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Playing Cannabis Catch-Up

A PhD Plant Biologist’s Plan to Modernize the Struggling Industry for the 21st Century

Here we are, the inaugural year of American hemp cultivation has wrapped up. Hemp production jumped 479% following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, effectively making hemp (Cannabis sativa containing ≤ 0.3% THC) legal for cultivation in the US.  But so far, things have been… far from smooth.

In October, I spent time visiting hemp farmers around the Pacific Northwest to take the pulse of the regional market. When I initially began my visits, I expected to hear tales of triumph and of how adding hemp to traditional rotations was improving the bottom line for the region’s farmers. Instead, I returned home to the Palouse with a greater sense of common tribulations than shared achievements.

While early hemp success stories are easy to find, a greater number of farmers have been plagued by misleading fly-by-night seed dealers selling falsely marketed feminized seeds and hot plants (cannabis with THC levels > 0.3%; commonly known as marijuana). Growing regions have been decimated by fungal pathogens, and an early frost across most of the western states damaged many farmers’ crops and ultimately their bottom line.

The road to cannabis glory doesn’t need to be this rough, but it will continue to be without significant investment in both the science behind cannabis agronomics and in downstream processing capabilities.

It would be one thing if I were talking about a lack of scientific research in an agricultural crop with minimal value, but I’m talking about a potential behemoth of an industry. A market that, if analyst predictions hold true, will reach more than $20 billion dollars just in CBD product sales by 2024.

That kind of growth won’t materialize without better science. To meet analyst projections, we need hemp that is ready to resist the nastiest of fungal and insect invaders; varieties for spring planting to pair with varieties for summer planting–allowing for multiple harvests per year; processing infrastructure for drying, curing, and extracting; and technologies to enable the leap toward producing mass quantities of fiber.

Because the majority of cannabis cultivation of the past half century had to be done in the shadows, breeders focused much of their efforts on boosting resin production for increased potency and favorable aromatic profiles. To complicate things even more, most of that early work was done to maximize THC production, not the coveted CBD and other non-psychoactive cannabinoids of today. The germplasm collections that have popped up around the country in the past year have already shown massive monetary losses from THC-producing “hemp.”

While there are a select few seed suppliers that have, in fact, dialed in THC-less hemp varieties, much work needs to be done to genetically stabilize cannabinoid production to ensure more farmers are able to reap the full rewards of a CBD harvest.

Beyond the problems of hot hemp plants, farmers are working with a plant that hasn’t been bred for large-scale agriculture like we are seeing in today’s hemp landscape. Due to the illegality of all cannabis plants during the past half-century, breeders sparsely had the chance to select for agronomically superior plants that are well suited for mass agriculture.

While not entirely ignored, traits such as lodging resistance, plant height, insect resistance and drought tolerance have seldom been selected for, despite their enormous importance amongst more traditional agricultural and horticultural crops.

Part of the selection criteria that breeders and seed producers need to actively employ with various breeding projects is improvement of these key agronomic traits. Early in the cultivation process, it’s critical to begin taking measurements pertaining to water usage and photosynthetic capacity to infer the water requirements for any given variety. Further, development of first-in-class disease screening methods will identify varieties that can withstand a myriad of pests. These steps, coupled with advanced genomic analysis pipelines are the first in addressing this scientific void in the industry.

As a PhD plant biologist committed to helping create a thriving cannabis industry, I believe the path to a strong future for hemp begins with building trust and providing security for the farmers themselves. They are putting in the labor, tirelessly watching weather patterns, and monitoring their crops for indications of healthy plant development. For this industry to meet its potential, we in the scientific community must take action to support these farmers by providing them with elite germplasm.

If these early concerns are not properly addressed, generational farms, and the infrastructure and ag know-how that they provide, may soon reject hemp cultivation due to its uncertainty and immense financial risk. Unless they can reasonably rely on the genetic source of their seeds, they will turn to more traditional crops that don’t have these issues.

Through proper application of modern scientific principles, the booming hemp industry that analysts project will breathe new life into American agriculture. With proper research, America’s hemp farmers can have certainty that they are buying exactly what they are told they are buying. They can sleep knowing that their hemp crop is safe from diseases, hot THC tests, and pollination. With proper application of science, we can both usher in a new era for American farmers and ensure that consumers can trust what they are receiving when they purchase cannabis-based products.  A few good actors, with sound science, are already in motion to provide these much-needed services and improved genetic sources.

Dr. Jordan Zager

Dr. Jordan Zager

Dr. Jordan Zager is an expert in natural product biosynthesis and chemical analysis of cannabis resin compounds. Dr. Zager earned his PhD from Washington State University, where his research set the stage for studying the regulatory events governing gene expression in cannabis and their effect on the biosynthesis of trichome-bound cannabinoids and terpenoids. Early in his career, Jordan set his sights on aggressively applying modern scientific methods to the cannabis industry and to bring cultivators the tools to become exceptional. Dr. Zager can be reached at [email protected].

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