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2023 Farm Bill to Support Production of Newly Legalized Hemp Farming

  • Hemp absorbs twice as much carbon per hectare of land than a forest does, and hemp-derived products can be used to replace paper, petroleum-based plastics, and cotton fibers.
  • In 2021, the U.S. hemp market was reported to be worth $824 million in 2021. By 2030, the global hemp market is predicted to be worth $17.24 billion.
  • The 2023 Farm Bill offers an opportunity to iron out ambiguities surrounding hemp production that will benefit farmers and stabilize the market. The upcoming Farm Bill is also an opportunity to create hemp policies that recognize the historical injustices that Indigenous and Black farmers have experienced.

Across the aisle, the question of how to handle the production of industrial hemp, a newly legalized crop, is on legislators’ minds. As the 2023 Farm Bill begins to come into focus, this carbon-sequestering plant has the potential to reshape U.S. agriculture.

Hemp absorbs twice as much carbon per hectare of land than a forest does, and hemp-derived products can be used to replace paper, petroleum-based plastics, and cotton fibers. But hemp, a strain of the Cannabis plant (from which marijuana is derived), was previously considered a Schedule I substance—the most highly regulated narcotics under the Controlled Substances Act.

The 2014 Farm Bill (P.L. 113-179legally distinguished hemp from marijuana by defining hemp as having a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level below 0.3 percent, which is insufficient to produce narcotics. But it limited hemp cultivation to research purposes only. The 2018 Farm Bill (P.L. 115-334) relaxed many restrictions and established the Domestic Hemp Production Program, making it easier for farmers to grow and sell hemp. The legalization of hemp cultivation in the United States has allowed farmers to employ the crop to promote sustainable farming practices and produce sustainable alternatives to plastics and other materials.

The 2023 Farm Bill can serve as an opportunity to ensure hemp is cultivated and produced to its fullest potential. Ambiguities in federal laws must be addressed to ensure that the hemp market, which was reported to be worth $824 million in 2021, continues growing.

Power to the Plant

Much of hemp’s appeal as a sustainable solution stems from its carbon sequestration rate. In an interview with Dezeen, Cambridge University researcher Darshil Shah stated that hemp can capture between 10 and 15 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) for each hectare of cultivation, a rate twice that of forests. Its fast growth rate means that farmers have the opportunity to harvest hemp multiple times per year, priming it for climate mitigation efforts.



Cultivating hemp doesn’t require the heavy use of pesticides or large amounts of water, and with such water-input versatility, the plant can be grown in a variety of types of soils and climates. When planted, hemp can be used as a cover crop and bolster the soil nutrient profile. The plant can also help stabilize erosion with its deep roots that also absorb and remove heavy metals from the ground.

Hemp’s high yields hold the promise of replacing other fiber- and oil-producing plants. According to the National Hemp Association, one acre of hemp produces double the amount of oil than an acre of peanuts does, and it also produces four times as much fiber pulp used for paper than an acre of trees does. When processed, every part of the hemp plant can be used for a wide range of products, including biofuels and textiles.

The wide range of versatile hemp-derived products has the potential to address U.S. reliance on plastics, fossil fuels, and cotton, by serving as a sustainable replacement. Currently, the Center for International Environmental Law predicts that plastic consumption will continue increasing and account for 20 percent of oil consumption by 2050. Hemp, however, offers a naturally biodegradable alternative that can replace petroleum-based plastic materials on both the commercial and industrial scale. Alongside bioplastics, hemp has gained prominence being a durable alternative to cotton, as it requires less land and around half of the water cotton crops need. Beyond clothing and plastics, hemp has been used in construction with products like hempcrete, and its seeds have been used in cosmetics and in food for their nutritional value. With this plethora of sustainable benefits, hemp has the potential to reshape more than just agriculture.

Moreover, the carbon sequestration of hemp has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from U.S. agriculture—which the EPA estimated accounted for 11.2 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2020. By offering sustainable alternatives to high-emission products, hemp cultivation could help the United States meet its climate goals.

Addressing Diversity in Farming via Hemp

Though the legislative focus on industrial hemp has been relatively recent, Indigenous peoples have been farming hemp long before it was legalized in the 2014 Farm Bill. Yet, current hemp legislation and its enforcement do not quite recognize this—nor do they treat Indigenous farmers equally to their white counterparts.

In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized 30,000 hemp plants and invaded sovereign land belonging to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, claiming that these plants violated the law as they were intended to produce marijuana. The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the DEA agents for the destruction of their crops. They claimed that they were legally growing hemp on their lands for research by the College of the Menominee Tribe, yet the judge agreed with the DEA’s attorney and dismissed the lawsuit.

