Hemp has been used inside a BMW electric car, as fiber in jeans and in the walls of a Tarpon Springs home.
Now Florida’s lone statewide elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, will oversee a new state industrial hemp program. Fried, a former lobbyist for the marijuana industry, says that hemp has a massive number of uses and will replace some common materials.
“What most people don’t understand is that hemp has 25,000-35,000 known usages,” she said at a Florida Democratic Party conference in Orlando. “That means it is going to be something that is going to replace plastics, and styrofoam and concrete.”
That’s a giant heap of hemp. But is Fried’s claim accurate?
While hemp and marijuana are from the same species of plant, hemp is nonpsychoactive and is used for a variety of products. Industry-friendly legislation has helped to grow the hemp market in recent years.
But don’t expect it to replace plastics or concrete anytime soon. Vast research and development — and money — is needed before widespread utilization.
“Industrial hemp products offer an alternative to materials like plastic and concrete in certain applications, but will never be able to fully replace them due to differences in the physical and chemical characteristics of the materials,” said Tai Olson, who works for US Heritage Group, which works with suppliers for hempcrete projects.
Claim about 25,000 uses from 1938
Fried’s claim about the number of uses for hemp comes from a magazine story published 80 years ago.
In 1938, Popular Mechanics magazine declared hemp the new “billion dollar crop.”
“Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the wood ‘hurdes’ remaining after the fiber has been removed contains more than 77% cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to cellophane.”
The magazine story, however, did not account for government regulation that stymied hemp development. In 1937, Congress passed a law, which required hemp farmers to register and pay a tax.
But the 25,000-uses statistic lived on, even earning a mention in a 2018 Congressional Research Service report.
Fried’s spokesman noted that report as well as other citations by news outlets including the Tampa Bay Times, Florida government and academic works. (PolitiFact Missouri also cited the figure, we found.)
We sent Fried’s citations to four academic experts on hemp, and none was swayed.
“Just because a number is repeated over and over does not make it true,” agriculture scientist Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins told us. Gilbert Jenkins is a professor at the State University of New York at Morrisville.
Hemp has multiple uses within agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food and beverages, paper, construction materials and personal care.
A few experts in hemp told us the math behind 25,000 uses (and especially 35,000) is empty.
“Of course it’s misleading, since defining what a ‘use’ is is arbitrary, and most uses would be economically insignificant,” said Ernest Small, a research scientist in Canada. “But the same could be said about numerous things, so it’s not exactly untruthful. With some imagination, I think you could find 25,000 uses for a car, or for many common things.”
Back to the source, Popular Mechanics. Jared W. Nelson, a mechanical engineer at SUNY New Paltz, told us he thinks the reported number of uses does not specifically refer to hemp, but instead refers to cellulose. Dynamite and cellophane are derived from cellulose.
While hemp could provide sugars through the enzymatic breakdown of cellulose, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to get those sugars from corn starch or sugar cane, said Cornell professor Lawrence B. Smart.
“The 25,000 products is a great number, but please put it in context,” Smart said. “Since we get most of our paper products from eucalyptus and lumber products from pine, how many products can you make from eucalyptus and pine?”
Hemp’s on the rise, but future hard to predict
What matters most, said Gilbert Jenkins, is “for the first time in a generation we are able to innovate around this versatile crop.”
The 2018 farm bill legalized industrial use of hemp and removed it from the federal list of controlled substances, opening up the market to new products. According to Vote Hemp, the number of acres of grown hemp tripled between 2017 and 2018, and hemp-based product sales have also climbed.
Fried spokesman Franco Ripple pointed to examples of hemp being used in hempcrete to build homes, composites to build products like cars, and hemp-based packaging and plastic alternatives. Hemp-based products should increasingly replace specific uses of Styrofoam, plastic, and concrete, he added.
“Her forward-looking statements on the future of hemp and potential uses are intended to inspire the industry’s development,” he said, citing predictions about the future growth of hemp.
But there are challenges to using hemp in the United States.
For example, Gilbert Jenkins is partnering with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to make hemp jeans.
“We are in the process of sending a bale of hemp fiber to Poland to be processed into yarn because that capability does not exist in the United States currently,” she said. “Our textile industry is set up to work with cotton short fibers, not long hemp fibers.”
As for Ripple’s examples, they don’t represent the majority of current hemp use.
About 80 percent of hemp grown in the United States is for hemp extracts including cannabidiol, or CBD, said Eric Steenstra, Vote Hemp’s president.
Experts also told us that hempcrete is intended to replace other components within a wall, such as sheetrock, and not the concrete itself.
Also, hemp won’t replace plastics. Hemp fibers can be used to strengthen plastics and other composite materials. Hemp oil can replace the petroleum oil raw material for the plastic, which “is still plastic with all of its downsides,” said Gilbert Jenkins.
Hemp has scarcely penetrated the building and plastic replacement markets, Small said. “The future seems limited, albeit not impossible.”
Fried said, “Hemp has 25,000-35,000 known usages. That means it is going to be something that is going to replace plastics, and styrofoam and concrete.”
The number comes from a Popular Mechanics article in 1938 about the number of potential products that creates an overly optimistic picture of the number of uses. Just because a use exists does not mean that it is commonly available. Most hemp grown now is for CBD.
Fried said that hemp products will “replace” such common materials as plastics and concrete, but we found no evidence that hemp has the physical properties to truly replace these materials.
The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate this statement Mostly False.