Hemp as alternative to cotton: less water

In a 1997 column,, Cecil adressed several aspects of the use of hemp today (and the not-existing conspiracy that supposedly killed it). He says among other things


Now, obviously the situation is different in Europe - I can buy clothes made partially or wholly from hemp, jeans and loose long-sleeve outdoor shirts from ecological cloths manufacturers; I don’t want to be accused of advertising as shill again, so I won’t give names here, but there at least two big eco clothes companies in Germany, respectable and profitable, besides the purely hemp, pro-marijuana initiatives. The big companies are experimenting and introducing several other fibers, like bamboo combined with wool and other exotic stuff, to replace plastic fibers, lessen dependency on oil, provide different feelings on the skin and different qualities, and a livelihood for the people who grow the stuff. They don’t give a shit about legalizing marijuana.

Now, in the popular science show Quarks, the topic was “Saving the planet with small steps”, and one part was about jeans (link in german): jeans from ecological cotton are much better because of no pesticides than normal jeans; but there still remains the problem that cotton uses a lot of water - see the Aral lakecatastrophe for the biggest example. Not only has the amount of fresh water shrunk incredibly, the fishers are no longer able to fish, but also, the ground is so poisoned with salt and pesticides that each puff of wind carries poision to the vilages nearby, so that life expectancy there has dramatically decreased because of the illnesses caused.

But hemp is an alternative that needs far less water than even organic cotton. For coarse clothes like jeans, it’s even more durable than cotton. For soft clothes, it could be combined, or treated differently - more research is needed.

So, please, Cecil, not everybody who advocates hemp is promoting Marijuana. A lot of people have far other concerns and are not even smoking normal cigarettes, far less interested in joints.

That’s not really accurate.

First off, in terms of total fibre, hemp has a much better WUE than cotton. However once you start trying to cottonise it as you propose, that WUE drops off dramatically because the amount of usable fibre declines, and the mount of water needed to process it increases. I don;t have figures to hand, but I suspect that cottonised hemp has a WUE less than twice that of cotton. That might sound significant, but it means that you use half the water to produce a second rate material.

Which brings us to the second point, which is that the “Aral lake catastrophe” wasn’t brought about by cotton, it was brought about by using too much water. If the same amount of water had been used on hemp the results would have been worse not better, because the are affected would have been larger. Unless you are arguing that cotton has mind control powers that forces people to irrigate it for no reason, the argument makes no sense at all. People irrigate to make money, and when there are no restrictions they will irrigate maximally. It doesn’t matter whether she grows hemp or cotton, a farmer that can use a gigalitre of water a week will use a gigalitre of water a week.

Physical water use efficiency is really only an issue under two circumstances: when there is no irrigation water, and when you are subsistence farming. Under other circumstances the only thing that matters is economic efficiency. If a farmer can make $100/litre from hemp and 1000/litre from cotton, they are going to grow cotton, regardless of how many kilograms of cotton and hemp those figures represent.

And that is the way it should be too. Your suggestion that the world would be better off if farmers in the Aral catchment grew a greater area of cotton to make less money while using the same amount of water makes no sense to me. Such a situation would help no one.

Sigh. I had hoped for input from the experts in many, even exotic fields, that dopers are, because - since it’s a popular science magazin - the original show didn’t give raw numbers, but only the end conclusion. Instead I get a side-tracked rant without any facts.

I assume that your term WUE means Water Use Efficency? The amount of water needed to grow hemp vs cotton and the amount of water needed to process hemp vs. cotton is significant because growing textile fabrics happens in rural areas, while processing happens in industrial areas, often not in the third world anymore, but in First World nations, which have a different climate (more water) and better equipped factories.

And as for second-rate material: tests have shown that things like jeans made of hemp are stronger than cotton-jeans, so especially for rough clothing hemp would be first choice.

