The history of the hemp plant

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developing bud positioned in lower right corner with focus on sugar and fan leaves

What is the hemp plant

Hemp is a very versatile plant that can be used for more than 30,000 different applications. The most important parts of the hemp plant are: The bark fiber, which contains up to 85% high-quality cellulose (for comparison: trees only contain 30% cellulose); The core, a woody stalk; The seeds, which contain 44% edible oil; The leaf and the flower.

For more about the different products that can be made from hemp, see the blog about how we use hemp every day.

Hemp BC

Hemp has played an important role throughout history in various societies. For example, it is known that hemp was already used 5000 years ago in Siberia as a source of food and textiles. In China, hemp has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. Hemp was also used extensively in ancient Egypt. In the end hemp was also brought to Europe, where the plant quickly gained popularity due to the powerful fiber and the ease with which it could be grown.

a Dutch Ship in Melaka

The golden age for hemp

The use of hemp reached a major peak in the 17th century. What the Golden Age was in the Netherlands turned out to be the golden age of hemp. In the Netherlands, the VOC, the first multinational in the world, used hemp on a large scale. Each VOC ship contained around 50 to 100 tonnes of hemp. This was used to fabricate strong ropes (an average of 21 kilometers per ship) and hundreds of square meters of canvas (sail).

Canvas is a well-known international concept that is derived from the French word chanvre, which means cannabis. In addition, the hull of the ship was embossed with hemp fibers and treated with hemp oil for more water resistance. Many people also wore hemp clothing and there was widespread use of hemp paper, for example by master painters such as Rembrandt and van Gogh.

The end of the miracle plant

The continuing development of hemp abruptly came to an end in 1937 when the United States imposed a ban on its cultivation. Several countries followed this example and prohibited the plant, including in the Netherlands where hemp was placed under the Opium Act.

In 1951, even the Narcotic Control Board of the United Nations was persuaded to blacklist hemp. As a result, plant breeding and hemp development continued to fade into the background, both for the recently developed and rapidly growing pharmaceutical market and the manufacturing industry. A versatile agricultural crop that had been of great significance for thousands of years worldwide disappeared from the market.

A plant as war hero

However, hemp turned out to be indispensable during the Second World War and the ban was lifted temporarily in several countries. The cheap, strong fiber was a welcome raw material for the war industry. It was used for parachutes, uniforms and tarpaulins. The US government even encouraged farmers to grow hemp. To promote this, the propaganda film “Hemp for Victory” was produced. Immediately after the war, however, the cultivation of hemp was prohibited again.

The legislation of hemp

Since the 1990s, hemp has been legally grown in various places in Europe. In countries such as Italy and Slovenia, groups of farmers have joined forces to grow hemp together and in the United Kingdom there is even a residential area with hemp houses. The hemp market is also growing enormously in the US and Canada, especially with regard to medicinal applications.

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