The Case for Cannabis Biodiversity

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Cannabis genetics follow trends and fads, but what value is lost in the genetics the industry has overlooked?

We are in the midst of a cultivar extinction—a cataclysmic event that is shrinking our cannabis crops’ genetic diversity.

When contemplating this situation, I can’t help but mourn the loss of many cultivars we may never get to experience or never will again. A skunky phenotype of Skunk #1 comes to mind as the first victim of this extinction event.

Many from the vanguard generation of cannabis remember Skunk #1 and regret that its skunky variety is not available today. It is one among many varieties of old we may never see again, many of which were the building blocks of most cultivars of today, in one form or another.

You may already know this history, but sometimes it’s nice to reflect on the past to plan for the future.

Root of the Problem

In the early years of the cannabis industry, domestic production was scarce. Nearly all cannabis, or derivatives thereof (e.g., hashish), was imported from places like Mexico and Afghanistan. We had access to diverse cannabis cultivars, including notables such as Acapulco Gold from Mexico, Colombian Gold and multiple other cultivars from Colombia, and Thai cannabis from Thailand (although some came from Cambodia). Hashish hailed from exotic locales such as Lebanon, which produced both blonde and red Lebanese hashish, and Afghanistan. Many of these cultivars were brought, bred and further developed in tropical countries, such as Jamaica and Panama (Panama Red). In the quest to procure these exotic wares, many North Americans traveled to foreign locations from which they returned with the product and the valuable seeds.

What those seeds yielded came to be known as “homegrown,” which in the beginning was not considered a good thing. A lack of knowledge and improper cultivation methods typically yielded poor results, combined with the fact that those cultivars did not exactly resemble the typical cultivars grown or cultivated today. But growers learned from their mistakes and shared information and began to breed desirable traits together, which ultimately blossomed into the foundational gene pool that produced the hybrids and modern cultivars grown today.

The early landrace hybrids flourished and were slowly perfected. Nearly all of them were grown outdoors. In the early 1980s, the federal government increased cannabis eradication efforts with actions such as C.A.M.P (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting). The cannabis industry reacted by growing cannabis indoors. The mid 1980s and 1990s produced a lot of genetic combinations, which happened simultaneously with the “Dutch Revolution,” when Dutch companies began selling cannabis seeds/genetics, most of which were developed from North American hybrids, then sometimes recombined/bred to produce the modern Dutch cultivars of today.

The ability to source genetics of known origins and characteristics was unheard of prior to the 1990s. From there, the cannabis industry began to accelerate. Fads and trends began to take shape in the form of hype and flavor-of-the-month consumer attitudes driven by the desire to get new choices. For example, there was a moment in time in California when all purple-colored cannabis was the fad. Then the trend switched to calling everything “OG Kush” because that’s what people wanted. Then Sour Diesel became the rage because it fetched a higher price on the East Coast market.

It was also during this period that the cannabis market became saturated with only the popular cultivars, making business difficult for any grower not willing nor able to ship unwanted cultivars out of state. At the same time, market prices began to drop from the reliable $4,000 per pound average that once was. As competition increased, growers diversified and began to produce new cultivars to again differentiate themselves from competitors, or simply increased their marketing practices to make their cultivar popular, desirable and easier to sell. The result of that branding push are brands such as Cookies building a following and launching all things Cookie-family related (Sherbet, Gelato, Platinum Sherbet, etc.).

An Afghan landrace (left) and a Kush cultivar (right). Kush cultivars were all the rage in the 1990s.Cultivators began either growing Kush or renaming genetics to fetch a higher price at market.

Photo by Mel Frank

But Wait…

What happened to the forsaken genetics of old? Besides trends or fads, simple decisions can determine if a cultivar becomes extinct or takes on a different direction with respect to variation of phenotype within a given chemotype. In the case of Skunk #1, the breeder David Watson (aka “Sam the Skunkman”) explains the variety’s evolution this way: His wife preferred the sweet aroma and flavor over the skunky aroma and flavor, and, after multiple phenotype selections within the multiple copies of the genotype, he selected the sweet-smelling versions over the skunkier versions. Over time, the skunkier versions that did exist in public hands slowly faded away to give way to the next popular trend. Law-enforcement eradication also made breeding and collecting genetics difficult for many. I lament the loss of that Skunk #1 phenotype, as do many others, as I do the many other lost cultivars many have enjoyed during the past 50 years.

