On a summer backpacking trip through the Amazon 20 years ago, Michael Demone witnessed the destruction of deforestation first-hand. Determined to do something and brimming with youthful optimism, he returned home and opened one of Canada’s first hemp shops.
“It wasn’t a headshop. There were no bongs,” he says. “It was beautiful fabrics, and bicycle chain lubricant, and tree-free papers.”
Back then, hemp was a boutique industry. Demone had trouble sourcing products, and with the shelves near empty, the store eventually closed.
Two decades later, a lot has changed: cannabis is legal, hemp farming has been decriminalized in the United States, and entrepreneurs are clamouring for a grubstake in the “green gold rush” of the Cannabidiol (CBD) market.
But these developments are forerunners to what promises to be the most important advance involving the cannabis sativa plant: hemp for fibre.
Hemp to replace cotton
Hemp fibre can, in large part, replace cotton, with big environmental benefits.
Versus US cotton, the ecological footprint of hemp is one-third to a half smaller, depending on how the hemp is cultivated and processed, according to a 2010 analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute. Even organic cotton has a higher ecological footprint, per ton of fibre, than conventionally cultivated hemp.
“Currently, cotton is king,” says Andrew Riseman, an associate professor at the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems. “But cotton takes an enormous amount of water, pesticides, and energy to produce and then to refine, and it doesn’t have the durability or the advantageous characteristics that hemp would have.”
Hemp fibre can also be used to make low-carbon building materials and bio-composites, and can substitute for wood fibre in pulp and paper production.
In Canada we can grow some of the best, longest fibre, specifically in northern Alberta, with long daylight hours
Hemp, or more properly industrial hemp, is easy to confuse with cannabis, because on paper it’s the same plant. In practice, hemp and cannabis look and are grown differently. And hemp won’t get you high – it has only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Hemp is bred to produce high fibre yield, high seed yield, or a dual-purpose compromise between the traits.
Until recently, nearly all hemp grown in Canada was grown for food. To farm hemp for fibre, a hurdle remained.
It was “classic chicken and egg,” says Jan Slaski, a long time hemp researcher with InnoTech Alberta, an arm of the Alberta Innovates provincial research institute. Farmers were reluctant to grow hemp without a steady market for fibre, and markets and processing infrastructure couldn’t develop without hemp product.
It’s only in the last few years that the hemp industry has weakened this market catch-22, Slaski says, and now, “It’s a different ballgame.”
A hundred kilometres east of Edmonton, Slaski and his team run a hemp research and processing facility in Vegreville, Alberta, to develop applications for hemp “from seed to final product.” Strong demand now has the facility working extended hours processing hemp for fibre.
Not far from Vegreville, in Bruderheim, Alberta, Canadian Rockies Hemp Corporation is building a similar “decortication” facility to process hemp fibre grown by contracted farmers in the area. The facility will remove the lignin and pectin from the fibre to produce the short, consistent fibres sought for textiles, bio-composites and paper.
With these high value fibres, “cotton can be replaced, a lot of synthetic products can be replaced, tree products can be replaced.” says Aaron Barr, Canadian Rockies Hemp’s CEO. “There’s a lot of different market opportunities, but the key is advancing the technology.”
Countries such as China, Ukraine, Poland, and the Netherlands have a long head start on Canada in the hemp trade, says Barr, but he’s not worried – longer summer daylight at northern latitudes can add four feet of extra growth to hemp plants by summers’ end.
“In Canada we can grow some of the best, longest fibre, specifically in northern Alberta, with long daylight hours. It gives us literally one of the best geographical advantages in the world. CBD, THC, those type of flowering plants will do better in the south. We are fit for fibre.”
As the technology and processing muscle advances, entrepreneurs are taking formerly-cottage-industry hemp applications to commercial scale.
Biocomposites & building materials
Take hempcrete, a mixture of hemp biomass and lime used as a building material since ancient times. In modern construction, hempcrete can substitute for concrete in many applications.
