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Hemp - Cannabis sativa - 14 April 2009

Guest article by Tony Budden from Hemporium

Industrial hemp refers to the non-psychoactive varieties of the Cannabis plant. The diverse range of products derived from this very useful plant include durable fibres, paper, construction materials, nutritional and health products and oils. Hemp is easily grown using organic farming methods and has a very fast rate of growth, exceeding the yields of most comparable crops.

Industrial hemp has a rich history, and its extensive use can be tracked through nearly every culture and civilisation. It is believed that it was the first crop cultivated for fibre and the word “Canvas” is directly related to “Cannabis”. It is only in the past century that this enormously beneficial plant has been criminalised.

In 1937, at a time when synthetic fibres and cotton were gaining popularity, a concerted campaign was run by various paper, nylon and chemical producers against their natural competition, the hemp producers. They did this by making industrial hemp indistinguishable from its psychoactive cousin marijuana. (Even the semantics of calling hemp “marijuana”, a Mexican word, leveraged racial prejudices to help get the plant criminalised). The US congress succumbed to this campaign of mis-information and banned the entire cannabis plant.

In recent times this error of judgement is being exposed and recognised and there are now over 30 industrialised nations that have legitimate hemp industries including Canada, China, Australia and most of the EU. The U.S.A still maintains the ban in place, but even there we are seeing progress with several states allowing industrial hemp to be grown under permit, but with the DEA still enforcing the ban and thereby prohibiting growth.

In South Africa we have had industrial hemp trials for the past 10 years and it has been demonstrated that industrial hemp would flourish in our growing conditions. There are several exciting projects underway that could jump-start the industry as soon as the legislative issues have been resolved.

Hemp vs Dagga

It is important to clarify the difference between industrial hemp and its cousin, marijuana (commonly referred to as dagga in South Africa). Although they are both of the Cannabis family, hemp is grown predominantly for its fibre and seed while dagga is cultivated for its psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content.

Most industrial hemp strains have a THC content of less than 0.3%, while dagga typically has between 3% and 15% THC content in the flowers. Industrial hemp has absolutely no value as a psychoactive recreational drug, and law enforcement can be trained to easily recognise the difference between the two.

The way that hemp is grown is very different to dagga. Hemp fibre strains are planted very close together (200 plants per square metre) causing competition for light and leading to long thin plants up to 4 metres high. The prized fibres are found in the stalk. Hemp grown for seed will have male plants present in the field and flowers that are bursting full of seed at harvest time. Dagga, on the other hand, is grown in short bushy plants to maximise flower growth, and the male plants are eradicated as the seed is not wanted. Anyone can be trained to recognise the intended use of the crop as the visual difference between the two is quite obvious. Attempting to use a hemp field to hide dagga plants would not be effective as the low THC hemp would cross-pollinate the dagga and decrease its value as a drug.

To further eliminate any possibility of abuse, it is proposed that growing, hemp should be run on a licensing system as no illegal dagga grower is likely to declare his name, address and location of his crop and farm to the authorities, no matter how well he thinks he could disguise it.

A Multitude of Uses

Almost the entire hemp plant can be used to make a multitude of end products. In a 1939 edition of Popular Mechanics, hemp was dubbed the “New Billion Dollar Crop” with its 25000 end uses, and today it could be argued there are indeed even more. The fact that you can get all these products from a single plant that grows from seed to maturity in 4-6 months, with minimal use of pesticides and herbicides, makes it one of the most unique and beneficial plants available for humans to use.

The outer bast fibre from the stalk can be used for clothing, canvas and rope whilst the inner core fibre (or hurds) can be used for construction and paper production. (It is an interesting fact that the American Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, as well as the Gutenberg Bible). Hemp makes four times the amount of paper pulp per acre than trees on a sustainable basis.

Hemp fibre is much stronger than cotton, grows with minimal need for pesticides and fertiliser, and is UV and mould resistant. Hemp fabrics are extremely durable and the hollow nature of the hemp fibre contributes to air circulation, resulting in breathable clothing that is cool in hot weather and warm in the cold.

