Regenerative Hemp Farming in South Africa
Over 20 years ago, the South African government began investigating the viability of regenerative hemp cultivation in South Africa. Today, South Africa is still importing hemp products from other countries, largely because the country needs a sustainable, legalised system of production. But change is afoot, with applications for hemp permits opening in October 2021.
What is hemp?
Hemp is a plant species in the Cannabis genus, which is indigenous to Central and upper South Asia. The plant is mainly cultivated for its fibre and seed. Products that can be made from hemp include food, clothing, rope, nappies, canvas, biodegradable plastics, fuels, chain lubricants, paper, cosmetics, cement blocks, soap… the list goes on.
What is the difference between hemp and marijuana?
Marijuana is also a species of the Cannabis genus. While hemp and marijuana plants look similar, the marijuana plant is bushier than hemp. Both plants contain hundreds of plant compounds, including:
- THC, which has psycho-activity qualities
- Cannabidiol (CBD), which has anti-anxiety qualities
However, hemp has 0.2% or less THC. This means that hemp-derived products don’t contain enough THC to create the “high” associated with marijuana.
In addition, the marijuana plant has low fibre content and is not suitable for fibre production.
The regenerative hemp industry in South Africa
With willing and knowledgeable farmers, drought-resistant acclimatised genetic strains of the plant, the perfect climate and demand for the product, South Africa certainly has the means to create a successful hemp industry.
With more than 25,000 industrial applications, hemp farming could unlock an industry with a potential value of R27 billion annually and create thousands of jobs. In addition to the economic benefits, hemp also lends itself to regenerative farming: the plant is able to sequester carbon, it needs less water than many other plants, and it can be grown largely without herbicides and pesticides.
Is it legal to grow hemp in South Africa?
Both private use and private cultivation of cannabis was decriminalised by a Constitutional Court judgment in September 2018. In May 2020, the government redefined industrial hemp with a 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) guideline and are now taking the next steps to make regenerative hemp farming in South Africa a possibility.
On 29 October 2021, South Africa’s Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Ms Thoko Didiza, announced the opening of the application process for hemp permits. This followed the declaration of hemp as an agricultural crop under the Plant Improvement Act, no.53 of 1976. With hemp declared as an agricultural crop, the importation, exportation, cultivation, sale and research of hemp in South Africa is now permitted. However, the commercial use of marijuana remains prohibited in terms of the Drugs & Drug Trafficking Act 140 of 1992.
How to apply for a hemp permit?
Interested growers, researchers, processors and manufacturers can access hemp permit application forms, guidelines, requirements and guidelines on the department’s website: www.dalrrd.gov.za.
The regenerative potential of hemp farming
Regenerative farming refers to a system of farming principles and practices that regenerate soils by restoring the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nutrient cycle. It produces nutrient-dense foods and high-quality agricultural products while restoring the soil’s other crucial ecosystem services.
Hemp fits well into the regenerative farming model. It is one of the easier plants to farm regeneratively, and it has its own regenerative properties. Even though it is an alien plant to South Africa, it is an annual plant and therefore can’t be truly invasive.
Hemp and carbon capture
Carbon capture and minimisation are central to mitigating the world’s climate crisis. Hemp roots can drive six times deeper than some tree roots, which essentially means six times more potential to drive carbon into the earth. Cannabis sequesters up to 10,000 tons of carbon per hectare.
Fewer pesticides and herbicides
Hemp doesn’t require as many carbon-emitting and environmentally-damaging herbicides or pesticides as many other crops.
Regenerative soil health
Hemp’s deep roots aerate the soil, which means that it works well as a rotational crop, soil rehabilitator and prevents soil erosion. Traditional agriculture uses nitrogen, which adds to global warming. By sequestering carbon in the soil with regenerative farming practices and plants such as hemp, farmers also keep fungi and bacteria in the soil, which helps to remediate the damage done by conventional crop-protection chemicals. Using hemp as a rotational crop helps move agricultural systems to a polyculture farming approach and a meaningful change towards regenerative agriculture.
Hemp is a very versatile plant. Globally, hemp has a long history as one of the drivers of early industrialisation. The plant provided fibre for ropes and canvas for sails that powered maritime trade and helped to build the global market. It also provided textiles for clothing and played an important role in medicinal apothecaries.
Harnessing a previously illegal industry
The World Health Organisation estimates that South Africa is the third-largest illegal cannabis producer in the world. This puts the country in a strong position to develop a local commercial hemp market that unlocks the entire value chain:
- Creates jobs
- Stimulates economic growth
- Generates substantial tax revenue
- Encourage rural regeneration and small-scale industries
- … all in a sustainable way
The South African government stated: “We appreciate the fact that various rural communities and farmers across South Africa have been planting hemp for many years. These farmers and traders will be prioritised to ensure that the commercialisation of hemp contributes to their socio-economic upliftment. We are working with the provincial departments and national departments to ensure that adequate support is provided to producers including value addition.”
Getting the most out of your regenerative hemp farming
Like all agricultural preparations, starting a regenerative hemp farm begins in the soil. Whatever is going on under the surface of your farm before you plant your hemp determines the quality and quantity of the product that emerges. The hemp plant and sustainable farming methods will help to regenerate your soil over time. However, you may need to make some initial amendments to get the most out of your endeavour.
The team at RegenZ are pioneering and promoting innovative agricultural and food production technologies and practices in Southern Africa, including regenerative hemp farming.
Get in touch with the RegenZ team to find out more about soil health and regenerative farming in South Africa.