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Heartland hemp farming needs Iowa lawmakers’ help

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 12, 2009 7:27 AM

A bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers is putting forth legislation to legalize the growth of cannabis, or hemp. The Industrial Hemp Development Act (HF 608) would provide licenses to qualified farmers for the cultivation of hemp, after passing background checks, of course. Iowa lawmakers must pay close attention to the progress of Minnesota’s hemp act; its success or failure may signal how a similar act would fair here. Regardless of the reaction of our neighbors to the north, hemp production will dramatically change the face of agriculture in America, and Iowans need to be out ahead of this increasingly popular trend.

Seven states — Hawaii, West Virginia, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Kentucky, and North Dakota — have legalized hemp production; however, not one is producing the crop because of resistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Hemp farmers in North Dakota are granted licenses by the state, but they are required to obtain separate permits from the DEA. The agency has continually refused to accept applications, leading farmers in North Dakota to file a lawsuit against the federal government.

A common complaint among law-enforcement agencies at all levels of government is that monitoring acres of hemp for hidden pockets of marijuana would be next to impossible. This idea is, in fact, very reasonable, because hemp and marijuana are members of the same species, cannabis.

However, centuries of breeding have elicited distinctly different characteristics in the two plants. Marijuana contains much higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive agent, which induces a “high.” Hemp, on the other hand, has such minuscule amounts of THC that it is unable to produce the same high. In fact, hemp contains another chemical, cannabidiol, which is increasingly used as an antipsychotic.

Despite the plants’ botanical distinctions, their visual similarities are at the root of the problem. Interestingly enough, Minnesota researchers have developed a way to overcome the issues raised by law enforcement. George Weiblen, a University of Minnesota associate professor of plant biology, has established a method of DNA testing that is able to differentiate hemp from its doppelgänger. Using a DNA technique known as amplified fragment length polymorphism, Weiblen and a colleague are the first to undeniably distinguish hemp plants from marijuana plants.

So, if there is a way to discriminate between the two plants, what benefits could be harvested from the production of industrial hemp? Hemp is an industrial crop in every industrialized nation except the United States. Naturally, the U.S. imports more hemp and hemp products than any other industrialized nation. By growing the crop here, we could reap the reward of hemp’s increasing popularity. The herb has been touted as a wonder plant for many reasons. Nearly every part of the plant is usable. Hemp can be used to produce paper, food, clothing, plastics, and even low-carbon concrete.

The advantages of hemp as a commercial crop have special significance for Iowans. While soybeans are composed of greater levels of actual protein, hemp seeds contain more digestible protein. Furthermore, because of its fast-growing nature, hemp crops produce more energy per acre of biodiesel or ethanol fuel than corn or any other food crop, and it is able to do so at a much lower cost and with noticeably less damage to the soil. Hemp is a hearty plant and can grow on all types of soil.

By growing hemp, it could be possible to use damaged, exhausted, or marginal soil, thus reclaiming unused or abandoned land.

Because industrial hemp production could compete with Iowa’s two largest crops, it only makes sense to be out in front of the trend, leading the way, rather risking the consequences of watching that market develop without us. Industrial hemp would do much to facilitate the nation’s growing desire for all things “green”; an acre of hemp produces as much paper as four acres of trees, Europeans are perfecting a biodegradable plastic made entirely of hemp, and hemp seeds are an impressive source of protein as well as essential amino acids. Environmental benefits aside, the economic advantages of producing hemp in Iowa are certainly worth considering.


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