What? The Aral lake catastrophe was most definitly brought about by cotton! Or, if you need it spelled out in detail, the decision by the Soviets to completly change a self-sustaining agrarian area with a booming fish industry to a cotton-producing area, because cotton was the “white gold” that would bring in cash (foreign currency), without any regard to enviromental consequences and effects on the people living there.
Hemp growing might have had an also bad effect - I don’t know, but then, I wasn’t suggesting that.

What have you been smoking? A good thing that I never argued somehting like that. There is of course a disproportinate amount of cotton being grown in areas ill-suited to it - a plant that needs lot of water grown in 3 world countries which are mostly arid - but that’s a function of it being a cash crop, that sometimes the World Bank or other debtors of the poor countries mandate. It’s like growing roses in Kenia instead of food, or growing tomatoes in southern Spain, depleting the water level from 4 m to 20 m. All stupid decisions which everybody knows that will have awful consequences in the long run, but are ignored because of the money to be made now.

Um, that isn’t really the question here at all. I know that people will waste water irrepsonible if the govt. subsidises the water so it’s perceived as “free” - which is why semi-desert Colorado is full of green grass lawns and Las Vegas in the desert is full of uncovered swimming pools, while the Mexican farmers on the other side of the border of the Colorado river get only a thin trickle of waste-filled water, that’s not enough to water their own fields, but since their government lacks the economic and military strength to force the US to play to fair rules, they have to stand by while the Americans waste water on frivolous things.

However, that’s the problem. The question or argument is as follows:

  1. we have to grow textile plants to make clothes for people. That’s undisputed.
  2. What kind of plantes - cotton, hemp, nettles, bamboo, etc. - to grow where - arid or temperate climate etc. - and how - with lots of pesticide and artifical fertilizer or the organic way - can and should be choosen wisely with regards to long-term consequences on the enviroment and the people living there, not solely on the question “what brings more cash right now?”

Both cotton and hemp, like any other plant, need a minimum of water to grow. That you can use more water than necessary isn’t the question. The question is, if the minimum water for hemp is lower than for cotton, than you can grow hemp in areas where growing cotton would be in-advisable.

I assumed that this would be self-evident, and I further assumed that dopers, as intelligent and general liberal people, would accept saving the enviroment as obviously smart and the current practice of growing cotton in dry areas as obviosuly stupid.

Apparently, I forgot to take into account the American mindset, where some ideas are simply too weird to be ever accepted: why save or even care about the enviorment if there’s money to be made? The idea of re-using cloth bags when shopping is strange and unheard of for Americans. The “enormous” amount of time and effort - all of about 20 min. - it takes to put washing on the line justifies completly wasting electric energy in a clothes dryer for Americans (because only poor immigrant people use the clothes line, because it’s forbidden, because the clothes would smell strange of fresh air instead of the chemical softener and the chemical artifical smell of dryer sheets). I mean, even Cecil can’t conceive of people advocating the use of hemp for enviromental reasons alone, he kept returning to people advocating the legalizing of marijuana, and making fun of people smoking joints.

Of the cotton-producing countries listed on wikipedia, several have arid areas. There’s no detailed listing of where in the US or India the cotton is grown, so maybe it’s done where there’s enough rainfall, although e.g. the Southern countries of the US which historically produced cotton also have little rainfall.

In many cases - like in Spain with the tomato growers, since I don’t have detailed infos on the situation in the US (I hoped to get information from experts here, instead of ideological rants) - farmers only concerned with the “economic efficiency” = making as much money as possible regardless of consequences get their irrigation water by simply drilling a well. This is illegal in that part of Spain because there isn’t enough water in that area, but the government doesn’t keep up, and the farmers don’t care. As a result of all that well-drilling, the water table has dropped from 4 m to 20 m, with disastrous results for the enviroment outside the tomato farms.

So “enoug irrigation water” depends on the viewpoint of the farmer thinking of “money now” or of the people with a longer view thinking of long-term consequences.

