Summer is here, and we’re feeling mighty celebratory. Can you blame us? The sun is shining, and we just rolled out our brand new line of Broad Spectrum Hemp Extract products with CBD. Best of all, June 3 – 9 was this year’s official Hemp History Week — a time to celebrate the remarkable benefits and transformative power of our favorite plant. Break out the party hats!
As the global leader in hemp foods, we’ve been tooting hemp’s horn for more than two decades. But even that is just a flash in the pan compared to the long history of humans and hemp, whose symbiotic partnership spans thousands of years (and almost as many uses).
In honor of Hemp History Week, we thought we’d take a look back at hemp through the ages before taking stock of where we are today and gazing ahead to the bold, bright future rising over the horizon.
Humans and Hemp: A Love Story for the Ages
It’s hard to think of another plant that has played such a versatile and multifaceted role in human history. Hemp cultivation stretches back to the very dawn of human civilization, providing one of our earliest sources of textiles and paper, not to mention medicine, food and building materials.
Here’s a brief (if you can call 10,000 years “brief”) timeline of how humans have used hemp throughout history:
8,000 BC: Hemp becomes one of the first cultivated agricultural crops. Villagers in ancient Mesopotamia use hemp cord in their pottery.
6,000 – 4,000 BC: Hemp seeds and oil are consumed as food in ancient China, while hemp is also used to make textiles throughout China and today’s Turkestan.
1,200 BC: Hemp reaches Europe and from there spreads across the ancient world.
150 BC: The world’s first paper is invented in China, made completely from hemp.
23 – 70 AD: The medicinal properties of the cannabis plant are noted in early medical texts, including The Natural History and Pharmacopoeia.
1000: Italian ships begin using hemp ropes.
1492: Christopher Columbus voyages to the shores of North America on ships hung with hemp sails and rigging.
1533: King Henry VIII of England mandates that all farmers grow industrial hemp or face punitive fines.
1606: French botanist and apothecary Louis Herbert plants the first hemp crop in North America in what is now Nova Scotia.
1607: The first British colony at Jamestown is established. Colonists are required to grow hemp to send back to England.
1775: The American colonies begin selling hemp textiles directly to France and using the proceeds to buy weapons for the Revolutionary War.
1776: Thomas Jefferson drafts the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
Late 1700s: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grow hemp on their respective farms and plantations. As the early American monetary system is being set up, hemp is often used as currency.
1800: Cannabis plantations flourish across North America, in areas including Mississippi, Georgia, Nebraska, South Carolina, Kentucky and New York.
1890s: The chief botanist for the USDA begins growing hemp varieties and researching hemp cultivation techniques at the current site of the Pentagon.
1938: Popular Mechanics determines that more than 25,000 different products can be made from hemp and christens it the “Billion Dollar Crop.”
1942: The United States Army launches a “Hemp for Victory” campaign to urge farmers to grow hemp, cultivating hundreds of thousands of acres for the war effort.
1970: The Controlled Substances Act classifies hemp as an illegal Schedule I drug, imposing strict regulations on its cultivation.
1998: Manitoba Harvest is founded and begins growing, manufacturing and exporting hemp foods to countries including the U.S.
2014: President Barack Obama signs the 2014 Farm Bill, permitting U.S. research institutions to start piloting hemp farming for research purposes.
2018: President Donald Trump signs the 2018 Farm Bill, which once again legalizes hemp production across the United States.
A Match Made in Heaven
When a single plant species helped enable the first human attempts at creating art, feeding ourselves, clothing ourselves, treating our ailments, writing on paper, building shelter, voyaging overseas and burning renewable fuel, it’s pretty safe to say that plant has played a vital role in our evolution.
In biology, the idea of coevolution (first explained by Charles Darwin) describes the way two or more species influence each other’s development over many generations, often to their mutual benefit. Think of flowering plants and hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are drawn to flowers’ nectar, and in the process of going from flower to flower to enjoy this tasty snack, the bird helps spread pollen among the plants and ensure that they’ll continue to reproduce and thrive. Everyone wins!
