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Mealie Farmers: “The Cannabis Thing – We Are Watching With Interest’: Biggest Challenge is the Legal Framework”

Mealie Farmers: “The Cannabis Thing – We Are Watching With Interest’: Biggest Challenge is the Legal Framework”

Cannabis is finally on the radar of South Africa’s grain farming industry, but not to feed the recreational or medical markets. Budding potential for grain farmers could come in the form of cannabis oil, but it’s early days yet and the policy framework remains shrouded in a purple haze.

Ed Stoddard, Daily Maverick

20 May 2024 at 06:00:00

This report was first published in the Daily Maverick on 19 May 2024.


“The cannabis thing – we are watching that with interest,” Tobias Doyer, the CEO of industry group Grain SA, told Daily Maverick at the annual Nampo exhibition near the Free State town of Bothaville. during the weekend of 18 May 2024.


“There are substantial investments going into the Eastern Cape. It is seen as an important opportunity because there are lots of people who have farmed it for a long time illegally and now it’s becoming legal,” Doyer said.


He was referring to the flowering medical marijuana sector in the Eastern Cape, which recently got a boost with Medigrow’s launch of the province’s biggest medicinal cannabis project yet: an indoor facility in the Coega Special Economic Zone near Gqeberha that will supply the export market.


The economic potential of medical marijuana – now legal in many developed economies – has long been seen as huge and low-hanging fruit for South African farmers and others to pluck.


A 2019 report by market researcher Prohibition Partners estimated that the industry could contribute more than R100-billion to South Africa’s economy and create 130,000 jobs – almost as many as the number of people employed in the flourishing citrus sector.


“The biggest challenge, to my mind, is the legal environment. It’s not sorted yet. It’s still a wing and a prayer to invest millions into cannabis,” Doyer said.


Possession for private consumption of cannabis is now technically legal – or not illegal – in South Africa. But for commercial purposes, only the medical and hemp sectors have legal status, and the full policy framework on all fronts is still evolving.


Cannabis oil seed market


What is of interest to the grain sector, which is in the food business, after all, is the potential for a cannabis oil seed market.


 “The cannabis thing – we are watching that with interest,” Tobias Doyer, the CEO of industry group Grain SA, told Daily Maverick at the annual Nampo exhibition near the Free State town of Bothaville.


“There are substantial investments going into the Eastern Cape. It is seen as an important opportunity because there are lots of people who have farmed it for a long time illegally and now it’s becoming legal,” Doyer said.


He was referring to the flowering medical marijuana sector in the Eastern Cape, which recently got a boost with Medigrow’s launch of the province’s biggest medicinal cannabis project yet: an indoor facility in the Coega Special Economic Zone near Gqeberha that will supply the export market.


The economic potential of medical marijuana – now legal in many developed economies – has long been seen as huge and low-hanging fruit for South African farmers and others to pluck.


A 2019 report by market researcher Prohibition Partners estimated that the industry could contribute more than R100-billion to South Africa’s economy and create 130,000 jobs – almost as many as the number of people employed in the flourishing citrus sector.


“The biggest challenge, to my mind, is the legal environment. It’s not sorted yet. It’s still a wing and a prayer to invest millions into cannabis,” Doyer said.


Possession for private consumption of cannabis is now technically legal – or not illegal – in South Africa. But for commercial purposes, only the medical and hemp sectors have legal status, and the full policy framework on all fronts is still evolving.


No Official View on Cannabis from GrainSA.


What is of interest to the grain sector, which is in the food business, after all, is the potential for a cannabis oil seed market.


Hemp and cannabis belong to the Cannabis sativa plant family, but the former has far less THC – the stuff that gets you stoned – than the latter. And oil, with a reportedly nutty flavour, can be derived from the seeds.


“A very interesting perspective is that cannabis is also an oil seed. When I looked at it the first time I thought the medical market is difficult for grain farmers,” Doyer said.


“Suddenly we sat up and thought that might be interesting as an alternative oil seed. We have sunflower, soybeans and canola. It might not be that far-fetched.”


Doyer was also clear that Grain SA has not taken an official position on the issue and is waiting to see a solid and certain legal framework in place, among other things.


So grain farmers in South Africa are not about to rush out and start planting cannabis for the oil seed, with the official Crop Estimates Committee adding it to its list of summer crops.


But what is of interest, given the hype around medical marijuana and the potential of the various strands of the cannabis economy against the backdrop of growing global acceptance, is the evolution in Grain SA’s thinking on the matter.


When this correspondent asked a senior Grain SA executive a few years ago about the potential for diversifying into cannabis, he looked at me as if to say: “What have you been smoking?”


With the growth of the industry globally and the prospects presented by oil seed, the response to such questions is cautious but no longer perplexed.


Cannabis cultivation may go against the socially conservative grain of many commercial South African farmers, but they are also innovative and quick to embrace new technology and markets – provided policy and the law are gin-clear. And maybe down the road, parts of South Africa’s grain sector may be cooking with cannabis seed oil. 


When this correspondent asked a senior Grain SA executive a few years ago about the potential for diversifying into cannabis, he looked at me as if to say: “What have you been smoking?”


With the growth of the industry globally and the prospects presented by oil seed, the response to such questions is cautious but no longer perplexed.


Cannabis cultivation may go against the socially conservative grain of many commercial South African farmers, but they are also innovative and quick to embrace new technology and markets – provided policy and the law are gin-clear. And maybe down the road, parts of South Africa’s grain sector may be cooking with cannabis seed oil. 


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