Yes, it should be that money is the only concern for people. Who gives a shit about the enviroment? Who cares about people in the 3rd world getting sick and dying from the pesticides in their drinking water? How stupid of me to not remember that there are AGW deniers among the dopers, and that a lot of dopers don’t believe that any measures should be taken against AGW if it might interfere with the industry making profits, because money is the most important thing ever.
I wonder, have you never heard of the Cree saying about not eating money, or are you determined to go the full mile to find out if it’s actually true?

Only I never made this suggestion at all! I don’t want the farmers in the Aral basin to grow any textile fabrics, only substince farming. Leave that area alone as much as possible, to try and save the pitiful rest of what’s left.

My suggestion was to use rational reasons when deciding where to grow what plants, but according to you, that’s not how the world should work, because if everybody only thinks of the money, we would be much better off, as we can see from the past century and the effects that destruction of the enviroment has had on people. I guess as long as you can’t see it happen to Americans, it doesn’t count?

constanze said:

Let’s see…

So far, the only ideological rants I see are coming from the chief accuser. Perhaps you should look in a mirror?

constanze said:

Wait just a second. You have just defended Blake’s point. According to you, the primary cause was the Soviets mandating that the subsistence farmers change and use their land for production crops. What Blake was saying was that it wouldn’t really matter if they had mandated cotton or corn or soybeans or hemp, because the farmers were no longer growing just to meet local needs, but rather growing to support export of the crops. That overuse of the land and overuse of water to support that growth is what caused the draught and the destruction. Were the farmers using minimum amount of water required, or just irrigating the hell out of it to make sure it grew well? Because irrigating the hell out of it is independent of the crop being grown.

No. First, the Soviets mandated cotton to get money. Which, according to Blake, is the way things should be, because that’s okay. (And if you don’t see the ideology in that - well, it doesn’t surprise me anymore).

Second, he claimed that water was wasted - I don’t know if more water than necessary was used, but cotton as a plant that needs lots of water was a bad choice.

Would other plants have had similarly results? Maybe, but we haven’t seen that. We have seen evidence of cotton been grown in an area that is not suited for it had very bad results both for the enviroment and the people who live there.

But according to you, any plant would have been bad, so it’s okay. No need to switch from cotton to hemp which uses less water because everything is bad!

Blake already said that farmers waste water if they can, you’re simply repeating the same argument. So I will try and rephrase my own argument again:

The question is, since textile plants need to be grown somewhere (undisputed), the decision what kind of plants and what kind of technique (using flood irrigation or drop irrigation) should be made sensible.

I don’t agree with Blake or you that money should be the deciding reason. I don’t agree with Blake or you that because people can and do waste water, all plants are equally wasteful.

Moderator coughs for attention: Let’s please keep the personal swipes down.

Constanze: I’m sorry you haven’t got the sort of replies you were looking for, but this forum can be uneven in terms of getting responses. Cecil’s columns (and especially back in 1997, when the internet had not grown, were geared to his U.S. readers: pre-internet, there were no non-U.S. readers. Hence, the U.S.-centric slant to that (and other earlier) columns.

Actually, we don’t have to grow textile plants anywhere. We can all choose to wear polyester and related synthetic fibers, brought to you by the petroleum industry.

Bamboo textiles are actually a form of rayon, which is an artificial fiber. The amount of processing necessary to make any form of rayon, IMHO, outweighs any so-called benefit of using sources alternate to cotton or flax. IIRC, cupric rayon is the worst of the bunch. Most of this processing is done in the Third World, due to the amount of nasty chemicals needed to process the fibers.

I don’t think any of the previous posts suggested that it is good to use water without regard to the environment just that’s what the Soviets did. The choice of using cotton was a Money choice. Had any other crop been more profitable, they would of chosen that. Your suggesting that someone that grows crops for a living should think of the environment first and his subsistence second. This is contrary to human behavior and why the EPA exists. In the US, people protest and laws change and behavior is controlled. Try going to a Russian or Chinese farm and try to start trouble, you’d never be heard from again.

constanze said:

No one has contested this.

