These are strange days. Covid-19 has enveloped the planet and humanity with unprecedented challenges, but also some opportunities to pause, reset priorities and reconnect with a slower, more conscious way of living. Obviously, there is massive upheaval, both in health aspects and the accompanying humanitarian crises due to the economic and societal impacts of the lockdown.
With a multitude of businesses already closing and whole industries dissolving overnight, we are going to need every arrow in our quiver to revitalise our ailing economies and one of the sharpest ones will be the Green Economy presented by cannabis/hemp.
Hemp is a descriptive term that refers to the non-psychoactive uses and varieties of the cannabis plant. Cannabis has been cultivated by humans as a companion plant for at least 10 000 years and is seen in many historical artifacts and traditions, even our word for canvas (derived from the word ‘cannabis’) and Afrikaans word for shirt (hemp), show our deep connection to this plant.
Over the years we have used it for its strong and durable fibre, its nutritious and healthy seeds and its cannabinoid producing flowers for a long list of applications including textiles, construction materials, food, paper, fuel, medicine and cosmetics.
It is only for the last 100 years or so that we have been prevented from utilising this beneficial plant through a series of draconian, racialised and irrational laws that typically state: “Cannabis, the whole plant, any portion or product thereof, are an undesirable dependence-producing substance.”
This effectively banned all use of the plant and led to authorities trying to eradicate it from the planet, declaring those who used it for any reason as “undesirables” and throwing them in cages for cultivating or using it in any form.
Recently we have seen major leaps in changing legislation around cannabis that are opening up markets and the ability for humans to build a beneficial relationship with it legally once again.
Here, in South Africa, Parliament has until September this year to bring cannabis legislation into line with our constitution as ruled by the Constitutional Court in September 2018, ostensibly around the right to privacy, but we are lobbying to extend to many other rights the current legislation infringes on, including the rights to:
– Human dignity – Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected. (Even if they choose to use cannabis);
– Security in and control over their body;
– secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development;
– health care services;
– enjoy their culture, practice their religion;
– administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair
South Africa has an opportunity to create laws that go further than the Right to Privacy and set up an industry that provides much-needed stimulus to the economy. This industry would provide jobs, houses, nutrition and medicine and attract direct foreign investment as well as the tax that our Minister of Finance has indicated he desires.
The first and most logical step should be to remove hemp from any reference in the Drugs and Drugs Trafficking Act and the Medicines and Related Substances Act and allow the Department of Agriculture to manage hemp cultivation and processing.
This would unlock the following industries for our farmers, manufacturers and consumers:
Hemp textiles – The hemp fibre is prized for its organic nature, is longer, stronger and less chemically and water intensive than cotton and produces breathable and durable fabric and clothing. It can also be used in technical textiles such as insulation and bio-composites as a replacement for fibreglass. It is biodegradable and sustainable and will help minimise the harm caused by polluting synthetic fibres that have become the norm in the textile industry.
Hemp nutrition – The hemp seed is full of good oils, including the omega 3, 6, 9 essential fatty acids that help modulate our immune systems, crucial to protecting us from virus attacks and helping recovery of infected people too. The protein in the seed is incredibly digestible and will help build healthy, strong bodies. A good farmer can expect to yield around two tons of seeds per hectare over a four-to five-month period.
Construction – The inner stalk of the hemp plant can be chipped up and combined with lime to create hempcrete, a better-than-zero carbon building material that is the green building material of choice. It has a high insulation and isolation factor and is lightweight and easy to build with, with low embodied energy. It can also help ease the demands on Eskom as hemp houses are much more efficient to heat and cool.
Cannabidiol (CBD) – The hemp varieties are low in THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) and high in CBD, which is non-toxic, non-psychotropic and non-addictive but prized for its ability to enhance and balance the functioning of the nervous system and endocannabinoid system that regulates things like sleep, inflammation, pain and anxiety.
Cosmetics – So often we are unwittingly putting harmful chemical onto our skin, our biggest organ, and into our environment when we use conventional cosmetic products. Hemp seed oil presents a wonderful alternative as a base oil as it is nature-based, biodegradable, moisturising and most hemp cosmetic manufacturers pride themselves in not adding any harsh chemical additives.
Hemp bioplastics – There have been some great advances in using hemp to make biocomposites and bioplastics which break down over time. This industry is still at a fledgling stage, but is one of the most promising areas, as we can so blatantly see the harm to ourselves and our environment by our reliance on petrochemical plastic products.
Job creation – All of these products will need farms to grow the raw materials, factories to process and manufacture them and businesses to market and sell them into a market that is ready to move back towards a more sustainable and healthier lifestyle. This will see investment, enterprise development and job creation at a time when we need it most.
Making use of all of hemp’s many applications would also go a long way towards repairing and restoring our planet. In many cases, choosing hemp is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly compared to other options.
Hemp has a fast and vigorous growth cycle, reaching up to three or four metres tall in just a few months. As it grows, the plant absorbs large amounts of CO2 from our atmosphere, helping to counter the effects of climate change.
The fact that hemp can provide so much biomass in a short space of time is part of what makes it such a sustainable resource. The demand for raw materials for hemp-based products could always be met by the potentially infinite supply. For example, if more of our plastics were made from hemp, we would be less dependent on limited and polluting petrochemicals like oil. Hemp plastics can also biodegrade naturally, rather than clogging landfills and oceans for decades to come.
Hemp is also gentle on our planet because it is light on pesticides. The plant has its own built-in methods for dealing with pests, which means fewer harmful toxins in our soil and water as well as healthier plant and animal life. Hemp’s root system can even purify the soil it grows in via a process known as phytoremediation. Toxic impurities such as heavy metals are absorbed from the soil, and stored in the plant matter. The hemp can then be processed, effectively removing these impurities from the ecosystem. Hemp phytoremediation has been used by Italian farmers to restore land near Europe’s largest steel plant and has even been used to remove radioactive waste from soil near Chernobyl nuclear facility.
The versatility of hemp and the thousands of useful applications it can be used for, along with the remarkable environmental benefits it offers, makes it clear that few other resources can address so many of our problems at so little cost to the planet.
The Green Economy is crucial to help us recover from the crash. Cannabis/hemp is holding out a helping hand, as it has been for thousands of years, to assist us in moving back to a way of life that provides for all our needs while respecting and nurturing the planet and its people.