Plant a seed, grow the economy!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Imagine if you discovered a plant that was so versatile that it grows just about anywhere, requires almost no maintenance, could be used for a huge range of products including incredibly strong rope, durable clothing and was also highly nutritious.

The oil from the seeds can be used to manufacture oil-based paints, in creams as a moisturising agent, for cooking, and in plastics.

The seeds can be eaten raw, ground into a meal, sprouted, made into milk (like soy milk), prepared as tea, and used in baking.

The fresh leaves can also be consumed in salads. Products include cereals, frozen waffles, ice cream, tofu, and nut butters.

About 44% of the weight of the seed is edible oils, containing about 80% essential fatty acids (EFAs); Proteins (including edestin) are the other major component (33%).

The seed’s amino acid profile is close to “complete” when compared to more common sources of proteins such as meat, milk, eggs and soy. The protein contains all 21 known amino acids, including the 9 essential ones adult bodies cannot produce.

Proteins are considered complete when they contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities and ratios to meet the body's needs.

It turns out that you would not be the first to discover this plant. It has been cultivated by many civilisations for over 12 000 years.

Its use archaeologically dates back to the Neolithic Age in China, with fibre imprints found on Yangshao culture pottery dating from the 5th millennium BC.

The Greek historian Herodotus reported that the inhabitants of Scythia would often inhale the vapours of seed smoke, both as ritual and for their own pleasurable recreation.

Jews living in Palestine in the 2nd Century were familiar with its cultivation. In late medieval Germany and Italy, it was employed in cooked dishes, as filling in pies and tortes, or boiled in a soup.

In later Europe, it was mainly cultivated for its fibres, and was used for ropes on many ships, including those of Christopher Columbus.

George Washington pushed for the growth of the plant and even grew it himself. In May 1765 he noted in his diary about the sowing of seeds each day until mid-April.

Then he recounts the harvest in October in which he grew 27 bushels that year. He and Thomas Jefferson (also a farmer who developed a better way to break the stalk by modifying a thresher) would also share the flowers of the plant for smoking.

They both preferred this to drinking alcohol or using tobacco, which they both saw as health concerns for the new land. Before the American Civil War, many slaves worked on plantations producing these crops.

There are many theories why this wondrous plant was first taxed, then outlawed by the US government in the 20th Century.

One claim is that businessman Randolph Hearst believed that his extensive timber holdings were threatened by the invention of the decorticator, which he feared would allow this plant to become a very cheap substitute for the paper pulp that was used in the newspaper industry.

Another claim is that Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in America at that time, had invested heavily in DuPont's new synthetic fibre, nylon, and believed that the replacement of the traditional resource was integral to the new product’s success.

In any event, dagga (or ganja or marijuana or hemp or whatever you want to call it) has been largely outlawed and persecuted around the world ever since.

Last week IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who is battling terminal cancer, submitted a bill to Parliament calling for the legalisation of marijuana for medical use. And it would appear that President Jacob Zuma is not unsympathetic to the idea.

“I was touched to see the man I’ve known and worked with for more than 20 years in this condition,” the president said.

I will go a step further and ask the president to legalise the plant in its entirety.

The state of Colorado in the US legalised cannabis last month. The state expects more than R6 billion in tax revenue as a result.

We can do better. Vast tracts of land that are currently useless can be deployed for marijuana cultivation.

This can be used for industrial purposes in paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, construction, body products, health food and bio-fuel.

Forget the social consequences – dagga is less damaging that alcohol or tobacco.

Real jobs will be created. And thousands of people who are treated as criminals for growing a plant can get on with their lives.