Just Biofiber of Airdrie, Alberta, manufactures a construction system of hempcrete blocks that are load bearing, insulating, fire resistant, fast to build with, and that, Just Biofiber says, embody more carbon than is released in their manufacture.
“Instead of cutting down trees we can grow a crop in our fields in 90 days, and build houses that are better quality homes with it,” says Barr. “Healthier homes that last longer. There are unbelievable advantages to it.”
InnoTech’s Vegreville facility supplies fibre to BioComposites Group in Drayton Valley, Alberta. The company produces a diverse array of hemp products, from fibre mats for erosion control and horticultural use to hemp-based bio-composite sheets that can be moulded to form complex shapes such as interior car parts.
Many moulded products now made from oil or natural gas feedstocks such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and glass-reinforced thermoplastics, are candidates for replacement, says BioComposites Group.
The hemp composites are lighter than the products they replace and fully biodegradable when used with organic resins.
Slaski’s first research into hemp was as a fibre source for an Alberta pulp mill. The mill had run out of forest, Lorax style, within a reasonable hauling distance. The research was scrapped, says Slaski, after a new CEO decided the company “was not comfortable dealing with non-woody crops.”
The missed opportunity left Slaski with tantalizing statistics.
“It is safe to assume that hemp can produce about four to five times more fibre per hectare than forest,” Slaski says. “On average, boreal forest produces one-to-two tons per hectare of biomass per year, while fibre-type varieties of hemp produce eight-to-ten tons per hectare.”
That’s with one crop. In warmer climates, two crops a year can be grown.
Apparently, a Maryland, USA company is comfortable with non-woody crops. Fibonacci LLC is investing US$5.8 million in a factory in Kentucky to produce a wood substitute from hemp stalks, according to the trade journal Woodworking Network. The company says their product is 20 per cent harder than red oak, and plans to market it for use in flooring and furniture.
All this is happening with the current state of technology. With further research into genetics and agricultural practices, more applications and products will emerge.
“I think prohibition set us back about a century,” says Riseman. “[Hemp] was the plant that did everything, the workhorse plant. And now we have all these tools that we’ve applied to corn and wheat and cotton, and you see the yield increases and how much more efficient and productive we have become…. [Hemp’s] been bred for low THC or long fibres, no one’s talked about what else we could breed for.”
Hemp is truly versatile, but over-zealous advocates have attributed near super-botanical abilities to the plant. Experts caution that wild claims online about hemp, such as it having “over 50,000 uses,” are “fantastic,” “ridiculous,” and “bro science.”
“One misconception is that hemp doesn’t require fertilizer, water, is pest resistant, is just a miracle crop,” says Slaski. “I would say, yes, hemp can survive on marginal land – survive – but if you want to grow a crop that you want to get paid for, you have to provide inputs, because there are no miracles in hemp.”
We have an opportunity to build an industry of value, with values
After some 80 years of prohibition, hemp cultivation was legalized federally in the United States in late 2018. As one observer put it, “it’s basically the starting gun” for US hemp farming.
The end of US hemp prohibition should be a rising tide that benefits both countries by lifting hemp to its rightful place among other mainstay crops.
Because of this, and despite a 20-year lead in decriminalizing hemp, Canada must position itself as a world leader in hemp fibre to stay in the driver’s seat, Slaski says.
“The US is a larger country, with more money to invest in the opportunity. They will be a serious competitor to our hemp industry.”
Michael Demone has long since traded his backpacking duds for business attire. He now leads the Canadian Working Group on Industrial Hemp, which he describes as “part advocacy group, part support system” for developing new hemp products.
For Demone, the quickly evolving promise of hemp fibre is “like the Renaissance” and he believes “round two” could herald more than environmental benefits.
“To get philosophical, I think we have an opportunity to build an industry of value, with values. And that means including talks about labour, about Indigenous voices, about women in manufacturing, all of these things, it’s just ready to blow. We need responsible people who will say ‘look, we want to make some money, we want to advance this industry, there are some really significant environmental benefits.’ It’s going to take investment and it’s going to take businesses willing to take some risks.”