China: A New Frontier For The Green Rush
Hemp brings in more than 10,000 Yuan (US$ 1,500) per hectare compared to just a few thousand yuan for more common crops like corn that is why Jiang Xingquan, a farmer in Northern China, sets aside part of his farm in northern China to grow cannabis every year in April. The size of the plot varies with market demand but over the last few years, it has been about 600 hectares. Since Heilongjiang province is near the Russian border, Jiang is growing the plant legally like every other hemp farmer in Hexin.
The growers sell every part of the plant and nothing goes to waste as the stems of the crop is being sold to textile factories to make high-quality fabric, the leaves to pharmaceutical companies for drugs, and the seeds to food companies to make snacks, kitchen oil, and drinks.
Jiang’s farm is located in China’s frosty north and is one of the country’s major centers for the legal crop. It has been revealed in an article published by South China Morning Post that authorities in the province turned a blind eye to its production before legalizing and regulating it last year. Another major growing area is in Yunnan province where the plant’s production has been regulated since 2003. Jiang said he and his family had tasted the vegetable oil made from hemp seeds. “It has a very strong fragrance and tastes good, but we felt dizzy after dinner,” he said. “We dare not try it very often,” he added.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, these areas account for about half of the world’s legal commercial cropland under hemp cannabis cultivation. Thanks to government support and a long tradition, China has quietly become a superpower in the plant’s production and research.
Plantations are flourishing both for commercial and illicit drug use since there are no official figures for the amount of the plant China produces each year. Government-funded scientists who study the plant’s military uses, including as medication and fabric for uniforms has been an integral part of this growth.
“Over the decades, researchers developed various hybrid species that not just survived but thrived in China’s disparate environments, from the Arctic conditions in Heilongjiang to Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to the subtropics of Yunnan.”
In 2014, the Ministry of Public Security said it found a large number of unregistered hemp and marijuana plantations across the nation, particularly in Jilin and Inner Mongolia.
Hemp cannabis is one variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, which also includes types better known as marijuana. Hemp only has traces of THC, the psychoactive compound in Cannabis. Both the hemp and marijuana strains of the plant contain cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive compound that has been used to treat a wide range of conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
For centuries, Cannabis Sativa has been cultivated in China, mainly for the plant’s strong fibers which can be turned into rope, fabric, and paper. Other parts of the plant, such as seeds and leaves, have been used in Chinese traditional medicine – but with warnings of side effects. Hemp fabric has dated back more than 3,400 years and has been found in Shang Dynasty tombs in Hebei, and the fiber is believed to have been the basis of the earliest forms of paper made in the country.
The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica, a pharmaceutical text compiled in the first or second century AD, warns: “A person will see a ghost after an overdose, [and] run around like mad ... After moderate long-term intake, [he or she] will be able to communicate to God.”
In 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been established and led by a Communist government, the government has classified the plant as an illicit drug and introduced some of the world’s toughest rules against its production, trade, and consumption. Under Chinese criminal law, anybody with more than 5 kg of processed marijuana leaves, 10 kg of resin, or 150 kg of fresh leaves can face the death penalty.
“Despite the tough laws, authorities have usually turned a blind eye to farmers growing their own low-THC varieties because they were an important source of income for some farmers. Farmers have largely been spared in drug crackdowns but in some areas such as Xinjiang bans on the crop – even the low-THC types – have been strictly enforced, due to concerns about drug abuse in the region.”
In the late 1970’s when China went war with Vietnam, the research of the plant really took off according to some scientists as the military needed to develop a fabric that could keep soldiers clean and dry in Vietnam’s humidity, and cannabis hemp offered the fiber that breathed and was antibacterial. Other studies explored the plant’s use as a drug in field hospitals.
According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, more than half of the world’s patents related to the plant are now held in China. The Western pharmaceutical industry has prompted concerns that the Chinese government or Chinese firms might take advantage of the patent barriers.
“We have seen the growing enthusiasm of farmers, and they are indeed planting low-THC varieties. But cannabis is cannabis. However low the THC concentration, massive plantations can increase the risk of drug abuse and lead to many social problems,” said Yun Chunming, a professor in the Institute of Bast Fibre Crops at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Hunan.
On the other, Tan Xin, the president of Beijing-based Hemp Investment Group, one of the largest Chinese companies advocating the commercial pharmaceutical use of the plant, said the company had partnered with the People’s Liberation Army to take the Chinese technology and product to the world.
A drug to treat traumatic stress disorder jointly developed by the company and the Chinese military was nearing completion of clinical trials, and it was just one of the many products from the plant with global market potential, according to a statement on the company’s website.
With offices in the United States and plans to branch out into Canada, Israel, Japan and Europe, Tang said the company was taking the plant to all member countries in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, an infrastructure scheme to link China with the rest of Asia and beyond.
“We expect the sector will grow into a 100 billion yuan industry for China in five years’ time,” he said.