Sure, there’s ideology there, I just find it hypocritical for you to be criticizing Blake for expressing ideology while you are screaming your own.

It’s a fair observation that cotton requires more water than some other crops. It remains unestablished whether water was wasted or just the minimal amount of water required to grow the crops was used. You are correct, Blake has asserted that more water was used than was required, and that that is SOP for farmers. Frankly, I only know what I read on Wiki, so I don’t know one way or the other what really happened.

According to me, if wasteful water use practices are in effect, then it doesn’t matter whether the water is wasted on cotton or wasted on hemp or wasted or corn - it is still wasted.

Petroleum is limited, plants are not. The sensible choice is to replace as much as possible made from petroleum with other materials/ methods, and use petroleum only for those things where it’s a real benefit.

An example: processing petroleum into plastics for throw-away baggies is a terrible waste, because we can re-use cloths bags, or make the bags from compostable starch.
Making food containers out of plastics has a certain advantage over other materials in certain instances (glass breaks and is heavy, for example).

This is new to me. I don’t know how much processing goes into bamboo, I only know that some clothes are made partially with bamboo fibers for their specific qualities, and my wool supplier now makes sock wool with about 10% bamboo for strength and durability. But I had assumed you just kind of peeled them to get the fibers or similar.

Quite wrong. I never said that people should think of their subsistence second! I did say that many 3 world countries are forced to grow cotton instead of substince food because the World bank and other debtor nations want cash crops.

It’s similar to all those people who are against introducing organic farming in the 3world because it means less harvest. No matter how factually wrong that claim is, and no matter how often it’s proven with facts to be wrong, people claim it’s evil of the ideological naive people to introduce organic farming to poor uneducated farmers, because surely they will go hungry now. *

Oh yes, laws change! You mean, Monsanto going across the border into Mexico to test illegal without consent or information stuff on Mexican farmers. Or Monsanto first polluting with their genetically modified plants the neighbouring organic fields, so the whole harvest had to be destroyed because of the contamination, and then sueing the organic farmer for growing their plants without license, instead of paying for the damages that should never have happened because they promised the seeds couldn’t travel that far.

Ah ideology again. Only dicatorships abuse the enviroment, not free market driven places like the US! And the third world countries where the US companies have a stranglehold because of debts and a campaign of misinformation. And the monopoly on the US and EU market against African goods created by high import tariffs.
Of course, that wasn’t the point at all because I didn’t mention China, and I used the Soviet as example for what we’ve seen.

But when I mention the US Colorado river as similar ecological catastrophe - not caused by cotton, but by simple greed and waste, and not prevented by the rather toothless EPA - then I get accused of ideology. Yes, that makes a lot of sense and is clear as mud.

  • In case you don’t know the real numbers: in 1st world economies, switching from modern chemical agriculture to modern organic farming means cutting your yield by 50%. Which is not a problem because we produce already worldwide double the amount necessary to feed the whole world. In 3world countries, however, esp. in areas who suffered from drought and malnutrition before, modern organic farming methods - making your own fertilizier from manure, rotating crops, supplementing crops, varying crops, planting vegetables - results in an increase of yield of 70 to sometimes 90%, because the current methods are ineffective, and farmers are in debt for the chemical fertilizer, the yearly seeds and the dangerous pesticides

If hemp is so great as a textile, why is not more of it grown in nations where it’s perfectly legal? You can import hemp clothing into the USA, so it’s not that.

We have had this discussion before, and while hemp is OK as a material for minor niche usages, it just isn;t that great for overall use.

And, although it could save some water, it’s apparently much harder to harvest. It also needs a great deal more processing to make it soft enough to wear.

Now sure, there’s no good reason for the USA to outlaw hemp, almost everyone here agrees with that. But Hemp is nothing special or super, and it won;t save the world. Dudes who push hemp seem to have a alternate agenda.