An Alternative to Cotton
Hemp is a fibre crop expanding rapidly in North America and elsewhere. Legislative changes are making it easier for farmers to produce hemp, an excellent option for crop rotation. It has lower water requirements than other fibre crops, and is highly regenerative for soils. Recently, Earth Alive Clean Technologies Inc, a leading Canadian Clean-Tech company, developer and manufacturer of state-of-the-art microbial technology-based products for sustainable agriculture and mining, announced its Clean Fibre Initiative, a collaborative research project to improve the production of natural fibre crops in Canada and around the world. CEO Michael Warren talks with Subir Ghosh about the latest in hemp production and sustainable agriculture.
The Clean Fibre Initiative was created by Earth Alive Clean Technologies to support fibre crop growers in North America, Africa, and Latin America. What was the reason for focusing on these three regions, and leaving out Asia?
Earth Alive currently has operations in North America, Africa and Latin America and our established business network in these regions facilitated the development of the Clean Fibre Initiative. Our company intends to expand into the Asian market, bringing the Clean Fibre Initiative to the region as well, particularly given that China is one of the largest hemp producers in the world. In fact, the registration process is already under way in several Asian countries.
The fibre that you are pitching as an alternative to cotton is hemp. But then hemp is nothing new; it's been talked about and written about as an alternative for years now. So, why hemp?
It is true that hemp has gained in popularity in recent years. Canada legalised the production of industrial hemp in the 1990s, although the regulatory requirements necessary for growers to obtain a license to grow hemp acted as a deterrent to its widespread adoption. Forthcoming regulatory changes in North America are said to include an easing of obstacles that previously hindered the cultivation of this crop. Consequently, we anticipate a significant increase in hemp cultivation in North America in the near future. Similar trends have also been observed in other parts of the world.
The growing climate change movement and an increased awareness with regard to the serious negative impacts of modern industrial agriculture practices on the environment, along with the need for sustainable alternatives, have heightened international interest in hemp. Notably, research suggests that the cultivation of hemp necessitates less water and pesticides than cotton, thereby reducing the environmental impact compared to other crops. Earth Alive's key objective with our Clean Fibre Initiative is to identify ways to reduce the environmental impact of cotton crops, currently the most widely grown natural fibre in the world. With hemp's numerous properties and uses, we believe that it is a viable alternative for the fibre crop industry.
But, hemp has long been seen as a possible sustainable alternative to cotton. Why is it that hemp has not replaced cotton, even to a marginal extent? What held back hemp?
As mentioned previously, the fact that hemp is part of the cannabis family has been a major barrier to its wide-scale adoption. Both hemp and marijuana plants are varieties of the cannabis sativa species. This makes it difficult for policymakers to establish clear cultivation legislation, despite the fact that hemp contains only a negligible amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance found in marijuana. Hemp has been misunderstood and miscategorised for most of the 20th century. Hemp cultivation had been prohibited the United States and Canada since the 1930s, although there is evidence of hemp production on the continent in as early as the 18th century. Additional research on the crop's various properties began changing the global perception of hemp in the 1990s, and Canada eventually legalised production in 1998, marking the beginning of hemp cultivation across the country. Historically, cotton has been the principal crop for the fibre industry, particularly in North America, and accordingly has benefitted from factors such as governmental subsidies, high volume demand and deregulation. As a result, cotton continues to benefit from a significant competitive advantage over hemp. Nonetheless, we maintain that hemp is a serious alternative to cotton. Hemp is currently considered a niche crop in rapid expansion; it is produced in over 30 countries around the globe and its environmental benefits make it a valuable crop for a bio-based economy.
Your press release announcing the initiative had asserted that hemp is experiencing rapid expansion in North America and around the world. Can you give us comparative figures in terms of how much this growth has taken place over say the last five years or the last decade?
