Arts & Events

New: Hemp Unbound: The Crop that Could Save Us from Environmental Collapse

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday April 22, 2014 - 10:42:00 PM

"Hemp Bound," by Doug Fine (Chelsea Green, 2014)

What if there was a completely natural and affordable alternative to fossil fuels? A healthy and nutritious substitute for packaged foods? A replacement for energy-intensive steel and plastic parts? An alternative to chemical-based (and occasionally toxic) medications and pharmaceuticals? 

There is, says "comedic investigative journalist" Doug Fine, and that multifaceted industrial feedstock is a miracle product called . . . hemp. The tasty details are all rolled up in Fine's new book, Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution (Chelsea Green 2014). 

We've all heard the stories about hemp's history as crop that provided canvas for the sails of the USS Constitution. It was hemp that was pressed into the parchment Tom Jefferson used to inscribe the Declaration of Independence and was spun into the cloth Betsy Ross used to stitch the first US flag. Hemp's powerful fibers were so essential to the US Army that the Pentagon commissioned a black-and-white documentary celebrating "Hemp for Victory." 

Thanks to the stubborn, stoner persistence of the Sixties counter-culture, hemp today has grown into a crop that is once again providing Americans with a range of new-again products ranging from clothing to medicines to breakfast cereals. 

What Doug's fine book does is take the story of hemp to the next higher level, providing a look inside a burgeoning new industry that is generating a buzz for innovators, entrepreneurs and customers alike. 

Across the US, new business start-ups are discovering amazing new ways to reinvent the old manufacturing paradigms that have ravaged and polluted the planet. Hemp is re-emerging as a legal and leading American crop at the same time Colorado and other states are striking down laws against the medicinal (and recreational) use of cannabis. Fine sees the trend as an irreversible return to a human-plant relationship that dates back more that 8,000 years. Ten states now allow the commercial cultivation of industrial hemp. 

Fine calls cannabis prohibition "America's worst law since segregation." And just as popular pressure reformed and refuted America's race laws, the 77-year-old war against hemp/cannabis/marijuana is now coming to an end. And the post-war era promises to bring growing profits to heartland farmers (whose profits have been tied to genetically modified and federally subsidized corn and soy) and an expanding legion of domestic companies who, to date, have had to rely on costly shipments of imported hemp. 

Fine takes his readers on a gallivanting, trippy trek to the frontlines of a Brave Renewable World—"from Canada to Hawaii, Germany to Colorado"—to meet the "hempreneurs" whose new businesses will be creating the new products and new jobs for a sustainable future. (If the contamination and ravages of the Old Oil/Chemical/Nuclear Economy doesn't do us in first.) 

Meet the 'Hempreneurs' 

One of Fine's first stops is in Richmond, California where John Roulac presides over Nutiva, a $77 million-dollar hemp seed oil company that has been growing like gong-busters. "Our company has doubled in size each of the past two years, has been growing 41 percent per year since 2006," Roulac beams. 

Also on board is Dr. David West, a former Big Ag scientist who is now a leading hemp researcher/advocate; Ray Loflin, a Colorado farmer currently cultivating 60 acres of legal hemp; Simon Potter, a Canadian biologist who's working on "hemp insulation, hemp tractors and hemp energy"; Francis Clark, an Ontario inventor who has found a better way to harvest hemp fibers from the plant's tough outer husk; Colleen Dyck, a young woman who churns out hemp-infused GORP Clean Energy Bars in her basement; Barbara Filippone, whose $15 million company, EnviroTextiles, is positioned to topple the global cotton industry. "The federal government knows hemp is an alternative to cotton that's drought-resistant," Filippone says. "Cotton's done. China knows it too." 

One of Fine's revealing visits takes him to a lab in Winnipeg where Composites Innovation Center is creating hemp-based products for the $80 billion biocomposits market. CIC's lab nerds proudly show off auto parts (hoods, fenders and the like) made from hemp. Because vehicles made from biocomposits are 30 percent lighter, they will be more fuel-efficient. The manufacturing process produces less carbon and hemp-bodied roadsters fueled by tanks of hemp oil will produce 78 percent less carbon per mile driven. 

Unlimited POTential 

Long story short: Hempsteading is not only good for the economy, it's great for the ecology. On a planet threatened by climate change, polluted seas and depleted resources, Fine demonstrates, "hemp hands us a ninth-inning comeback opportunity" that can heal the soil, expand local food production, produce sustainable energy along with plant-based plastics and paper that will enable us to stop burning oil, polluting the planet and clear-cutting our forests. 

Hemp Bound is a breezy read, filled with snappy banter and visionary-on-the-point-of-happening head-trips galore. 

Fossil fuels, chemicals and nuclear energy have brought us to the brink of global environmental ruin but hemp—more than ever before—looks like the Plant that Could Save the Planet. 

Here's looking forward to the second edition of Hemp Bound—and hoping that it come to us published on renewable, tree-free plant paper.