Small, E. and D. Marcus. 2002. Hemp: A new crop with new uses for North America. p. 284–326. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.
Although the environmental and biodiversity benefits of growing hemp have been greatly exaggerated in the popular press, C. sativa is nevertheless exceptionally suitable for organic agriculture, and is remarkably less “ecotoxic” in comparison to most other crops (Montford and Small 1999b).
Figure 50 presents a comparison of the ecological friendliness of Cannabis crops (fiber, oilseed, and narcotics) and 21 of the world’s major crops, based on 26 criteria used by Montford and Small (1999a) to compare the ecological friendliness of crops.
Cannabis sativa is also relatively resistant to weeds, and so usually requires relatively little herbicide. Fields intended for hemp use are still frequently normally cleared of weeds using herbicides, but so long as hemp is thickly seeded (as is always done when hemp is grown for fiber), the rapidly developing young plants normally shade out competing weeds.
Hemp as an Agricultural Barrier
One of the most curious uses of hemp is as a fence to prevent pollen transfer in commercial production of seeds. Isolation distances for ensuring that seeds produced are pure are considerable for many plants, and often impractical. At one point in the 1980s, the only permitted use of hemp in Germany was as a fence or hedge to prevent plots of beets being used for seed production from being contaminated by pollen from ruderal beets. The high and rather inpenetrable hedge that hemp can produce was considered unsurpassed by any other species for the purpose. As well, the sticky leaves of hemp were thought to trap pollen. However, Saeglitz et al. (2000) demonstrated that the spread of beet pollen is not effectively prevented by hemp hedges. Fiber (i.e. tall) cultivars of hemp were also once used in Europe as wind-breaks, protecting vulnerable crops against wind damage. Although hemp plants can lodge, on the whole very tall hemp is remarkably resistant against wind.
Preliminary work in Germany (noted in Karus and Leson 1994) suggested that hemp could be grown on soils contaminated with heavy metals, while the fiber remained virtually free of the metals. Kozlowski et al. (1995) observed that hemp grew very well on copper-contaminated soil in Poland (although seeds absorbed high levels of copper). Baraniecki (1997) found similar results. Mölleken et al. (1997) studied effects of high concentration of salts of copper, chromium, and zinc on hemp, and demonstrated that some hemp cultivars have potential application to growth in contaminated soils. It would seem unwise to grow hemp as an oilseed on contaminated soils, but such a habitat might be suitable for a fiber or biomass crop. The possibility of using hemp for bioremediation deserves additional study.