Hemp or ‘bhang’ as we call it in the subcontinent might be infamous as a cheap intoxicant, but today researchers are saying that it is among the most productive and useful plants ever known to man. It was, in fact, cultivated for thousands of years and grown on a commercial scale till the last century. Hemp provides a sustainable alternative to many oil-based products and can also be used to make a variety of products from building materials to clothing to medicines. Unlike many crops, it can be grown easily in most locations and climates with minimum water and fertiliser inputs.
Hemp is now being produced in the US and Europe on a limited commercial scale. It grows in the wild all over Pakistan, but to grow it for commercial purposes a license is needed from the Pakistan Narcotics Control Board. According to Helga Ahmed, the well-known environmentalist based in Islamabad, hemp could be the perfect solution to Pakistan’s looming water crisis and the massive overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the country (which is causing the soil to lose its chemical balance and therefore its carrying capacity). Helga was one of the pioneers who successfully introduced biogas digesters to Pakistan decades ago and she is hoping that the commercial farming of hemp will now catch on as well.
“Before things get worse in Pakistan, perhaps we need to look westward where efforts are under way to find alternative solutions to the increasing natural hazards, finally acknowledged to be mainly man-made. The focus today in the West as well as in China is on the benefits of hemp,” she explains. She believes that various “commercial interests” played a major role in outlawing hemp, whose fibre length is up to 15 feet whereas cotton fibre is less than one inch long. In the 1930s, hemp was, in fact, considered a serious competitor to the newly developing technologies in the synthetic fibre, textile, timber and paper oil, composite wood, and pharmaceutical industries. Aggres-sive lobbying for marijuana prohibition began then and the hemp plant (which is similar to the other cannabis plants from which marijuana is produced) is still banned in the US.
Helga points out that, “Although China never banned hemp, the vast potential of this plant was rediscovered after Beijing’s Hemp Research Centre was established. Advanced technologies were developed, turning it into an easily workable fibre for highly sophisticated textiles. About 20,000 hectares of hemp have already been planted, and China aims to expand it to 1.3 million hectares of farmland.” The project will provide livelihoods for millions of small farmers in the rural areas, and it will free up large areas of cotton-growing land for food production. It will also reduce the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides required for the cotton crop.
Today, hemp is being grown worldwide. Canada’s hemp farms cover thousands of hectares while the US (where the plant is still illegal) is a major importer of its raw and finished products. According to Helga, cotton is probably one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural crops, requiring huge amounts of pesticides.
“Pesticides, as we know, contaminate the soil, air, water and they bio-accumulate (their toxicity increases as they are consumed up the food chain). Many pesticides are known carcinogens, and can also cause immune-deficiency disorders.” She has personally visited the cotton-growing belt in Pakistan where young cotton pickers are exposed to the dried pesticide residue in the plants. “Cottonwood is also burnt as fuel in the nearby villages, and women inhale the fumes while cooking. Some reports say other crops grown in the same soil also acquire the harmful effects of pesticides. This puts a large number of people at the risk of cancer.”
“Hemp, on the other hand, enriches the soil, requires little or no pesticides or herbicides, and its extensive deep-root system draws nutrients from deeper layers of soil. When the roots break down after harvesting, they aerate the soil,” she further clarifies. Cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires much more water than hemp. Hemp grows in a wide range of climates and is frost tolerant. Its irrigation requirement is one third of cotton. To top it off, “Hemp fibre’s tensile strength and durability far outshines that of cotton fibre.”
Helga points out that UK industries pay carbon credits to farmers willing to grow hemp, which is fed into bio-digesters after it is harvested, and the methane gas produced is turned into clean energy. In France, carbon credit is paid to industries that turn the inner woody part of hemp into building material called Hempcrete. It is claimed that it is resistant to termites and rodents, is non-flammable, and is ideal for cyclone- and earthquake-prone areas. In Germany, Mercedes and BMW still use hemp by-products. Hemp reinforces plastics, can be easily recycled, and therefore has no waste disposal problems.
She would like Pakistani farmers to recognise the benefits of this once ignored plant before it is too late. “Certainly according to the law, one can grow industrial hemp in Pakistan without any problem.” She also points out that indigenous trees like the Neem tree and the Drek tree can provide the country with natural pesticides and fertilisers so alternatives are available if we are serious about getting rid of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. The research is sound and other countries are doing it, so why not Pakistan?