The relationship between humans and hemp is similar. In exchange for humans’ continuous cultivation of this humble plant, it has provided us with the raw materials we need to thrive. And we’re not just talking textiles, fuel and biodegradable plastic (though hemp can be used for all those things). Hemp seeds also contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies need to function, plus fatty acids in the precise ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s that’s optimal for human health. Throw in the fiber, minerals and vitamins that hemp provides and you’ve got yourself a bonafide superfood, seemingly designed for the exact purpose of nourishing our health and wellbeing. Thanks, hemp!
As if that weren’t enough, in the 1990s researchers discovered the human endocannabinoid system. This system has since been declared the body’s “master regulatory system,” interacting with our other systems — including the nervous system, immune system and digestive system — to maintain balance and wellbeing in the face of injury, stress and disease.
Our bodies produce natural signalling molecules called endocannabinoids that interact with special receptors throughout the brain and body, helping to regulate everything from memory and mood to sleep and pain perception.
Know what else produces cannabinoids? You guessed it: Hemp. The plant’s phytocannabinoids — including cannabidiol, or CBD — help to enhance and support our own naturally produced endocannabinoids, giving us a gentle, safe and loving nudge back toward equanimity, resilience and wellbeing. (Hemp’s cousin cannabis also produces many of the same cannabinoids. The main difference between the two is that cannabis produces a much higher percentage of the intoxicating compound THC, while industrial hemp has less than .3 percent — far below a level that would produce a “high.”)
The bottom line? In a world that’s constantly trying to knock us off balance, hemp is here to help.
“Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.”
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
While hemp may be one of the most potent examples of a plant that makes natural chemical compounds beneficial for human health, it’s certainly not the only one. Salicylate, the active ingredient in Aspirin, is another prime example. It was first extracted from the bark of the willow tree. Humans used it for thousands of years as a folk remedy before scientists put it into pill form in the late 1800s. Now it’s one of the most common go-to remedies in medicine cabinets all around the world, used for everything from pain relief to reducing risk of strokes and heart attacks.
A Love Story Reignited
The signing of the last couple of U.S. Farm Bills in 2014 and 2018, combined with recent research into the endocannabinoid system, heralded a celebratory resurgence of humans’ long love affair with hemp. There’s been an explosion of interest in CBD in particular. As the most abundant cannabinoid in hemp (and one with a rich array of potential benefits for human health and wellbeing) CBD has burst onto the scene with much fanfare — and for good reason!
We know that CBD can help calm a busy mind, balance the endocannabinoid system, achieve restfulness and focused alertness, and even help hardworking muscles feel better after a workout. And ongoing research is helping to shed light on even more potential uses and benefits of this little molecular bundle of love from hemp.
Tilray (our parent company here at Manitoba Harvest) is currently spearheading half a dozen clinical trials looking at the potential of CBD and other cannabinoids to help with everything from anxiety and PTSD to pediatric epilepsy, substance abuse and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Next Chapter
Looking ahead to the future, we see so many reasons to be hopeful and optimistic about how hemp and humans can continue to work together synergistically to make our world a better place. As amazing as the plant’s potential is for supporting human health, it also holds great promise in helping us solve some of the biggest environmental challenges facing us today.
Green techniques and products such as hemp masonry could help us slow or end harmful environmental practices like deforestation. And hemp-based bioremediation can help remove toxic metals and contamination from the soil, helping to renew the earth for ourselves and future generations. Hemp can also be distilled into ethanol for a renewable and sustainable source of biofuel, helping us wean off of our devastating addiction to fossil fuels.
And there’s more to look forward to in the wellness sphere as well. As we continue to learn more about the more than 100 cannabinoids in the hemp plant (not to mention its other phytocompounds such as flavonoids and terpenes) and how they all work together to enhance each other’s therapeutic effects, we’ll continue discovering even more ways this remarkable plant has evolved to support our health and happiness — and just how much respect and gratitude we owe it in return.
This Hemp History Week, we’re full of joy and gratitude for the opportunity to continue championing our favorite plant, and to reciprocate a tiny fraction of the love it’s bestowed on us over the millennia. We welcome you to join us on our continuing journey of discovery and help us write the next chapter in humans’ long love story with hemp.