is cotton fields planted in hemp. There would be no acreage freed up for food production. And if it could be grown on marginal land, guess what: In the last generation marginal land has shifted to timber. That's right: The only way to grow a new crop without taking acreage out of food production is to clear more land. I know it's not quite as rosy as some might think, but that's the hard reality. Whatever the merits of hemp, freeing land for food production isn't one of them.

4/2/2011 8:05:29 AM
Thank you for encouraging this versatile plant! Hemp is a sustainable, annual crop that is ready for harvest just 120 days after going to seed. Hempseed oil burns hot in the germinating seed. Hemp is the longest and strongest plant fiber. Hemp hurds and fiber have over 50% cellulose, the building blocks of plastics Hemp only uses 1/20th the amount of water to grow and process as regular cotton. Broom rape, a root parasite, is the most serious pest in hemp. The roots of the hemp plant can grow to twelve inches long in only a month to three feet or longer. It yields 4x pulp per ac as trees. Every part of the hemp plant can be used by humans from the root to the stalk, the leaf, the flower, the seeds the pollen and even the resin. Products range from rope to fine laces to dynamite to Cellophane to nontoxic, biodegradable inks, paints, detergents, and varnishes! Paper lasts as long as 1500 years,is acid free,can be recycled many more times than tree,no bleach needed,no dioxins created. Hemp seed oil's EFA complement includes polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3, omega-6, omega-9, linoleic acid, and gamma linoleic acids (GLA's). Hemp seed provides over 30% protein in its most easily digestible forms.

4/1/2011 7:57:56 PM
This raised a eyebrow. Locally I haven't observed more than standard waxing and waining of types of crops, yet my observations are limited and certainly don't cover the entire US. A quick check turned up a USDA chart tracking cotton acreage since 1990 at while another check turned up a 2009 New York Times article lamenting the decline of US cotton production at . While it's true that cotton acreage will be up compared to 2010, it still won't reach the level set in 1995. I suspect converting corn to ethanol has a larger impact on the food supply, but it is merely a suspicion and not something I've confirmed.

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