Can You Grow Hemp for Food? Not Yet.

The article is not about growing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. It is about growing a closely-related plant, industrial hemp, for food. According to the USDA, Economic Research Service:

“Marijuana and industrial hemp are different varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. Marijuana typically contains 3 to 15 percent THC on a dry-weight basis, while industrial hemp contains less than 1 percent (Blade, 1998; Vantreese, 1998). Most developed countries that permit hemp cultivation require use of varieties with less than 0.3 percent THC.” (Identification: Industrial Hemp or Marijuana?)

THC is the active compound in marijuana that makes it a recreational and medicinal drug. Commercial hemp varieties are low in THC. And modern commercial processing allows many hemp food products to have a THC level of zero parts per million. The seeds themselves are actually free from THC; only the leaves and flowers contain the substance.

Despite these facts, industrial hemp is still essentially illegal to grow in the U.S. Technically, industrial hemp is legal to grow — you just need a permit from the DEA, and they are not going to give you one. In the last 40 years, the DEA has given out only one permit; they “granted the first hemp permit in 40 years to Hawaii for an experimental quarter acre plot in 1999.” Not very promising.

About ten different U.S. States have made growing industrial hemp legal, but federal restrictions still apply. So, if you live in the U.S., be advised that growing hemp is illegal. This article is written, not to encourage anyone to break the law, but to discuss the benefits of legalizing industrial hemp in the U.S. and for the benefit of readers in nations where industrial hemp is legal to grow.

A number of U.S. States and organizations are pressing for more relaxed standards for growing industrial hemp, since the crop can be quite lucrative. China is a major producer and exporter of hemp fiber. Much of the hemp seed and hemp oil in the U.S. is produced and imported from Canada. Hemp seed and hemp oil has long been a popular food in the U.S. health food industry. Hemp oil, seed, and fiber is legal to import and sell in the U.S., but you cannot grow it here (yet).

Hemp for Food?

The edible part of the hemp plant is the seeds. These can be pressed for oil. Hemp oil contains ample amounts of both essential fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3. Moreover, the proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fat is ideal, about 3:1. Hemp oil is about 60% omega-6 fatty acid and about 20% omega-3 fatty acid. So the oil is an excellent source of dietary fat. A stand of hemp can yield as much as 600 kg of hemp oil per hectare (about 535 lbs/acre). This production level is lower than for other oil seeds, but the health benefits of hemp oil are greater.

I’ve used hemp oil as well as many other health food oils. The cold pressed oil is a green color; it has a somewhat leafy taste. But the flavor does not overpower other tastes and spices in a meal. You can buy hemp oil online or in health food stores.

Hemp seed is high in protein. At 25% protein, hemp seeds have more protein than lean ground beef (which is 20% protein). The hemp protein is high quality, with all essential amino acids in ideal proportions, except lysine at 82% of ideal (IOM reference values; data from Finola.com). Hemp seed is about 25% protein, 33% fat, and 30% carbohydrate. This one plant provides you with all three macronutrients and all the essential fatty acids and essential amino acids that you need.

Industrial hemp is an interesting crop to grow. The plant has male and female versions. So you need to plant a large enough stand of the crop for the wind to pollinate all the female plants. Only the female plants produce hemp seed. Here is a good overview of Growing Industrial Hemp. Certain varieties produce much fiber and little edible seed. Other varieties produce much more seed, on shorter stalks that are not good for fiber.

Not Yet

Currently, most nations that permit the growing of hemp for food restrict its production to commercial farms that have special permits. So it is not a viable backyard or survival-farm crop yet. But industrial hemp would be an excellent survival crop: it provides all three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates), all essential fatty acids in ideal proportions, and all essential amino acids in good proportions. It is a nutritional grocery store in one plant. If it is legal to grow in your country, or if it eventually becomes legal to grow in the U.S. or in some U.S. states, industrial hemp would be an ideal survival gardening crop. But until laws on the subject change, we can only buy the food in health food stores or online. Can you store hemp oil or hemp protein (hempseed) with your stored food supply? Not really. The oil needs refrigeration, as it spoils easily. And the seeds do not keep well, long term. So right now, it is only a good survival crop in theory, not in practice.

– Thoreau

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