/ 26 July 1996

South Africa’s first legal dagga farm

Eddie Koch

South Africa’s first legal dagga plot — an experimental project near Rustenburg in the North West province — has just completed pioneering research which could provide farmers with a lucrative new cash crop.

The Tobacco and Cotton Research Institute (TCRI) recently produced a report on a two-year research project aimed at developing a biological model for industrial hemp. This plant cannot be used as a drug but will have massive value as an industrial crop.

Paul Cohen, co-ordinator of the programme, says his firm, the Southern African Hemp Company (SAHC), received permission from the Department of Health two years ago to import five strains of hemp from the Netherlands in order to test their adaptability to South African conditions. The research project was jointly conducted by SAHC and the TCRI.

The first phase of the work has now been completed and the organisation is consulting with the Land and Agricultural Policy Centre in Johannesburg as well as the government’s land and health ministries about the prospect of moving into a more extensive development phase.

“This is a very serious project that could allow South Africa to develop an industry based on a genetic resource that is well adapted to South African conditions.”

Adds LAPC director David Cooper: “This is valuable research which shows the many constructive uses that cannabis may have. If more research around its potential is developed this could have possible advantages for new emerging farmers who could easily grow it as a viable cash crop.”

The plant could also be used by established commercial farmers to supplement existing activities. Countries all over the world are now using hemp to provide raw materials for thriving paper, clothing and building-material industries. The seeds of these plants are also capable of producing highly nutritional oils.

SAHC has completed a report on the potential for using strains of the type tested near Rustenburg for a range of industries in South Africa. The most useful applications for the local strains are in the pulp, paper, textile, food and construction industries.

Hemp fibres are used to make good-quality paper and building materials used in roofing insulation and construction boards.

The strains under examination at ARC have a content of about 0,4% of tetra hydra cannabaloid (THC) while the powerful dagga plants used as a drug have a THC content of 6% to 10%.

The great advantage of the plant is that it is well- suited to South Africa’s climatic conditions and does not require heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers — chemicals that have caused serious ecological damage in commercial farming regions of South Africa.

“If we can develop the non-intoxicating plant for industrial use here it would be a valuable example of how renewable plant resources can be used to promote development in a sustainable way,” says Cohen.

The LAPC now plans to send results of the Rustenburg study to Land and Agriculture Minister Derek Hanekom so that various state agencies can begin discussing policy about the prospect of allowing a legitimate hemp industry in South Africa.

Some agricultural economists argue that dagga is already one of the country’s biggest cash crops — rivalling the sugar industry in terms of the amount of money it turns over annually and an activity that funnels money into poor households — and that it would be easy for small farmers to switch to non- toxic and legal variants.

Cooper says one of the major problems to be addressed before any moves to legalise some strains of hemp is the possibility that non-toxic strains will be used as a cover for growing the real thing on rural farms.

However, with an effective regulatory system, hemp could become one of South Africa’s most innovative ways of using the land.

Hemp strains are the basis of legal industries in China, India, England, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, the Czech Republic, and numerous other states.