Many Latin American countries are turning to industrial cannabis production and pursuing a sustainable economy based on hemp and its by-products. Uruguay and Colombia are at the forefront: these countries are already issuing licences and have established regulations for most uses. In Chile, Law No. 20.000, enacted in 2000 and amended in 2015, has decriminalised self-cultivation for medical and recreational purposes. Additionally, the Chilean House of Representatives has passed a bill, the “Safe Cultivation Bill”, which is now stalled in the Senate. Ecuador considers reforms and grants some licences to begin pilot tests and cultivation for medical research.
What is Hemp?
From a botanical perspective, cannabis is classified into three species: Sativa, Indica and Ruderalis. Their main differences lie in their size, their height, and the climate they grow in. Additionally, the species of a plant will also determine its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa with low THC levels and some cannabidiol (CBD) content. This crop and its derivatives can entirely replace oil products. Apart from that, hemp protein is deemed as a superfood: hemp seed and seed oil enjoy a great reputation because of their high omega 3, 6 and 9 contents.
What Can Hemp be Used for?
A wide variety of hemp by-products can be obtained from this crop–e.g., biofuels such as biodiesel using hemp seed oil, hemp protein powder using the residual product from seed oil, and bioethanol by fermentation, which is possible thanks to hemp stem and its high cellulose content. Apart from that, this plant can be employed to manufacture resistant textiles and cellulose derivatives.
Farmers are turning to sustainability and profitability by growing hemp to produce cloth, seed oil, hemp protein powder and biopolymers used as a substitute for petroleum-based plastics. Hemp properties are widely known in the industry, but the stigma around this crop has acted as a barrier to all its by-products. The production of this plant is still closely monitored by the courts of each country and its distribution is dependent on global demand.
Hemp Growing and its Latin American Legal Framework
According to Diego Bertone, an Agricultural Engineer specialised in industrial and medical hemp in Argentina, hemp can grow in any climate and soil. Its single threat is the legal framework set by each country. Hemp production is highly profitable, and in countries like Poland and the USA, seed banks improve its quality on a daily basis to obtain better results. Hemp crop management does not require herbicides of any kind; its crop growth rate is so high that it thrives over weed, causing it to suffocate.
Colombia and Uruguay–Leading the Way
In Latin America, some countries allow the industrial production of hemp, such as Colombia and Uruguay, where lawmakers introduced a change in agricultural economics and sustainability. They turn towards green manufacture and provide an alternative for the fashion industry and hemp clothing, while at the same time they create jobs at labs related to the extraction of cannabis oil and its by-products.
In December 2020, Hempfull Colombia has begun a pilot project to grow hemp that is then used by local spinners from Boyacá to produce hemp-based textiles employing their experience and ancient techniques. The goal of this company is to market a high-quality product with a renowned reputation both at home and abroad.
Hemp in Chile and Ecuador
Chile has become the first country in the region to authorise cannabis cultivation on a large scale and with high THC levels. However, most Chileans access cannabis through self- or cooperative cultivation. Some companies with a licence to grow this crop, such as Dayacann, Alef Biotechnology and Agrofuturo, benefit from large-scale hemp cultivation since 2000. In 2016, Fundación Daya, a non-profit organisation, became the largest producer of medical cannabis in Latin America, with an estimate of 1.5 tons of crop harvested up to April that year.
On November 30, 2020, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock issued licences authorising the sale of hemp seeds and cuttings, industrial hemp cultivation, hemp plant breeding and the establishment of hemp seed banks. This governmental organisation regulated the hemp industry through seven types of licences.
Cotton needs 9.7 litres (2.14 imperial gallons) of water to produce 1 kg (35.274 ounces) of fibre, whereas hemp needs only 2.1. Hemp acts as a natural pesticide against insects, nematodes, mites and weed. Therefore, it requires less pest control than cotton. This new attitude adopted by some Latin American countries is a good start to transition towards a more responsible agricultural industry.