Ancient plant provides modern­day material comforts

For thousands of years, people in China have been growing the Cannabis  sativa  plant  for  its  fibers, which are a good material for textiles, and its seeds, a source of highly nutritious food and oil, according to Yang Ming, a scientist with the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences,  who  is  the  country’s  leading authority on hemp.

In the 1980s, the newly instigated reform and opening­up policy saw Yunnan attract a large number of backpackers and adventurers.  They  came  mainly  for  the fantastic natural scenery and the cultures of various ethnic groups,he said.

“Occasionally,  they  found  cannabis in the wild and took some leaves and flowers surreptitiously at  night  to  smoke.  Marijuana,which was described as a ‘secret treasure’ by the travelers, has psychotropic qualities that were barely known to the local people,” he added.

Rather,  Cannabis  sativa  is  an ordinary plant cultivated by ethnic  groups  for  its  fibers.  Fabrics made  from  hemp,  its  industrial strain, have many good qualities:They  are  antistatic,  antibacterial and remain comfortable to wear despite  temperature  changes.  In addition, they provide good protection from ultraviolet rays and dry quickly.

 

In 1989, the academy established the  country’s  first  center  for  the study of the plant. The local government quickly noted the growing illicit use of cannabis by foreign visitors.

To halt the trend, it promoted the cultivation of flax. The initiative failed, though, because hemp fibers are less permeable than flax fibers and also attract less dust.

“People  from  ethnic  groups have used cannabis fibers for generations to make traditional clothing.  It’s  very  difficult  to  change their longstanding lifestyle,” Yang said.

To solve the problem, the provincial  agriculture  department  introduced  industrial  hemp  as  a replacement plant.

In hemp, the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the mind­altering compound found in marijuana, is less than 0.3 percent.

Hemp is an economic crop with no special need for quality farmland. Moreover, its short growing cycle of five to six months provides farmers with  opportunities  to  grow  other plants  during  the  rest  of  the  year, according to Yang.

As  an  easy­to­grow  plant,  hemp just  needs  sufficient  water  during the  germination  period.  However, the optimal time for harvest is short and male plants should be reaped first, because female flowers reach their peak concentration of cannabidiol, or CBD, at the same time, but the amount falls sharply once they have been pollinated.

 

“It  is  difficult  to  identify  the gender of hemp seeds before they are planted, so the harvest is very challenging  —  farmers  have  to select  male  plants  very  carefully without  harming  the  females’ buds,” Yang said. “Soon, we will try to clone female seeds to solve the problem.”

He said hemp seeds grown in different regions of China have adapted to local conditions, such as temperature and the average length of the day — the former dictates when the flowers will bloom, while the latter plays a key role in regulating plant heights.

Hemp plants worldwide grow to an average height of 3 to 4 meters.

“In recent years, we’ve been working on breeding new seeds that will produce  shorter  plants.  That  will increase  the  number  in  each  area and  will  also  fit  with  the  modern agricultural system,” Yang said.

His  team  has  been  breeding  its own hemp varieties, each of which has  to  be  tested  by  local  police  to ensure the plant contains less than 0.3 percent of THC.

So far, they have bred 10 strains, with  the  eighth  variety  producing plants  that  contain  1.3  percent  of CBD, the highest among all varieties nationwide.  However,  Yang  noted that it will be overtaken by a seed that  will  come  to  market  soon, whose adult plant has a CBD content of 5 percent.

“We’ve received countless messages  from  overseas  research  teams and companies seeking cooperation and  technical  assistance  for  seed breeding and CBD extraction. After all, we are the best in the industry,” he said.

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