This case is an example of how the enforcement of hemp legislation is complicated by the history of Indigenous land dispossession by the U.S. government. Environmental activist and member of the Ojibwe tribe Winona LaDuke is advocating for both the environmental benefits and social benefits of hemp policy crafted with respect to communities of color, their histories, and their beliefs.

Writing for the Esperanza Project, LaDuke spotlights how plots of hemp qualify as carbon sinks, with the plant itself being capable of replacing carbon-intensive materials. LaDuke notes that these qualities offset GHG emissions, which prompts ecological restoration that can be led by young Indigenous leaders. Thus, there is potential for hemp production to provide added income to Indigenous communities and act as part of a path toward a sustainable, circular economy.

The hemp market is predicted to continue to grow and reach a global value of $17.24 billion by 2030. With this growth comes the opportunity for more farmers to get involved—farmers such as Indigenous and Black farmers who have been traditionally left behind by agricultural policies. Hemp can be grown on small plots of land, a trait beneficial for farmers of color who typically do not own the same large expanses of land that their white counterparts do.

Black and Indigenous communities in the United States have faced a history of exclusion from land ownership and economic opportunities, and this history has shaped their access to agriculture today. According to a 2012 USDA report, only 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.2 million farmers are Black farmers as a result of discrimination from lending institutions, including the USDA. Black farmers are hoping to see hemp policy address historical injustices in agriculture.

A change to hemp licensing would be a first step to addressing historical injustices. Federal law requires farmers applying for hemp licenses to not have had a drug felony in the past 10 years. As the Drug Policy Alliance reports, Black and Latinx people are more likely to have marijuana-related drug felonies which, under this policy, further excludes them from harvesting the benefits of hemp.

A lack of hemp education is another issue affecting both Black and Indigenous farmers that hemp policy could address. The Pew Charitable Trusts has reported on organizations forming to educate people on hemp, what it is, and how to acquire a license for it. Such education could be undertaken by the federal government to ensure that hemp production is inclusive and sustainable for all.

Hemp’s Future in the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill has always been an opportunity for policymakers to address agricultural and food issues on a federal level. The federal government defined industrial hemp, differentiating it from marijuana, and developed the Hemp Research Pilot program to legalize hemp cultivation for research purposes in the 2014 Farm Bill. Outside of research, hemp production was still illegal under federal law. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp cultivation outside of pilot products, though it also restricted the THC content of hemp plants.

Moreover, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production in states, territories, and tribal lands, and hemp was added to the Federal Crop Insurance Act to ensure that hemp farmers receive government assistance for crop losses. It also took what has been considered a first step in addressing inequity in farming: states must report to Congress how much funding they’re providing to their historically Black land-grant colleges and universities and also to predominantly white institutions.

Ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held a congressional hearing to see how the next Farm Bill could improve hemp production. In this hearing, the need for clear regulations around CBD (the active ingredient in cannabis derived from hemp plants) and for stronger supply chain processing were highlighted, alongside further opportunities for hemp-derived products within climate markets.

Frustration and confusion around CBD laws has been a topic of concern for hemp farmers since the 2018 Farm Bill. Now, it is one of the issues hemp industry advocates hope to see addressed in the 2023 Farm Bill. Beyond CBD, the National Hemp Association is hoping to see three other major changes. It is advocating for a specific carve-out for hemp grain and fiber to develop a framework for promoting these products, for hemp grain to be allowed as animal feed to support farmers, and for the THC limit to be raised to one percent instead of 0.3 percent. Raising the THC limit has been discussed by numerous hemp organizations and farmers, as a one percent limit provides leeway and lessens the need for crops to be destroyed.

The National Law Review highlights further hemp-related changes that may be included in the 2023 Farm Bill, one of which being the revision of the broad definition of hemp. Currently, only delta-9 THC has been regulated in the 2018 Farm Bill, and there are worries that this is a loophole for unregulated hemp sales of other kinds of THC. Moreover, federal laws do not address what happens when the THC level of raw hemp exceeds the 0.3 percent allowed, even if it is ultimately processed into a product that will have a lower THC percentage (this is often referred to as “in-progress” hemp).

With many organizations highlighting the need to iron out ambiguities surrounding hemp laws, the 2023 Farm Bill may be the prime opportunity to do so. Including smart hemp production and cultivation policies in the 2023 Farm Bill has the potential to make the hemp industry more sustainable, inclusive, and profitable.

Author: Lynlee Derrick

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