By Steve Allin
If, as UN Secretary-General Antonio António Guterres said, the COVID-19 pandemic was “like an X-ray revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built,” and if climate change is a major cause of the fractures, then the Invasion of Ukraine by Russia like the painkillers removed from this malaise.
All the issues of energy dependency, food security and the housing crisis were all present before, but in a somewhat distant form, vaguely felt through the haze of rising fuel prices, crowded supermarkets and images of strangers on the sidewalks. Now that we are contemplating the upcoming serious problems that are coming our way, we urgently need to find solutions as soon as possible.
So how do we deal with these seemingly unrelated problems? I suggest that they are by no means disjointed and that the solutions could be found in a single plan based on industrial hemp.
Food security is of paramount importance. Despite the growing number of stories of farmers protesting unsustainable market prices, we have all embraced the concept that food should be cheap and endlessly available. It is now dawning on us that many of the foods we consider essential, such as bread and the food we get from our other food sources, especially meat products, come from either Russia or Ukraine!
With the flow of food and fuel supplies disrupted by the horrific invasion of Ukraine, the costs of this unsustainable system are affecting food production everywhere.
Many people today are familiar with hemp edibles, but there are still many ways to use hemp to transition to a lower-meat diet and provide us with a highly nutritious meal.
The right plants
To address the issues of increased nitrate costs and loss of fertility of many agricultural lands in the West, we need crops that do not require large amounts of fertilizers and could improve the quality of the land for future crops like industrial hemp. Hemp could be grown using human waste that we are currently literally flushing down the toilet.
Although this waste would need to be filtered for microplastics and toxic elements that may be present, processing animal and human waste with anaerobic digesters can provide not only a completely safe fertilizer but also energy in the form of much-needed gas.
Hemp is also an ideal crop to begin the return to arable farming, which is currently being encouraged by governments in response to the war in Ukraine, as it grows extremely quickly, smothers competing weeds, reduces herbicide use and pollutes the land for future harvests, winter wheat or barley or green catch crops that are sown immediately after the hemp harvest are particularly improved.
The provision of living space for our young population when they start their studies or careers in our cities or the desire of young families for a comfortable primary residence does not seem feasible at the moment, as there seems to be a housing shortage in most cities. The fact that so much of the available space is also energy inefficient and either expensive or unhealthy to live in is a sad reflection of current building standards.
Materials derived from the hemp plant can be used as a natural fiber alternative to insulation products made from mineral wool and plastic foam, or as an aggregate in hempcrete. These materials have a combination of beneficial behaviors by buffering the heat changes inside and outside a building while controlling humidity. This is especially true with hempcrete, which can be easily molded to provide a seamless, fireproof thermal blanket for a structure that resists mold and has no toxic outgassing.
These breathable, heat-retaining and insulating materials are now being used to healthily improve existing structures or new buildings around the world. Preformed into blocks, chipboard or panels, hemp-based materials are now also being integrated into modular housing systems.
It might sound ideal to tackle this set of problems with growing a single plant, but without the essential primary processing facility there is no market for the raw material. The process of defusing and separating materials, or breaking the straw to extract the bast fibers and core particles, called shives, in a marketable form is not possible until there are factories to do the work. This would require a location in the center of the most suitable arable land in a region to serve a community of farmers growing hemp as part of a sustainable crop rotation system.
It is possible to have a factory where a bale of hemp enters at one end and bricks or entire houses made of modular panels come out at the other end. The factory would require an investment of €3,000,000 to €30,000,000 depending on how many additional products are to be manufactured at the same site. This is nothing if we include in the financial balance the employment of 8-60 people with additional work arising from product delivery and installation.
Add to that both the carbon sequestration and reduction calculated for the materials, and the entire process would then be measured as “net zero” for emissions, much like many of the hemp houses currently being built internationally.
In times of “emergency”, basic needs such as food and shelter come first. And when there are good new systems to meet those essential needs, we should do everything we can to invest in that vital culture to take advantage of those opportunities.
Steve Allin is a consultant, teacher and author of Building with Hemp (2005, 2012) and Hemp Buildings 50 International Case Studies (2021). As a consultant to HempToday, Allin is a director of the International Hemp Building Association.