More Skunk #1s to Come?

Unfortunately, this type of genetic extinction is global in proportion. For example, most hashish-producing countries, including the Pakistan and Afghanistan Kush regions, Morocco and Lebanon, have forsaken the landraces of old that they selectively bred for centuries, replacing them with the more potent hybrid genetics of today, which yield a higher percentage of active ingredients (resin glands). They process these modern genetics into hashish for the European market, as consumers desire the newest and latest popular products in both cannabis and hashish form. Following these trends encourages hashish producers from those countries to attend industry events in search of the most popular genetics to grow and process into a product that is easier to sell and fetches a superior price (hopefully).

The consequence of this trend-driven behavior is the loss of old landrace genetics that were the results of possibly thousands of years of selective breeding by many generations. I consider that part a loss of heritage.

I regularly converse with a third-generation cannabis grower/hash-maker, and I often ask about the existence of any of those landraces today. On one occasion, he replied with a photo taken that very day of a hillside filled with cannabis with the note “all ‘Nicole,’” which is a Spanish cultivar popularized three years ago. In other words, my friend was telling me the landraces don’t exist, and if he had them, he wouldn’t grow them because they yield low, are harder to sell and fetch a lower price. Who can blame him for not wanting to grow “grandpa’s weed”?

Genetic diversity in cannabis can help protect plants from pests and diseases.

CascadeCreatives | Adobe Stock

A Larger Cause

But I suspect many today would at least enjoy trying an old landrace from centuries ago. And I wonder what cannabinoid and terpene profiles these old landraces have. I would love the chance to at least try them, or better yet to preserve them and breed with them. The last thing the cannabis industry needs is a smaller gene pool, as history shows the dire consequences of a narrowing genetics selection. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 was responsible for the deaths of one million people and the emigration of roughly two million people. There are more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes, according to The International Potato Center in Peru, many of which are not susceptible to the blight, but only one variety was cultivated in that specific geographic region.

That wasn’t humanity’s only lesson. Most people are unaware of the predicament in which U.S. corn growers found themselves in 1970. A fungus called southern corn leaf blight forced U.S. breeders and farmers to consider the detrimental effects of planting one genotype of a crop. If a specific genotype isn’t resistant to a particular infection, then the whole crop could be lost if a virus or pathogen establishes itself in the environment. In 1970, almost 85% of U.S. corn fields were planted with one type of corn, which was highly susceptible to a new type of pathogenic fungus, according to the American Phytopathological Society. Various published reports estimate total losses related to the fungus outbreak at $1 billion.

Access to other, often much older germplasm from other regions or related species could provide access to genes that growers or farmers could use to improve future crops. In 1998, NPR’s Jim Metzner perhaps said it best in his “Pulse of the Planet” program: “Maintaining a biodiverse ecosystem, with many varieties of plants and animals, is like having a living insurance policy to help protect those crops and creatures we humans depend upon for our survival.”

I believe this validates that diversity must be maintained in both genetic and cytoplasmic constitution of every important crop, which includes all cannabis cultivars, old and new. There are multiple methods of preservation that can and must be employed, including cryopreservation of plant genetics in the form of meristem/plant material/shoot tips, where these cells are stored in subzero freezers. (Seeds can be stored in this fashion as well.) Tissue culture can be utilized as well for inexpensive genetic storage, preservation and banking of many cultivars in a small space.

Cannabis is susceptible to many pests and diseases. What new infectious agent could be in store for cannabis? And what about the market value of genetic diversity? These are important questions with which to grapple, as their answers carry major implications. We must balance the need for marketable products while not losing sight of the long-term value of having genetics that might hold the key to disease or pest immunity. Therefore, it’s up to all of us to collect, protect and preserve all available cannabis genetics of today for tomorrow.

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