Wed | Sep 18, 2019

Yvonne McCalla Sobers | Coming up hempty

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2019 | 12:15 AM

Jamaican farmers could soon have the chance to grow hemp. Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries Audley Shaw has said that he will be looking at hemp production. He hopes that banks will be more open to dealing with hemp farmers than has so far been the case with ganja farmers.

Unlike ganja, no one gets a high from hemp because it is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and high in cannabidiol (CBD). However, there are hurdles for those who may consider growing hemp in Jamaica. Traditional ganja farmers, for example, will find no greater ease of entry to a hemp industry than they have so far experienced in trying to enter the legal ganja industry.

Traditional Jamaican ganja farmers have operated on relatively small plots of land tucked away in hilly locations. They have grown the type and quality ganja according to their clients’ tastes. The Jamaican brand is recreational and, therefore, high in THC.

For ganja farmers to be part of the legal ganja industry, they may be asked to

n switch to growing high-CBD and low-THC ganja for medical uses, even though Jamaican herbalists are experienced in using ganja as medicine without trying to separate THC from CBD.

n invest tens of thousands of US dollars in licences and in meeting criteria set by the Cannabis Licensing Authority. Ganja farmers who aspire to being legal need separate licences to grow, retail, distribute, transport, and carry out research and development. To qualify for a licence, for example, they must have security cameras and tracking systems.

n partner with overseas investors who have the economic power to insist on production regimens that are familiar to them and suited to their environment. However, these practices may be alien to systems traditional ganja farmers have followed (at great risk) while establishing the Jamaican brand.

n change to practices more usually associated with indoor rather than outdoor ganja farming. Large local or overseas investors may require local farmers to adopt farming strategies developed by northern farmers trying to maximise production and avoid surveillance in short summer months. To be legal growers of medical ganja, local partners will be required to grow plants in greenhouses under conditions controlled for pests, sunlight, energy, water, heat, climate, and temperature. Indoor grows provides a more consistent product than outdoor grows.

n meet increased costs such as new equipment, supplemental lighting and system set-up, repair, and maintenance.

Salvation in Hemp?

Hemp is a strain of cannabis that is among the earth’s oldest cultivated crops. Globally, it is a minor crop that is expanding rapidly. This plant is eco-friendly and is said to have 25,000 known uses, including providing raw material for livestock feed. Most important, hemp is used in producing biofuel, paper, and textiles. Hemp seeds and hemp oil are used in kitchen and factory, and hemp stalks have been used to create building materials.

Hemp farmers are now exploring the profits that can be made from producing CBD oil. CBD is legal to consume where THC is still under suspicion for its psycho-active nature and its association with the recreational use of ganja. The leading producer of hemp is China, which grows 70 per cent of the world’s output. More than 30 other countries worldwide are in the business of growing hemp.

Jamaicans who hope to be hemp farmers need to note that hemp farming requires

- a lot of land. It takes about 50 acres to make hemp profitable.

- seeds that can be certified and can be guaranteed not to exceed the THC threshold. A crop that exceeds the threshold risks being destroyed.

- special licences that will require fees and paperwork, and, possibly, criminal background checks. Restrictions on growing hemp in the US were in force up to December 2018 when hemp moved from being a controlled substance to being an agricultural commodity.

- sales and marketing and identifying competitive advantage in relation to at least 30 other countries producing hemp.

Ganja farmers have the most to fear from hemp cross-breeding. The longer a ganja female plant stays unpollinated is the greater the likelihood that her flowers will be bigger and better. The best quality-recreational ganja is from ‘sensemilla’ (Spanish for ‘without seed’), which is unpollinated and, therefore, seedless. Seeded crops are of lower value. The wind, as well as humans or insects, can be agents of pollen transfer. Further, pollen can travel great distances if conditions are favourable. Once ganja pollen from a male plant drifts to a female, she stops producing buds, goes to seed, and prepares to die. Cross-pollination can also compromise the value, yield, and profitability of hemp products.

Colorado, a leader in hemp as well as ganja cultivation, has experienced losses of ganja crops because of the proximity of hemp farms. A four-mile isolation area has so far had little effect on the cross-pollination, and industry experts have suggested a 10-mile buffer zone, assuming that authorities can pinpoint where to locate every hemp shrub and every ganja plant.

The introduction of hemp crops in the United States has led to ongoing lawsuits and court cases because of crop losses to pollen contamination. Protecting ganja from hemp will best be done with indoor growing of ganja, leading to increased costs for the farmer. Isolating hemp by growing it indoors is not an option. Hemp could, therefore, force ganja farmers out of business.

Minister Shaw is to be commended for proposing policies meant to ensure that the ganja industry is more diverse and more inclusive and more acceptable to banks. However, many issues would have to be resolved (notably cross-pollination and access to the required land, seeds, markets, and finances) before hemp could be considered profitable for Jamaican farmers to grow.

- Yvonne McCalla Sobers is a consultant in education, an aquaponic farmer, a human-rights activist, and a legal ganja grower of the five plants allowed by law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and sobersy@yahoo.com.