The promise of industrial hemp is somewhere between “Hemp is just a stalking horse for marijuana” and “Hemp can save the planet”. There is no other example in history of a novel field crop being so greatly impacted by socio-politics. While interest in industrial hemp in Canada is relatively well matched to its potential as an oilseed crop, the current hype over industrial hemp in the USA exceeds the actual short-term potential of this field crop. One of the primary reasons for excess enthusiasm in the USA appears to be the tight link between many marijuana supporters and the movement to reintroduce hemp cultivation in the USA—many hoping that legal hemp cultivation will help pave the way to decriminalization of marijuana. There are clearly two camps regarding hemp promotion in the USA and it is impossible to completely separate them or quantify their relative proportions.
Although a small amount of hemp is grown for fiber in Canada, the fiber market has a much more limited potential compared to oilseed in North America. European hemp production, initially mostly fiber but now with significant hempseed production, is maintained through government subsidies. China, where hemp originated, has the capability to produce large quantities of very competitively priced hemp fiber, primarily due to inexpensive labor. While there will likely be a small, dedicated niche market for hemp fiber in North America, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that a large market demand will materialize to meet a large supply. The hemp oilseed market is stable and steadily increasing in Canada, and the USA has the potential to establish a similar market once industrial hemp is legally distinguished from marijuana and declassified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
Like all grain crops grown in the USA and Canada, hemp production demands relatively intensive management for success, and many potential industrial hemp growers in the USA do not appreciate the level of crop management required. Seedbed conditions, seeding rates, dates, and harvest dates are all impacted by the hemp germplasm used. Grain crop production is not for the hobby farmer, and the four-year crop rotation necessary to minimize pest buildup requires a significant supply of cropland. After legalization of hemp in the USA, hemp farmers may face the serious economic consequences of oversupply, as did many farmers who were encouraged to establish switchgrass in anticipation of the cellulosic ethanol industry over the past 10 years. The North American hemp oilseed market will quickly become saturated if production is initiated in multiple states. Hemp fiber production will remain a small niche market, as demand is likely to remain modest and will face stiff competition from both China and the EU. Hemp oilseed supply and demand will eventually recover from the influx of USA hemp oilseed, but may be disruptive to farm economies for an extended period.
Canada has successfully established and maintained stable/increasing hemp oilseed production after the first 8 years of market adjustment. Canadian society appears to clearly understand the distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana, and the hemp industry in Canada seems relatively immune to marijuana politics. United States society, on the other hand, is having a difficult time separating hemp from marijuana politics. The widespread and aggressive championing of industrial hemp overshadows the significant legitimate potential of hemp as a field crop in the USA, with numerous marijuana advocates promoting declassification of hemp.
More than 30 US states could attempt to establish an industrial hemp crop industry following deregulation, greatly increasing the potential for hemp market chaos in North America. Since the drive for hemp production is coming from individual states, there is little consideration of basic supply and demand economics. Oversupply is highly likely, resulting in a production crash much more severe than was observed in Canada during the early years of the industry. The most opportunistic scenario for hemp in North America is oilseed production coupled with CBD extraction from hemp stover and/or from floral parts of oilseed cultivars for pharmaceutical uses. Markets for small acreage crops are fragile, and good advice for North American farmers interested in hemp production is to identify buyers and a selling price before planting the crop.
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Originally published in Agronomy 2016, 6(4), 58; doi:10.3390/agronomy6040058
Industrial Hemp in North America: Production, Politics and Potential
Jerome H. Cherney 1,* and Ernest Small 2
1 School of Integrative Plant Science, Soil and Crop Sciences Section, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
2 Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, ON K1A 0C6, Canada
* Correspondence: Tel.: +1-607-255-0945; Fax: +1-607-255-2644
Conflicts of Interest
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
Academic Editor: Peter Langridge
Received: 9 September 2016 / Accepted: 8 November 2016 / Published: 12 November 2016
Keywords: Cannabis; hemp; marijuana; fiber; oilseed; environmental sustainability
© 2016 by the authors; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).