Both in terms of area under cultivation as well as fibre production. There are no international or government reports available on the overall hemp market. Data collected by the Hemp Business Journal and the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) indicate that US hemp production increased at a 22 per cent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) since 2011, and is expected to exceed $2 billion by 2020. In 2016, the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) reported that land use for hemp cultivation increased by 32 per cent annually since 2011, from 8,000 hectares of allotted land to over 33,000 hectares in 2016. EIHA expects the market to continue to grow at a similar rate over the next several years.
Which are the regions/countries where legislative changes are making it easier for farmers to cultivate hemp?More importantly, what are these changes?
Legal frameworks have been revised to allow for research and the commercialisation of hemp in more than 30 jurisdictions, with North America and Europe being at the forefront of the change, followed by several countries in Asia and Latin America. In some jurisdictions, the most important legislative changes relate to hemp being given an exception from the different controlled drugs and substances acts, thus preventing criminal charges from applying for cultivating the crop. As an example, EU regulations 1308/70, 619/71 and 11164/89 established the basis for a subsidy system enabling farmers to obtain economic aid to cultivate hemp. Likewise, the US issued the Agricultural Act of 2014, which includes section 7606 allowing for universities and state departments of agriculture to begin cultivating industrial hemp. Currently in the US, 39 states have passed new bills regarding hemp ranging from clarifying existing laws to establishing new licensing requirement programmes that can include, but are not limited to, criminal background checks (GPS), the coordinates of the cultivation locations, record keeping and the reporting of sales, etc.
Moreover, countries such as Canada, France, Switzerland, Australia and Ukraine, among others, have established efficient commercial licencing systems to cultivate hemp for industrial use. In Canada, the Industrial Hemp Regulation (IHR) came into effect in 1998, which permits farmers and the industrial community to grow and sell hemp in a controlled manner. Over the years, the licencing system has become exceedingly popular and easily accessible. The system allows for cultivation, importation and exportation, and retail sale based on a yearly licence with feasible requirement compliance. It has also been proven highly effective in separating hemp from illegal drug production. In China, due to the economic magnitude of the hemp business, which is produced in more than 20 provinces, governments at provincial levels have started regulating the market. The province of Yunnan leads the process by establishing a legal infrastructure to define and regulate hemp production through the Regulatory Programme Act of 2010.
Hemp is also good for crop rotation practices. Could you elaborate? What crops can usually be rotated with hemp? This would of course vary from one region to another, isn't it? Does this also depend on seasons?
Crop rotation is very important for farmers to ensure that the soil remains healthy and productive. Rotating crops can break the cycles of weeds, diseases and insect pests, it can help mobilise nutrients in the soil and build organic matter. Hemp is uniquely beneficial to farmers who include it in their rotations; its vigorous growth smothers weeds and its deep roots can "scavenge" for nutrients that have leached to depths, impossible for many other crops. Nutrients that hemp pulls up from the deeper layers of soil are subsequently released closer to the surface and remain in the soil as the leftover plant material decomposes after harvest. Earth Alive's microbial biofertilisers colonise the root zone and follow the roots deep into the soil, bringing heightened biological activity into those deeper layers and thereby ensuring that the hemp roots are scavenging as efficiently as possible.
How does hemp compare with cotton in terms of water requirements? And also with other similar crops?
Because mainstream farmers are only now adopting hemp, agronomic knowledge for production is still in its infancy. We know, however, that hemp has been accepted as a popular dryland fibre crop, which means it grows well without irrigation. Researchers calculated hemp's "water footprint" (the amount of water required to produce a kilogram of dry fibre) as approximately 2,700 litres per kilogram of fibre. Some research demonstrates that hemp benefits from irrigation, which means that the crop will gain from improved soil moisture when grown in dryer climates. Cotton, on the other hand, is a water-intensive crop. Its "water footprint" has been calculated at approximately 9,000 litres per kilogram of fibre-triple that of hemp. Over half of the global area of cotton is irrigated, accounting for over two-thirds of the world's total cotton production. Unfortunately, the need for irrigation is highest in exactly those regions where rainfall is limited and water is scarce.
