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Autoflowers: Any Commercial Future for This Type of Weed?

by | Feb 8, 2021

autoflower, natura,

Written by Enzo Schillaci

Large-scale operators in the nascent cannabis industry rely almost exclusively on photoperiod varieties, which have several key advantages over autoflowering strains grown from seeds.

This situation isn’t likely to change any time soon, and there are new potentially disruptive technologies that can further undermine the commercial future of autoflowers. However, improvements to the genetic consistency of autoflowers may secure them a niche in the global market.

Why Do Big Players Ignore Autoflowers?

Given the enormous popularity of autoflowering cannabis seeds in the amateur segment, it may seem strange that large grow-ops shun these genetics.

On one hand, large-scale legal producers of medical marijuana had become used to photoperiod varieties and entrenched in their cultivation practices long before autoflowers came into the picture.

On the other hand, autoflowers clearly have some unique characteristics that would entice up-and-coming businesses with easier setup requirements and lower startup costs:

●      their small size is perfect for sea-of-green (SOG) setups; it also renders unnecessary, such labor-intensive practices as canopy management and trellising,

●      growing from seeds, rather than from clones, makes it much easier to maintain a pest- and disease-free environment (however, tissue culture combines the advantages of both methods of propagation),

●      autoflowers are grown under the same light schedule from seed to harvest and thus do not require multiple rooms,

●      in greenhouses, their insensitivity to photoperiod means that no expensive light-deprivation equipment is necessary.

However, it’s the outdoor cultivation where autoflowering traits really make a difference. At least at higher latitudes where no photoperiod strain can successfully finish its life cycle. With autoflowers, you can time your growth so that the flower formation happens when solar activity is at its peak. And if the grow season is long enough for two or more successive cycles, you can harvest your produce in batches. This requires less manpower and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, neither medical nor recreational marijuana may be produced outdoors in the current legal environment, so no licensed producer can test the economic viability of autos vs. photos.

As for the indoor cultivation of autoflowers, it could lure would-be entrepreneurs with more enthusiasm than budget, but the cannabis industry is shaping up to be no place for mom-and-pop operations. The only niche for smaller producers would probably be boutique buds. Unfortunately, autoflowers of today are anything but boutique quality.

On average, they have a lower content of cannabinoids and terpenes than the photoperiod variants they are bred from. And it’s not because there is some inherent flaw in these genetics. Rather, it’s because the breeding of autoflowers is still in its infancy, and more time is required to develop and fix the desired features, such as yield potential and the chemical profile.

Only One Real Drawback, But It’s a Killer (For Now)

Photoperiod plants—because they are grown from clones— display genetic stability, which results in uniform patterns of growth and consistency of the produce. Modern autoflowers lack that.

This drawback can be readily overlooked by hobby horticulturalists or those cash-crop growers who target the black market, but legal environments call for a standardized product.

Can Autos Serve as Raw Material for Extracts Maybe?

The fashion for cannabis extracts hints at the possibility of growing weed as a source of individual cannabinoids and terpenes for medicine, cosmetics, and other purposes. Maybe there’s a future for autoflowers there?

Probably not. If the real goal of a crop is to produce a few grams of a specific chemical while pounds of biomass—stalks, branches, leaves, and all—get simply thrown away, it leaves a lot of room for innovation. And innovation is already underway.

Reports show that the genetic code of simple microorganisms like yeast can be easily changed to make them mass-produce both major and rare cannabinoids from the simple sugar galactose. Even for common compounds like CBD, the cost of production will be several times lower. GMOs are the only economically viable option for others that are only found in cannabis in trace amounts.

This leaves autoflowers out of the picture again and brings them back to the niche of smokables, where they have to compete with photoperiod varieties. And to have any shot of coming out on top, autoflowering seeds need to be stabilized to a greater extent than they currently are.

Prospects of Auto Breeding

Let us stress again that the phenotypic variance in plants grown from seeds is not an inherent evil of this form of propagation. In the case of cannabis, it is more likely due to prohibition, which has impeded any serious breeding work for so long.

Autoflowering is a recessive trait that is relatively easy to stabilize over several generations of backcrossing. It’s independent of other characteristics, such as the levels of THC and CBD and of other cannabinoids and terpenes.

One possible direction for breeders to make autos more stable is to use self-pollination and other techniques to create true-breeding 100% feminized lines. These lines can produce uniform crops themselves, or, better still, they can be later crossed with each other to restore the so-called hybrid vigor. These F1 hybrids will also demonstrate consistent growth patterns and the quality of the final product.

At least, such is the practice of the commercial cultivation of cucumbers where gynoecious (all-female) lines have been maintained over decades and where the cost of doing it is offset by a significant increase of yields compared to using regular (male-female) varieties.

There are other cash crops like tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum cv Hicks) and rice and strawberries, for which breeders have created neutral-day cultivars (an analog of autoflowers). They have an undeniable commercial value, and all of them are here to stay.

If this teaches us anything, autoflowers are something much more than a curiosity or a thing of the prohibition era. Even when cannabis is legalized and regulated globally, the ability to manipulate harvest time—which automatic strains so naturally provide—will sure find some niche in the global-scale cannabis cultivation.