Genetically modified marijuana is a term that may strike fear into the cannabis farms in the hills of Humboldt County, conjuring visions of large agricultural companies like Monsanto entering the commercial market with enhanced strains.
While these genetically altered strains have yet to find their way into the marketplace, according to agricultural officials, some who study the cannabis genome such as Dr. Reggie Gaudino of the Berkeley-based Steep Hill cannabis laboratory say it’s only a matter of time before they do.
“The cannabis industry should be aware that sooner rather than later, there will be big ag at play in this industry,” Gaudino said Friday. “And big ag uses exactly these techniques. We’re working to help the current population of farmers and breeders retain relevance when big ag comes knocking on the door.”
After the passage of Proposition 64, local farmers have two years to press their advantage before companies outside the state can enter the cannabis market and until 2022 before grow sizes can reach above an acre.
Other researchers like Phylos Bioscience’s CEO Mowgli Holmes in Oregon disagree with Gaudino, stating that the industry and consumers are not as willing to accept or would even want to associate genetically modified organisms, known also as GMOs, with cannabis.
“I don’t think there is any thing that GMOs could do for cannabis that we need that couldn’t be done by advanced plant breeding techniques,” Holmes said. “GMOs can make cannabis that glows in the dark, but we don’t need that.”
Areas like Humboldt County have already worked to distance themselves from any GMO cannabis market that may arise and are instead working to embrace a regulated industry of environmentally conscious and organic farming practices.
Chromosomes of cannabis
Within marijuana’s 20 chromosomes are what some researchers say is the future of cannabis breeding waiting to be unlocked through the field of genomics.
Dr. Reggie Gaudino, foreground, of the Berkeley-based Steep Hill commercial cannabis laboratory stands next to his PacBio DNA sequencer. (Photo by Elizabeth Peace; Contributed by Steep Hill)
Labs like Phylos Bioscience and Steep Hill formed within the past decade are now using DNA sequencing techniques on various strains of cannabis to begin to unlock what makes marijuana tick. Labs are able to tests for different markers in marijuana’s DNA that coincide with the number of terpenes or the non-psychoactive cannabinoid, known as CBD.
“We have a big map of all the varieties that we’ve ever sequenced,” Holmes said. “It positions the sample on that so it’s near other things it’s genetically related to. Then there is a back report page that gives information on what population may have contributed genes to it. In the future we’ll have genetic tests that will tell people what traits the plant will have as it gets older.”
Gaudino said the work to map the marijuana genome is just in its nascent stages, but that its relevance in the modern market is already at work.
“Using the human genome as an example, that took 13 years, $3 billion and 11,500 sequences to arrive at what we call the human genome,” Gaudino said. “This is just starting for cannabis. There is no quote-unquote cannabis genome yet. In order to develop that you have to sequence lots of different strains.”
While marijuana has grown more potent than strains smoked at 1960s music festivals, these stronger strains are not the result of genetic modification — to most people’s knowledge — but rather tried and true traditional breeding techniques such as hybridization and cross-breeding.
Marijuana farmers like Mom and Pop Gardens co-owner Nicholas — who declined to give his last name — in northeastern Humboldt County states he is a proponent of naturally grown cannabis, stating that breeding has diluted the resiliency of certain types of strains. Even so, Nicholas said he is not entirely against a genetically-modified product.
“If the people that did GMO put the 20 to 40 years of research into this and verified their products were OK, that it didn’t harm people or animals, they might be OK,” he said.
While cloning may seem like a type of genetic modification, it does not fall under that category as it does not involve direct manipulation of the plant’s DNA. Even so, these techniques come with their own issues.
“Some people in the industry believe that cloning has been responsible for perpetuating a lot of the disease issues that you see in the cannabis industry,” Humboldt and Trinity counties’ Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Dolf said.
Future of GMO cannabis
Enzymes are what ultimately work to form marijuana’s aromatic and flavorful terpenes and cannabinoid components like CBD and the psychoactive THC. But some cannabinoids, like the lesser known non-psychoactive CBG, are harder to come by.
“Generally speaking, you can only get elevated amounts of CBG if there is something wrong with the enzymes that make THC or CBD or they are missing,” President and chief scientist Samantha Miller of the Santa Rosa-based Pure Analytics laboratory said.
A medical marijuana farm in Mendocino County in 2010. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)
Miller said genetic modification technology like the CRISPR-Cas9 could certainly be used on cannabis to obtain different levels of cannabinoids and terpenes.
Whether farmers like it or not, Gaudino says genetic modification is coming and if utilized correctly, will work to benefit the industry in the long run. But Gaudino also said what matters is how genetic modification is used, and that he would be wary of creating more drought resistant strains or causing the plant to produce more sugar or proteins.
“The future is not necessarily a bad thing in respect to genetics of cannabis. It’s a matter of understanding what you can do with it,” he said. “I think a lot of people are afraid of it because of genetics. Really it’s something that all agriculture does because it makes sense, because we have the tools and the technology and can do things in a more cost effective, intelligent manner. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re giving up the farm.”
Holmes is on the opposite end of the spectrum and said he has no interest in genetically modifying marijuana. He argues that increased understanding of marijuana’s genome can work to improve plant breeding techniques.
“People have been doing cross breeding and hybridization, but they haven’t been doing it in a scientific way,” he said. “It needs a lot of rapid evolution to be commercially viable as the industry gets more crowded.”
Under the current federal prohibition of cannabis, consumers are not going to be seeing any certified organic strains on the shelves of dispensaries any time soon.
But there are other types of certifications that mimic federal organic standards, such as the Clean Green, Global Culture and the Eugene, Oregon-based Certified Kind.
Marijuana samples on display during Emerald Exchange in Malibu on March 18. The all-day cannabis event emphasizes organic, sun-grown cannabis. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
Marijuana growers seeking these certifications must prove they follow rigorous environmental standards such as refraining from using pesticides and herbicides, generators, illegal diversions and certain types of soils to name a few.
So far only 24 farms are certified. Certified Kind’s founder and certification Director Andrew Black admits the standard is high, but for good reason.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to build a movement to promote true organic cannabis farmers to protect small organic family farmers and create a marketplace for them in which they can compete and they can call the shots,” Black said. “I see organic cannabis as part of the resistance to big farm and big pharma.”
California’s own medical marijuana regulations also call for the creation of an organic certification program by 2020, but only if the federal government permits it.
In the meantime, Humboldt County created its own organic-equivalent called “Humboldt Artisinal Branding.”
To qualify, growers must have both state and local cultivation permits, only grow 3,000 square feet or less of plant canopy, grow exclusively with natural light and meet all federal organic certification standards.
“It’s not difficult to take what we do for all the other organic commodities and apply them to cannabis,” Dolf said. “We can’t call it organic because it’s a federal term. We already have a pretty good understanding of the principles that need to be followed for the principles to be considered organic.”