A Hit Song for Joe Biden
Former Vice-President Joe Biden has been rolling out major policy platforms to address COVID-19, rebooting the economy, Black Lives Matter, global warming and healing the virulent political divide spread across the country. This perfect storm of a global pandemic, the cratering of the US economy, massive civil unrest over police killings, extreme climate and bitter partisanship is forcing Democrats to rethink, pivot and plan for the uncertain times ahead.
However, there’s an unrealized opportunity that can begin addressing many of these issues, based on a centuries-old product that is gradually making a comeback. In his pursuit of healing the nation and renewing the spirit of bipartisanship, there is fertile ground for Joe Biden to plant new seeds for his first 100 days in office.
An Agricultural Revival
Actually, these seeds are already in the ground in farms across the country in the form of hemp cannabis. Hemp farming played a central role in the establishment of agriculture in the United States, as a source of rope, sails, paper, and clothing, and later as a medicinal product, before being banned as part of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Made legal again in the Farm Act of 2018, the public needs to understand that hemp can be bred as an industrial crop without the THC that’s present in psychoactive marijuana.
Up to now, the focus on hemp has been almost exclusively on the production of CBD oil (cannabidiol), a magic elixir in the healthcare, beauty, beverages and food industries. Leading cannabis researchers BDS Analytics project that the collective market for CBD sales in the U.S. will surpass $20 billion by 2024. As consumer demand keeps expanding, there needs to be increased government funding to accelerate studies on the science and efficacy of CBD.
Yet with all the focus on CBD and its healing properties, the unsung hero in this story is the enormous scope of sustainable products that can also be harvested from different varieties and parts of the plant. In addition to CBD, hemp can be grown at scale for producing greener alternative products for fuel, fiber, textiles, paper, animal feed, building materials and plastics.
To date, Biden has refused to endorse legalizing marijuana, but the legalization movement’s momentum was dramatically underscored by five state victories in the 2020 election. And evidence of the hemp industry’s bilateral support is the steadfast endorsements of Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Decriminalizing marijuana, which is long overdue, will certainly happen if Biden is elected, but if full legalization is still too risky a step, hemp offers him a safe path to reach across the aisle. And Kamala Harris can also step up as a hemp advocate, helping shed her image as a former prosecutor who’s been tough on cannabis.
It’s not every day a new crop becomes available as an alternative, profitable resource for farmers-one that can revitalize small, medium and large farms alike. However, overproduction of hemp in 2019 for CBD turned what was expected to be a boom market into a bust. Eight months ago, hemp was the fastest growing crop in U.S. agriculture, now acreage has dropped by almost 70% and there remains a glut of CBD still on the market.
Daron Joffe, author of “Citizen Farmers,” is a sustainable agriculture expert and was recently the horticultural consultant on a hemp farm in rural South Carolina. While the crop itself was a success, plummeting CBD prices reduced profits and the project also illustrated the broader scope of challenges facing American hemp farmers.
“Lack of financial capital, production issues and processing bottlenecks are casting clouds over legal hemp,” Joffe says. “Until burdensome federal regulations and local control issues are also resolved, large scale hemp production is stuck in limbo. But maybe hemp can be the seed that revitalizes rural farming. And once these larger issues are resolved, the sky is the limit for both CBD production and industrial use of the plant.”
We Are What We Eat
Also lost in the debate is that hemp is highly beneficial for farm land; it takes toxins out of the soil and has been scientifically proven to absorb more CO2 than any forest or commercial crop. As a regenerative crop, hemp represents a viable option for U.S. agriculture, at a time when a lot of big commodity crops like corn, soy and cotton are contributing to serious environmental and health issues. Lastly, hemp is a superfood and considered one of the most nutritionally complete food sources in the world.
“During this pandemic, we’ve come to realize that there are some weak points in our food supply chain,” says Lawrence Smart, a plant geneticist and breeder at Cornell University’s School of Integrated Plant Science. “One of them is meat processing and maybe as a result of this crisis, people might shift towards a more plant-based diet where we look at hemp as a source of protein. We’re trying to sort out the true market opportunities where the farmer can win, the processor can win and it’s a viable product in the marketplace for the consumer.”
Black Farmers Matter
Industrial hemp also represents a long-term opportunity for Black investors, professionals, workers and farmers to get in on the ground floor of developing industries from CBD to the numerous ancillary products. But lack of access to capital, technical assistance and the historical systemic racism in agriculture must be addressed. Cheryl Dawson, a Black entrepreneur and the president of Forty Acre Cooperative, sees new opportunities despite the challenges.
“There’s a surge in the Black farmer population,” she says, “but the FDA must distribute more Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grants to Black farmers. And the Black Lives Matter movement can also benefit Black hemp farmers and entrepreneurs because we have large corporations with billions of dollars in contracts that know they need to work more with Black businesses.”
An Agent of Change
Like all talk about national infrastructure improvement, hemp will require significant financial investment. To turn intention into action will require legislation, government funding and simultaneous commitments from the private and corporate sector, if for no other reason than purpose is good for profits, and profit drives change. Scientists around the world are moving at warp speed using the tools of genomics and socially conscious enterprises that actually make money represent the future of our financial system.
If Joe Biden is serious about making concrete progress on the critical issues facing this country, he will need to form coalitions of citizens, officials from both parties, activists and business leaders. And what could be more apropos than a crop grown by the first colonists, serving to benefit our health, the environment, our farmers, the economy and address racial inequality?
Our current surfeit of crises has created the perfect stage for Biden to belt out a new tune: nothing is more American than hemp.