Hemp is also being projected as a fibre crop that is highly regenerative for farm soils. Could you elaborate? How have you been tracking this (in terms of crop performance)? What are the technologies that you are offering? How expensive is it?
As I mentioned previously, hemp's extensive root system brings carbon and organic matter back into the soil-something that can be very important for heavily farmed or degraded soils. Incorporating biological tools can also boost soil health, no matter what crop is being grown. For example, banana growers in the Dominican Republic were told that their plantation was finished and needed to be replanted. However, the application of Earth Alive's Soil Activator (a biofertiliser) enabled them to continue harvesting bananas from their aging plants. Earth Alive wants to help bring those same soil benefits to fibre crops like cotton, hemp, and others.
And what about hemp seed and oil production? How much area of land needs to be under cultivation, so that the yields of the fibre, seed and oil are viable? Does this make sense for farmers with small land holdings?Or, does hemp make sense only for big farmers?
Hemp is also a useful crop for small landholders. While the highest quality fibre is produced from hemp grown specifically for that end, it is possible to harvest industrial hemp fibre from a crop that also produces marketable seed, allowing farmers to generate multiple revenue streams from a single crop. It may even become possible for farmers to generate three income streams from one crop as evolving regulatory frameworks make the extraction of cannabidiol (CBD) oil from the crop biomass legal as well. The profitability of this crop will ultimately be determined by local infrastructure for transporting and/or processing the fibre, seed, and other value-added crop outputs. In the Canadian hemp fibre market, high transportation costs make it necessary for processors to be located within close proximity to supply. In some cases, there is an insufficient number of growers in a particular region to justify the operation of a hemp fibre processor, thereby limiting growers to market only the grain from their crops.
How does the initiative work? How do you work with farmers/ producers? How does the fibre move on to the fabric stage and so on? More importantly, how are you promoting hemp to textile companies/brands/retailers?Are you in touch with governments too?
The research initiative functions on a volunteer basis, we invite farmers to contact us in order to participate in the trials. We provide participants with the products for the research, along with all of the technical support necessary for the application. We also ensure adequate control of the trials and proper data collection throughout the growing season. Currently, several growers from different parts of the world have signed up to participate in this initiative. We believe that it is important to involve the growers in the trials; they know their crops best and will be able to observe the results. We teach participants about our Soil First Platform, the importance of biology in the soil and the meaningful benefits of using biofertilisers over pesticides on their land. With regard to the promotion of hemp, our focus is on the soil; we want producers to see firsthand the benefits of healthy, highly biological activity in the soil. As such, farmers are able to reap the economic benefits of achieving increased yields in a sustainable fashion, as well as being better able to manage and tend for their soil.
One reason why synthetic fibres edged out cotton was the price factor. The future of hemp too would be considerably linked to the price factor. So, how does hemp compare with cotton and synthetics? For instance, how much would a hemp t-shirt cost comparatively?
It is important to first state that the end price of any garment (product) has little to do with the cost of its raw materials. As such, even though hemp may be more expensive to produce than cotton at the present time, it should not be considered the main determinant of end product price. Additionally, hemp production costs should decrease with increasing demand and supply. The same phenomenon occurred when organic cotton farming was launched in the 1990s; the lack of organic cotton farmers and organic-certified processing facilities made it much costlier to produce organic cotton compared to crops grown under modern cultivation practices. Since then, increasing demand has sparked a rise in organic cotton farming and infrastructure, and the increase in overall supply has resulted in a decrease in the price of organic cotton. We believe, however, that there is a plethora of hidden transaction costs that come with conventional fibre crop cultivation, such as water consumption, soil degradation, high-volume chemical use, water toxification, environmental destruction, health risks, etc. As such, we are more concerned with the preservation of soil, which is deteriorating at alarming rates. Accordingly, our objective is to create a better agricultural environment for farmers and a cleaner ecosystem for generations to come.