The term chemurgy dates back to 1934 when several American scientists, researchers, and inventors advocated for the movement of using agricultural waste for industrial products. William Hale first coined the term in his book titled, The Farm Chemurgic (a). The leaders of the movement, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wheeler McMillen and William Hale, among others, discovered and wrote about scientific breakthroughs that revealed that agricultural products, like hemp and soy, could be used for chemical products.
During this time, the U.S. agricultural economy had reached all time lows. Half of the population’s income sprang from the farm and WWI brought high demands for agriculture; however, after WWI ended, agricultural demand was reduced but supply was not. This led to a surplus in crops and reduced crop prices, which caused an abundance of agricultural waste. The Chemurgic thought-leaders believed that agricultural waste was an enormous human problem that could easily be solved by using agricultural waste for products like paints, dyes, mats, rugs, oils, gums, waxes, etc. Not only would it fix the waste problem, but would also provide more income for half of America’s population. To the Chemurgic thought-leaders this option was far better than the options laid out in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which included soaking foods in kerosene and paying farmers to reduce production.
In 1935 the leading Chemurgic Specialists organized the Farm Chemurgic Council, which organized the First Dearborn Conference of Agriculture, Industry, and Science hosted by Henry Ford. The Conference hosted over 300 attendees of leading industry scientists and researchers to “explore ways of using agricultural crops in non-food industrial products” (b). The crops of conversation included soybeans and hemp among others.
At the time Henry Ford and George Washington Carver continued to work together researching the manufacture of fuels and components from agricultural products. Simultaneously, other companies like DuPont Chemical were also investigating efficient manners of extracting cellulose from crops and plants. These companies found that hemp, Southern Pine trees, Douglas Fir trees, and Western Hemlocks all had cellulosic properties that could be manufactured into paper, nitrocellulose, rayon, cellulose acetate and other cellulose-based chemicals. From this cellulose technology, DuPont Chemical invented and patented synthetic nylon with raw materials sourced from trees.
The biggest difference between sourcing cellulose from hemp versus trees was that companies had to wait a full year before the next harvest of hemp; whereas, companies could deplete forests to fulfill immediate demands. Beyond the minor supply issue, the problem with hemp came in 1937 when the U.S. government released the Marihuana Tax Act. This Act regulated industrial hemp seeds as if it were marihuana seeds, subject to a permit and tax.
This regulation did not deter Henry Ford and George Washington Carver from fulfilling their research to create the Soybean Car. The car panels were made from soybeans and the car ran on hemp ethanol. However, the Marihuana Tax Act did deter American Farmers from growing hemp because of the lengthy process and expense required to grow the crop.
When WWII struck, DuPont received government contracts to fulfill orders supplying the military with nylon; however, the company could not meet demand. The USDA then turned back to one of its original war crops, industrial hemp, to fulfill orders for ropes, parachute webbings, shoelaces and the like. However, this “Hemp For Victory” effort was not enough for the Chemurgic Movement. WWII created further funding towards and innovations in the petrochemical industry and synthetic industry. By the end of WWII, the Chemurgic Movement leader, George Washington Carver passed away and his research partner Henry Ford was quickly aging; the USDA mandated the Marihuana Tax Act on industrial hemp again making licenses nearly impossible to acquire. Families rapidly moved from farms to cities, and the U.S. as a whole turned to quick extraction of petroleum, creating a world full of petroleum-based products. The petrochemical age exploded leading America into dominance and the Chemurgic Movement faded with the hemp industry.
So why was the fade in the Chemurgic Movement so detrimental on our society? While a synthetic, petrochemical dominated America bolstered its international dominance and supported an innovative economy, America is now stuck in a chemical world. America led international markets and consumer demand to prefer one-use, non-degradable products, creating littered streets, terrain, and waterways. America designed highly effective, but often toxic chemicals for at-home and industrial applications without fully adopting the Precautionary Principle- assuming a product is unsafe until proven otherwise.
The growth in the synthetic, petrochemical world caused high demand in non-renewable fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and crude oil that caused excess release of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, causing global warming and, consequently, climate change in an unbalanced Earth. Had America continued to develop using agricultural waste as industrial materials, the world may not have dipped into the petro-chemical bucket as quickly as it did. We might live in a cleaner, healthier and safer world; but simultaneously, we might not be as technologically advanced as we are today.
Recently the world’s, slow but progressing, realization of the impact of the extraction of fossil fuels on Earth and society has created concern and a change in consumer purchasing decisions. Major corporations are noticing this change and are adapting their product lines accordingly. While the regulation on industrial hemp in 1937 was detrimental for industry development, the recent legalization and revitalization of the industrial hemp industry brings a new era of development to society, one that uses a pure and efficient crop to replace harmful, non-biodegradable, petrochemical products with a plant-based, biodegradable product. The key in this matter is to develop the industry in the most sustainable way possible so that it can live up to the sustainable name for which it is touted, and Verified Life Cycle was created to do just that!