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Industrial Hemp: Towards A Sustainable Future

Hemp and sustainability go hand in hand to a large extent, and a company in Mumbai called Bombay Hemp Company is trying to achieve Herer’s vision of a sustainable, hemp-laden future

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An excerpt from Jack Herer’s iconic book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes states that: “If all fossil fuels and their derivatives, as well as trees for paper and construction were banned in order to save the planet, reverse the greenhouse effect and stop deforestation, then there is only one known annual renewable natural resource that is capable of providing the overall majority of the world’s paper and textiles, meeting all of the world’s transportation, industrial and home energy needs, simultaneously reducing pollution, rebuilding the soil and cleaning the atmosphere all at the same time: Cannabis hemp.”

Hemp and sustainability go hand in hand to a large extent, and a company in Mumbai called Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO) is trying to achieve Herer’s vision of a sustainable, hemp-laden future. According to Sanvar Oberoi, one of the seven co-founders of Bombay Hemp Company and director of finance and digital technology, when it comes to sustainability, “most of the job is done by the crop itself, due to the innate qualities and functions of the crop”, where it consumes far lesser water than its closest competitor in textiles, cotton, and its carbon sequestration per acre is also significantly high. “The industry which borrows from the crop, itself becomes naturally more sustainable,” adds Oberoi.

The hemp crop which grows in very tight spaces and extremely fast, not only minimizes land-use, but also proves to be economically very beneficial for the farmer due to its high yield. When it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals, BOHECO impacts seven of them directly, and four indirectly. The critical SDGs addressed by BOHECO is the one on women and employment creation, given that the artisans they indirectly employ at their Nandadevi Centre of Excellence in Uttarakhand are rural women who have been skill-trained to produce hemp textiles. “A lot of our research projects aim to have a much larger impact across the range of SDGs,” says Oberoi.

“When it comes to cultivation, hemp uses 400 times less water than cotton to grow, which takes about 70 per cent of the irrigation water for cultivation,” says Yash Kotak, another co-founder and director of marketing and business development. Hemp textiles as compared to cotton textiles not only win in the irrigation category due to its far lesser water footprint, but are also much durable and improve in quality over time. “Hemp also uses minimal herbicides and pesticides hence its ecological impact is not as harmful as other pesticide-intensive crops,” adds Kotak, saying that most of the hemp around the world is organically grown.

One of the revolutionary products of hemp is hempcrete, which can be used in construction. According to Avnish Pandya, another co-founder and director of research and development, “Hempcrete contains silica and lime (calcium carbonate), and performs the dual function of capturing and storing carbon. Hemp when it grows as a fast growing crop, captures carbon from the atmosphere, which gets stocked into its fiber, the hurd and the bast, what we call biomass. So, when hemp fibers which contain silica is mixed with lime, it becomes calcium silicate over time, which is the result of the carbon ratio, and it becomes stronger over time while absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Different types of hempcrete have different amounts of carbon sequestered per gram, hence making it a very sustainable material for construction.”

When it comes to the triple bottom line effect of social, environmental and economic progress, BOHECO’s goal isn’t secondary to achieving the triple bottom line, but its “main goal”, says Pandya. He further adds, “The company is built on the premise that it is going to affect environment, people as well as other resources that are around us in a positive manner of speaking. So the way we wish to impact that is by keeping hemp and other agri-commodities at the centre of this conversation. So while the commodity is the centre of the conversation, what it brings is new age innovation, as well as not looking at the commodity for unilateral use, but for multilateral application. So that brings in innovation, and simultaneously we look at mass scaling this innovation. So we see a combination of us innovating with commodities such as hemp, and simultaneously involving other stakeholders into the process, which eventually would result in a triple bottom line that is affected positively.”

According to Oberoi, the future is very bright for the hemp industry as “more and more millenials move towards conscious consumerism, conscious fashion, conscious choices in food-supply (as hemp seeds are highly nutritious and full of protein), and conscious manufacturing”. “The demand far outweighs the supply, and as the confusion between recreational cannabis and industrial hemp is becoming more and more apparent, we see hemp on the winning side, as more and more countries come to accept it,” adds Oberoi.

The major impediments to the hemp industry according to Oberoi isn’t policy, which is become increasingly accepting of industrial hemp but “lack of standardised hemp crop”. “We don’t have machinery in place for post-harvest technologies. We don’t have an existing ecosystem to create economic value from different parts of the crop. Now for that industry to be built, science and irrigation, both adaptation of global innovation as well as some indigenous innovation and development need to go hand in glove.”

“Another problem is market creation, and by market creation what I mean is that a lot of education needs to happen in terms of hemp, because people know cannabis for all the wrong reasons, so eradicating all the previous notions, and for people to know about what hemp can actually do and the impact it can create,” adds Kotak. With change in legislation, increasing acceptance and multilateral applications across the industry, the vision of a sustainable future with hemp cultivation seems more and more likely.

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