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In 2018, the new Farm Bill legalized hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD across the United States of America. Previous bills had extended limited legal protections to farmers looking to grow hemp, but this new bill changed everything.

It seems to have legalized CBD across all 50 states, for example, and other changes are sure to follow. One that may not be on people’s radar is the agricultural gold rush that could follow as farmers make the leap from cash crops like soybeans and corn to hemp.

We’ve already looked at the economic implications of more farm operations adopting hemp and cannabis. Another major question we have to ask, though, is just how sustainable is hemp farming? In the age of climate change, when human impact on the earth is under serious discussion, it’s worth considering what could happen.

Growing Green with Mary Jane

It might surprise some people to learn that cannabis and hemp in particular are actually more eco-friendly than some of the other cash crops we grow here in the US. Cannabis sativa plants are hardy and resilient by nature—there’s a reason we call it “weed.”

That means they need less intensive care than, say, almonds. Almond plants are notorious for the amount of water they need. In fact, some people blame the growth of almond farming in California for making the state’s drought from 2011 to 2017 even worse.

Cotton, another traditional cash crop in other parts of the US, is also a plant that prefers lots of water. Although some people promote cotton as a “green” alternative to plastic-based textiles like spandex and polyester, cotton-growing practices can make the source unsustainable. Given that hemp can also be turned into cloth, we think it’s safe to say cannabis and hemp crops are actually the greener choice here.

No Chemical Romance

Another reason cotton and other crops may not be so “green” is the use of pesticides and herbicides in the field. Cotton, for example, is vulnerable to pests, which means the plants often get chemical baths.

While some farm operations do use pesticides on their cannabis and hemp crops, there’s a lot of debate about this. If the plant is intended for human consumption, growers try to stay away from pesticides. Many have adopted organic farming practices to keep their crops as chemical-free as possible.

This might change in the future, especially if cannabis is legalized at the federal level. As the market for cannabis grows, some growers and Big Agriculture operations will no doubt look for ways to increase their crop yields and lower costs.

On the whole, though, hemp and cannabis plants are more pest-resistant and there’s no need to worry about weeds in the field. (In fact, the entire field is a bunch of weed, which probably makes cannabis farmers the only group not to be concerned about the growing “superweed” epidemic.) As growers strive to protect customers at the other end of the production chain, refusing to use harsh chemicals also protects the soil, the birds and the bees.

SOS: Save Our Soil

Another advantage of cannabis and hemp crops is that they actually have some benefits for the soil. Most crops today tend to strip the soil of its nutrients, especially as they’re planted season after season.

We already mentioned that organic farming methods and pesticide-free growing help the soil in one way. Chemicals don’t leech into the ground, and they aren’t carried off in the rain either.

Some studies have also shown hemp plants in particular clean the soil around them. They can absorb heavy metals like cadmium. One company even used hemp to clean up the radioactive soil in Chernobyl in the 1990s.

While this is good news for getting contaminants out of the soil, growers do need to be careful that these chemicals and metals don’t make their way into their consumer crops.

In some cases, though, the “pollutants” the plants take out of the soil are also good for humans. Take selenium, for example. In large doses, it’s an environmental contaminant. But in much smaller doses, it’s essential for human health and well-being. The same is true of cadmium.

Hemp plants have done well at cleaning the soil, and at the same time, they could be boosting their nutritional value.

Sustainable on a Large Scale?

As with any crop, though, hemp does take nutrients from the soil. Repeated planting will eventually drain the soil of its value. In arid areas, plants still have to be watered, and some growers will resort to at least some pesticides as insurance on their crop yields.

Growing hemp and cannabis is, in many ways, greener than some other cash crops. The question is still how to make it truly sustainable on a large scale.

Making Green with Greener Practices

Using sustainable and organic farming practices can lead to higher production costs. Cannabis is a relatively hardy crop, which makes it well-suited to going green, unlike some other crops.

There’s also developing demand for more organic “green,” and many cannabis consumers are also keenly attuned to wellness — both their own and that of our planet. You can bet some eco-conscious and health-oriented people will be checking the labels on the cannabis products they buy. They’re willing to pay more to protect themselves and the Earth.

Addressing this developing niche now is a smart move for cannabis companies. As more states move forward with legalization and federal legalization looms in a not-too-far-off distance, you’ll need to find a way to make your company’s products stand out. Situating yourself at the intersection of wellness, environmentalism, and quality is one way to do just that.

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Mary Jane Marketers