Early in to the 21st century, researchers began studies on hemp cellulose in the hopes of finding a more affordable and renewable raw material for plastics. Not surprisingly some interesting results have been found and studies continue to date. Daimler-Chrysler is currently using hemp in many of the interior panels of their cars, replacing fibreglass. Not only is it biodegradable, but it is stronger and does not splinter in the event of a collision. Hemp fields in the Eastern Cape could be planted to supply the large automotive industry around Uitenhage. Another interesting hemp-fact is that Henry Ford built a prototype car made out of agricultural fibre bio composites, including hemp, which ran on bio-fuel. If this prototype had been developed further, it is possible that the world might not be so intensely reliant on fossil fuels as we are today.

Social and Developmental value

The cultivation of hemp can also meet many of the developmental needs that our country faces, especially with regards to job-creation, nutrition and housing.

In South Africa we face many unique challenges and for the hemp industry to succeed we would need to make it accessible to the emerging farmer. To do this we need to ensure that they have access to seeds, farming and harvesting equipment, processing machinery and markets. To meet this challenge, the concept of Sustainable Integrated Village in Agro-ecology, or SIVA, has been developed by the National Organic Produce Initiative (NOPI).

With a pilot project already identified in Sir Lowry’s Pass village in the Western Cape, SIVA’s can be positioned around the country to manage local farmers and to provide training, seed distribution, equipment and machinery stores.. Through the SIVA system, a hemp industry can be instrumental in providing jobs, housing, nutrition and much more.

Another exciting project to come out of this concept is the “Grow your House” project which aims to build 20 000 affordable homes in South Africa, partly financed through the carbon credits that the project would earn. Once the primary product of hemp, the fibre, has been removed, the stalk or “hurds” remain. These are very high in cellulose, and when ground up and mixed with ash and lime, a natural cement is formed. The chipped stalk and lime mix can also be cast into bricks which are 7 times lighter than clay bricks. The French have been instrumental in developing this technology, and have used it to build many houses in France.

Compressed hemp stalk chips also make a good chipboard that is an effective insulator which is pest, mould and fire resistant. Hemp fibres have long been used as carpet backing, and can also be woven into insulation/isolation mats that are an environmentally friendly alternative to the fibre-glass insulation currently used in most houses.

Many jobs can be created both on the farms and in the industry that would have to be set up to process and manufacture the raw hemp into finished products. Mills would be needed to produce paper, presses for the manufacture of hemp oil from the seeds and factories to produce the textiles and construction materials.

Another way hemp can make a marked difference in the quality of life for many of our citizens is as a nutritional supplement. Hemp seed is high in the protein Globulin Edistin, which is a very easily digestible hypoallergenic protein that can be of great benefit to people with nutrition blocking diseases such as HIV and TB. Add to this the fact that hemp seed oil is one of the few plant sources that contain Omega 3, 6 and 9 in perfect ratios for our body, as well as all the essential amino acids. Essential fatty acids also help boost the immune system and assist the brain in absorbing protein. Hemp seeds are not psychoactive.

In this country, hemp cultivation can be offered as an addition to traditional farming as a rotation crop. Not only will hemp add value to a farms production, but because of hemp’s incredible rate of growth and canopy of leaves it chokes out all other weeds, making the use of herbicides unnecessary. Hemps long taproot also penetrates deep into the soil, breaking it up and leaving it ready for the next crop. Hemp fits in perfectly with a holistic approach to farming, one that focuses on sustainability and organic practices.

The Agricultural Research Council and the Department of Agriculture in South Africa have been conducting hemp research trials for several years now, and have proved that hemp is a viable agricultural crop. Potential strains for our climate and soils have been identified, as well as the best areas to grow it in. It is now only politics and regulations that are holding it back. Because of its relationship to dagga, hemp licensing is still controlled by the Department of Health. Studies are underway to determine how we can go about legalising hemp. Canada has had a legal hemp crop for the past 10 years and there is hope that we can model our legislation on theirs where Medicinal/Recreational use of Cannabis is controlled by the Department of Health and Industrial use by the Department of Agriculture.

From a ‘sustainable development’ perspective, hemp production is definitely a step in the right direction as it replaces our current dependency on synthetics and chemicals and promotes the use of sustainable and renewable resources. This represents a great positive leap towards a healthier greener planet.