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Wonder weed

09 December 2012 - 02:02 By Tiara Walters
Green Life

Production of hemp, dagga's innocuous cousin, should be legalised, say fans of the crop

You wouldn't ban bamboo. After all, it's a carbon-absorbent, botanical wunderkind, with uses ranging from food to furniture.

So why ban hemp? For starters, it's equally useful. A versatile, hardy and protein-rich superplant whose cultural history dates back 10000 years, every bit of it - seeds, stalk, leaves - can be transformed into something practical (see box).

Hemp is a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis, which means you can smoke fields of the stuff and are as likely to get high on it as you are on bamboo. But the government banned raw hemp in 1903 because somehow the fun police got it spectacularly wrong and confused this innocent, functional plant with its psychoactive cousin, dagga. The plant is also persona non-grata in several other countries such as the US. It's doing a roaring trade in China, France and the former Soviet bloc, however, where hemp has always been a prized, legal commodity and supports multibillion-dollar export industries.

"But the whole prohibition side is now being re-looked at by many countries," says Tony Budden, co-owner of a Cape Town hemp retailer. "Nearly 40, such as Australia and Canada, have started growing hemp legally." But processed hemp, notes Budden, can still be imported into SA, an opportunity seized by Budden's business partner Duncan Parker in 1996 when he launched Hemporium, one of the country's first businesses to make and sell hemp products.

And now Hemporium has joined forces with Gauteng retailer House of Hemp to conduct SA's first commercial-research trials into the controversial crop. With a special licence issued by the Department of Heath, the retailers have planted four plots in the Western and Eastern Cape in a bid to demonstrate hemp's low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the stuff that makes you high. While dagga can contain up to 20% of THC, hemp contains negligible amounts at around 1%.

"We also hope the trials will show the job and wealth-creation possibilities of hemp," says Thandeka Kunene, national trial coordinator and House of Hemp founder. The trials, which already employ 47 people and are based in the Riebeek Kasteel area, Queenstown, East London and Mthatha, will be conducted over the next three years.

"If the trials are successful, government [departments of Health and Environmental Affairs and the police] has committed to investigate means of amending ... restrictive legislation," she adds. "The trials will also assist with organising potential hemp farmers into a national ... cooperative that interacts with government and self-regulates to ensure all who want to farm hemp are able to."

Says Budden: "Several government departments are showing support for a hemp-legislation change, such as the departments of Trade and Industry and Economic Development."

A 2011 Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report even lauds hemp's potential to "produce jobs and income in a ... poverty-stricken area [like the Eastern Cape]", and recognises it as "one of the most important fibre crops for SA" with a "never-ending list of benefits".

"It needs less fertiliser as it grows so well on its own by using sunlight very efficiently," says Budden. "In fact, it grows so fast it suppresses competitive weeds naturally." The Western Cape plot was only planted in November but already stands 1m high.

"It's also naturally pest-resistant, because hemp releases a hormone that tells pests they are full, so they don't hang around."

According to Budden, the plant compares favourably to a crop like cotton. "You get about 25% more fibre per hectare than you get from cotton. Hemp is not particularly thirsty, so it also uses less water," he says. You can also make food from hemp, as well as paper - and so cut down fewer trees.

And hemp builds houses. Budden's 187m² home in Noordhoek was constructed over eight months in 2010/2011 from imported hemp products - such as "hempcrete", a mixture of lime and the hardy material extracted from the plant's stalks .

Matthew Ballenden of Fresh Earth Food Store, a Joburg retailer selling hemp products, believes local hemp production holds "huge" benefits for store and consumer: "You talk about health foods and the first thing people think about is that it's bloody expensive. There are too many middle-men, three or four people all putting on 30%. It's a rip-off ... Hemp is only accessible to wealthy people who can splash out."

But, as Ballenden argues, perhaps "we can get the product to the shelf at a much better price if we can it directly from the local manufacturer. That's the future of business". - Visit www.hemporium.co.za or www.houseofhemp.co.za.

TELL US: Would you buy more hemp products if they were cheaper? E-mail walterst@sundaytimes.co.za.

Some uses for hemp

Clothes, nappies, fabrics, handbags, denim, socks, shoes, twine, rope, nets, tarps, carpets, geo-textiles, brake and clutch linings, caulking, paper, cardboard, fibreglass substitute, cement blocks, mortar, oil paints, solvents, varnishes, printing inks, putty, fuel, animal bedding and feed, mulch, compost, soap, shampoo, bath gels, cosmetics, food supplements.

- Source: Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Top honours for Tiara

Tiara Walters was named the environmental journalist of the year at the Sanparks conservation awards last week for her work as Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine's Green Life columnist.

Formally known as the Kudu Awards, the function honoured South Africa's top conservationists and environmental media.

Walters was awarded R20000, and recognised for "reporting in a socially responsible manner" and "giving extensive and balanced reporting on conservation-related matters".