While speaking at charity event in New Zealand, business mogul Richard Branson suggested that farmers in New Zealand should stop raising cows and starting growing cannabis instead. He suggests that switching from cows to cannabis would be more economically lucrative and environmentally advantageous for the small island nation – especially for this country that, in 2015 alone, devoted almost 7,000 square miles to raising cattle.

Regardless of the fact that in New Zealand cannabis is still illegal, his suggestion is actually not quite as far-fetched as it might sound. Branson predicted that in ten years cannabis in New Zealand will be as normal as drinking wine. In fact, the Federated Farmers of New Zealand seem to be quite pragmatic and open to the idea as well. When the Federated Farmers president, William Rolleston, was asked to comment on Branson’s suggestion, he said,

“Farmers welcome any opportunity to add another string to their bow, and would look at that option only if it was legal and profitable to do so.”

An open mind and eye to the future indeed. But what about the true facts behind Branson’s claim that growing cannabis would be better for both the environment and farmers’ pockets? Would it really be a better alternative to raising cows?

Let’s start with cows and how they affect the environment. Cow manure poses a significant risk to local waterways, as the runoff from manure adds huge amounts of nitrogen to the ecosystem. Why is this bad? Well, too much nitrogen stimulates large algae growths, which decrease the amount of oxygen in water, killing off fish and other water dwellers. This is not only bad for the local ecosystem, but for outdoorsmen and anglers hoping to enjoy their own sports of choice. Dairy farming is widely recognized as one of the causes for New Zealand’s water pollution, so the environmental claim Branson makes concerning cow farms is not to be discredited.

Now, what about the economics of it all? New Zealand in 2015 had 1.8 million hectares devoted to dairy farming alone, a huge cow-centered industry. The average profit per hectare is about $1,500 according to a recent economic survey (or about $607 per acre), so how does that compare to a cannabis operation? Well, the Agricultural Marketing Research Center reports that the value per acre of industrial hemp is $21,000 from seeds alone, and $12,500 from the stalks. Let’s just take a very low estimate of $12,500 per acre – that would still have cannabis creating over $11,000 more profit per acre than a dairy farm.

Of course, there are many other factors that come into play before this transition could become a reality. New Zealand would have to develop its own cannabis market, with its own unique supplies and demands, so the profit margins could vary compared to other countries with currently active cannabis economies. However, it is easily shown with these statistics above that replacing cows with cannabis is indeed a viable and realistic suggestion. The decreased environmental impact with the reduction of cattle farms polluting waterways, combined with the increased profits from growing cannabis on that land instead, make it a quite attractive option indeed.

So it seems that Sir Richard Branson struck gold with not only his own business ventures, but with his casual (but highly applicable) remarks. While there are undoubtedly many hurdles to jump, legislation to be passed, and other obstacles to overcome before New Zealand legalizes cannabis, it isn’t unlikely that Branson’s suggestion might one day come to fruition. With the economic boost of growing cannabis and the environmental benefits of eliminating waste-producing cows, the farmers of New Zealand might have a brighter (and greener) future ahead.

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