The highly respected and influential organizations Regeneration Belize (RB)1 and Pro-Organic Belize (POB)2 , and their affiliate members and organizations engage considerable efforts in Belize to promote sustainable agronomic practices which both protect and restore the soil and thus indirectly improve human health, with diminishing reliance on the use of synthetic/chemical inputs (both fertilisers and pesticides).
Within both organizations, there are ongoing discussions over advocacy which promotes regenerative agriculture3 as a key element of the agronomic strategy for consideration in the context of the Government of Belize’s exploratory initiative through the Ministry of New Growth Industries, to assess the feasibility of developing a multiple-use hemp-marijuana (CBD-THC) industry for Belize. The debate is whether there should be diversification along this line any at all.
Placed in perspective, the discussion within the organizations has highlighted, as it has in the wider society, sharp differences in views —mainly on health and moral grounds — on whether Belize should stick to a hemp production strategy only, or diversify into the commercialization of the lucrative, high-yield, medicinal/recreational marijuana varieties.
So, at a fundamental level, RB and POB consider public and farmer education to be an essential component of this initiative in order to generate a better understanding of the relevant issues involved. They also consider it essential to generate public appreciation for the differences and commonalities between the fibre, food source and other commercialized potential uses of hemp, and the derived medicinal therapeutic value of the related Cannabis Sativa plant as viable enterprises.
The generally observed wisdom is that if well-implemented, these initiatives can significantly provide pragmatic diversification in the agricultural sector, and expand its contribution to economic growth through an adaptive, climate-friendly regeneration strategy and plan of action.
Regeneration Belize is the Belize chapter of the international NGO, Regeneration International (RI), which was formed in June 2015, when some 60 participants from 21 nations — entrepreneurs, farmers and scientists, representatives of educational institutions, policy-makers and NGOs —met in Costa Rica to form the international movement called Regeneration International. RI is committed to a common goal: to reverse global warming and end world hunger by facilitating and accelerating the global transition to a “regenerative” agriculture. The mission of Regeneration Belize, which was formed in 2018, is to publicize and facilitate information exchange regarding the benefits of regenerative systems of agriculture to farmers, governmental agencies and representatives, consumers, like-minded organizations and the public.
RB’s activities flow from this and concentrate on the regeneration of ecological health, including soil fertility and biodiversity through public education initiatives and technical advisory support to stakeholders, including the Ministry of Agriculture’s Research and Extension services.
RB’s overarching objectives promote regenerative systems of farming, in principle and in practice, which increase biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds and enhance ecosystem services. Through its educational thrust, RB’s activities focus on all farmers, regardless of size, promoting the benefits of regenerative agriculture. This natural science-derived method of reviving the life in the soil – oftentimes depleted by chemical inputs– fundamentally relies on harnessing the symbiotic benefits of photosynthesis combined with a range of soil regenerative organic material sources which any farmer can acquire or produce, and apply.
RB accesses the biannual publication, The Belize Ag Report, for dissemination of its articles and is well-established in social media. It has tracked developments in the nascent hemp industry and contributed to the national discussion on its potential multiple uses at the Government of Belize’s National Symposium on Hemp held in 2018.
Pro-Organic Belize Pesticide-Free Consumer Group (POBCG) was established in 2016 as part of POB’s mission to educate, inspire, and encourage farmers regarding the benefits and opportunities of a sustainable pro-organic system of agriculture that regenerates the soil, and to educate consumers on the health benefits of pesticide-free produce. Through education and supportive services, POB helps farmers and consumers understand the benefits and opportunities in growing and consuming organically grown food, which involves an essential shift in agriculture from using toxic chemicals that compromise the integrity of the environment, our food, our water, our soil, and our health to natural more cost-effective agricultural practices that promote well-being and sustainability. POB holds the view that hemp is a viable resource for raw materials that can be incorporated into an estimated 50,000 commercial products and is now legally grown in over 30 countries around the world.
POB Karen Westdyk’s article in issue 44 of The Belize Ag Report’s “Quest for the Right Cultivars”, observes that “Hemp is not only far more environmentally friendly, but it can save the health and pockets of our farmers far more than traditional agricultural crops, since it requires less water, little if any pesticides, and eliminates the need for expensive toxic weed killers when used in rotation, and hemp will actually clean the soil of contaminants wherever it is grown.”
POB expresses science-based confidence that hemp could be a very large part of the solution to the problems associated with climate change, with compromised soil, water and air pollution, as well as the economic woes now being experienced due to the vicissitudes of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms. Westdyk comments, “Fortunately for us, the world is responding by encouraging farmers to grow it after nearly 100 years of prohibition based on disinformation by lumping it together with its cousin, marijuana.”
POB sees the need for a careful approach to be taken in developing the national hemp and marijuana industry in Belize, noting the difficulties encountered by many states in attempting to do so. Investment proposals need to be assessed by experts. It is fortunate that such expertise can be obtained pro bono. A pivotal and accessible source of such expertise is the NGO 613Partners,4 which has expressed its availability to provide advice on the development of all aspects of the national hemp and marijuana industry in Belize.
Who Should Benefit?
A prudent and practical approach is necessary on the part of the Government of Belize in identifying contributive sources and inputs for technical assessments, focusing on soil, seed, and cultivar issues, geographical dispersion strategies, a small farmer industry engagement strategy, licensing of famers, quality control, and identification of reliable sources of strategic investment advice.
One particular area of interest for possible pilot-targeting is the sugarcane-growing northern districts where cane farmers are being increasingly displaced because of low productivity, quality issues, high input costs, and increasing diseconomies arising from processor-driven intra-industry manipulation. Hemp and marijuana cultivation appear to be the logical, most attractive alternative crop for diversification in the region, which, historically, was a central area for illegal production of marijuana, mostly organically cultivated
As it stands, a research-driven adaptive regenerative agriculture strategy already forms an integral part of the effort of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprises to boost agricultural enterprise for improved domestic food security. It can be foreseen how a carefully planned strategy with the requisite level of field research and extension services can contribute to northern region diversification into new areas of enterprise
Consistent with this policy, RB-POB have engaged in credible initiatives to mobilize a critical mass of effort required to embed regenerative and organic agriculture as the appropriate agronomic framework for agricultural enterprise development in Belize. These laudable initiatives should be nurtured and sustained
Also noteworthy is that RB-POB are mindful of some oof the key points to be kept in view by the Government of Belize in the process of policy review:
• Recognizing the need for strategic investment advice and help for all levels of agri- businesses and processing enterprises from their early start up phases — from compliance to understanding global market trends to supplying the right genetics for specific climate conditions.
• Recognizing the important role for a small farmer engagement strategy which incentivizes hassle-free entry opportunities for the poorest of the poor while promoting the efficiency and benefits of cooperative ventures.
• Emphasizing the importance of having a strong regulatory framework managed by competent public professionals and knowledgeable cannabis regulators who understand the criticality of all phases of the process
• Sourcing sound technical advice in understanding cannabis regulatory dynamics and in applying best practice lessons learned from other regional markets that are already engaged in the enterprise.
• Learning from the experience of other regional and tropical lowland producers with particular regard to the establishing and maintenance of internationally recognized and accepted standards in all phases of seed and cultivar selection, cultivation, processing and marketing.
It is the generally held view that adherence to these formative considerations will provide the Government of Belize with sound basis for formulating its policy, strategy and plan of action for developing a national hemp and marijuana industry as a pillar of national economic recovery and growth.
David Gibson CSSPAR March 2021