Whether for food or fun, genetically modified agricultural cultivations are found throughout the globe. Although it has become a fiercely debated topic, up to 70% of North America's food products contain at least one GMO-derived ingredient.
In the cannabis industry, selective breeding is rampant and could even be considered essential by most cannabis cultivators. But selective breeding is not genetic modification. Selective breeding involves a chosen phenotype with desirable traits and is cross-pollinated with other selected phenotypes or strains to create a unique genetic expression with specific traits. For many in the cannabis cultivation community, this is considered an art.
In stark contrast, genetic modification uses bioengineering techniques to alter a strain's genetic profile. Biotechnology companies across the globe are scrambling to develop bioengineered genetic strides in the marijuana industry.
Genetic Engineering: A Touchy Subject
There are many advocating both for and against genetic engineering in crops and food plants. On the plus side, genetic engineering enables societies to grow drought, disease, or pest-resistant crops. Crops can also be modified to contain higher vitamin levels. Many developing nations can benefit from GMO crops to maximize yields and remove the devastating dangers of pests, diseases, and droughts.
On the other hand, we see how the genetic modification of seeds and resulting crops is counter-intuitive for our planet and the ecosystems that sustain it.
The argument against GMOs is not necessarily the modification itself, but usually, the glyphosate that is generously applied to many, if not most, GMO grown crops. When the soil is exposed to higher glyphosate levels, as is the case with GMO plants, glyphosate has a sterilizing effect on the soil- halting the plants from absorbing minerals from the earth. Long-term effects are evident in disrupted ecosystems due to the increased use of pesticides and chemicals.
Genetic Modification in Cannabis
The bioengineering of cannabis could enable the industrial-scale production of cannabinoids that have pharmaceutical potential. But at what cost? If any?
So far, cannabis is the only plant that contains specific cannabinoids. This uniqueness makes it challenging to harvest particular cannabinoids, such as CBD or THC, for commercial purposes. Biotech companies have been driving research into the genetic potential inherent in the cannabis plant. Some researchers have successfully replaced the cannabis plant with microorganisms beefed up with the most sought after cannabinoids. Other companies focus on genetically changing the cells to modify chemical synthesis and encourage plants to contain a higher amount of the intended molecules.
Another benefit of GMO cannabis is that many rarer cannabinoids can have more accessibility, which could effectively enable more people to have financial access to these rare cannabinoids' medicinal potential.
Bioengineering, and the subsequent biomanufacturing, of cannabis, offers the industry an opportunity for consistency that naturally grown plants simply cannot offer.
Genetically modified cannabis could offer the industry consistent quality, help standardize the industry, and help make the plant more accessible to lower-income households- if GMO seeds and crops can lower the production costs in the long run. All of this seems peachy- but what are the potential negatives that GMO cannabis can bring to the table?
There are two main risks associated with GMO crops and GMO cannabis in general. Many of the subsequent (and mostly patented) pesticides and herbicides are considered as a possible carcinogenic. The formulas also have a sterilizing effect on the soil, and subsequently, the plant cannot absorb any nutritional value from the soil. Genetic modification allows breeders to select specific genetics and cultivate crops of the same genetic expression. While this offers benefits for the commercial market, it also can pose a risk of extinction; genetics can be wiped out in a single year. Compared to the average 20 years with natural agricultural techniques, it paints a simultaneously grim and optimistic picture.
However, when used appropriately, GMO cannabis could offer a stepping stone for the cannabis industry.
Harvesting Biotechnology for Seed Stability
Israel is known for its landmark discoveries in cannabis research; however, CanBreed, a startup hailing from the halls of Israel's laboratories, has recently made waves in the cannabis industry by signing a license agreement that puts them at the forefront of GMO cannabis. The startup aims to use biotechnology to modify cannabis seeds genetically for the medical cannabis industry specifically.
CanBreed was brought to life by Ido Margalit and Tal Sherma in 2017 and is now attempting to close the consistency gap in cannabis cultivation. The licensing agreement, which is non-exclusive and categorized as intellectual property, allows the company to utilize technology (CRISPR-Cas9) from rights holders Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Through the technology, the company has stated they have perfected stable seeds for growers to cultivate consistent plants through seeds in place of the current method (cloning) employed to ensure consistent crops. The company also aims to use this technology to enhance specific gene expression that allows for higher resistance to diseases and pests.
According to the CanBreed media statement, their genetically stable seeds will begin to infiltrate the market by mid-2021.