Cannabis was one of the first crops humans genetically modified.

In ancient times, farmers had to spend generations nudging plants in a specific direction. Cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are the two most common types of weed. But cannabis ruderalis is the wild form of the plant. Our ancestors used selective breeding to modify the genetics of the plant to create what we currently know as weed.

Ancient people selected and cross-bred the strongest, biggest and most potent specimens they could find. They used the seeds of these plants over dozens of human generations. In areas like South Africa, the plants grew tall to reach above competing vegetation. While the cannabis in the Hindu Kush Mountains grew short and dense to protect it from the cold and wind.

The race to map the cannabis genome is on.

A team of researchers at Phylos Bioscience launched the Cannabis Evolution Project last year in an effort to map the genetic structure of marijuana. This protects the biodiversity of cannabis from corporate interests and adds real data to the collective body of knowledge. It does this by documenting the possession of your cannabis and its specific genetic markers.

Phylos provides producers with a time-stamped certificate of authenticity that helps establish and defend intellectual property rights. It also shares the sequence data in the Open Cannabis Project’s database of prior art. But they never share data without permission. The whole process ensures companies like Monsanto can't capitalize on weed by securing exclusive patents on submitted strains.

Genetic Modification has gone high tech.

Scientific advancements in genetic engineering have opened new worlds of possibility. Genetic engineering is the manipulation of the genetic code (DNA), also known as the genome. Both plants and animals can be genetically manipulated because both have DNA. We are still learning about the complex code that makes up genes.

Mice were the first to have their DNA manipulated in the 1970’s. It took a while but the first plants were modified in the 1990’s. Since then, we have learned a great deal by experimenting on the genome. We are now able to predictably enhance certain qualities in a wide range of organisms.

Using modern gene-splicing tools like CRISPR, we can cut and paste different genetic sequences into a plant. Researchers can use CRISPR to create indicas that grow as tall as sativas, plants that produce trichomes in veg and even make the flower glow under UV light.

The market for genetically modified crops is growing.

It was just over 20 years ago that the first genetically modified crops entered the market. In just over two decades, GMO crops have flooded the food and agricultural markets of the world. GMO's have infiltrated industry after industry and changed the very face of agriculture in the process.

Virtually all soybean, corn and canola produced today are genetically modified. This helps the plants fight off pests, disease, cold and produce larger, more uniform crops. Pot farmers would be mighty tempted to use a crop that produced commercial quantities of flower that resisted spider mites.

But developing new species of GMO is expensive.

In 2009 GW Pharmaceuticals announced that it succeeded in genetically altering and patented a new breed of cannabis plant. The cost to develop the new strain was astronomical as the cost of equipment, personnel and regulations quickly compound.

Because medical research is expensive, only companies with enough capital and promise of exclusive distribution rights develop GMO's. Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies like Bayer, GW Pharmaceuticals and Monsanto provide enough capital for medical research to develop GMO’s.

Companies like Monsanto and Bayer already produce genetically modified crops. 

Imagine a world where companies like Monsanto and Bayer own rights to THC or CBD rich strains. Big pharma companies are willing to increase the cost of medication for children with cancer by 6000%. What is to stop them from litigating every farmer producing high THC or CBD product to financial ruin?

Both Monsanto and Bayer have a history of enabling war. They produced many weapons of war that have been banned from use. This is because of the overwhelming and long term suffering they cause. Some of the best known toxic weapons include; PCBs, DDT, Agent Orange, and Roundup. But all that work has developed the skills and resources needed to revolutionize commercial cannabis production.

The market may drive growers to Genetically Modified strains

For years rumors circulated the internet that Monsanto was developing genetically modified cannabis in advance of federal legalization. Reports often claim that secret labs around the U.S. are developing marijuana GMOs that could threaten the diversity of marijuana agriculture. Most reports indicate that the company would be in position to profit wildly once the government gave final approval. Even though these claims have little to no evidence, the reports continue to surface.

Big Pharma plays a shell game with cannabis.

Monsanto clearly states on their website they are "not working and have not worked on GMO marijuana. This allegation is an Internet rumor." While Monsanto bears the brunt of online GMO hysteria they are not the only company potentially interested in cannabis crops.

Bayer is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies on the planet. They even tried to purchase Monsanto recently but the deal fell through. The German chemical colossus does business with a plethora of subsidiary companies. One company Bayer has close ties with is GW Pharmaceuticals, a company based in the United Kingdom.

While Bayer may not do cannabis research, GW does grow cannabis and produces medicine from its compounds. Bayer sells some of GW Pharmaceuticals’ products, including Sativex. This expensive medical cannabis derived spray is also reported to work less effectively than unmodified cannabis.

GMOs could reduce genetic diversity.

A major concern of cannabis cultivators is that GMO's will cause reduced genetic diversity. What this means is that the DNA, which codes for proteins in an organism, becomes more similar between individuals of a species. Genetic diversity is a component of biodiversity, the variability in the traits of organisms that make up an ecosystem.

Maintaining genetic diversity is important for the environment and agriculture. It provides a better chance for organisms to adapt to changes in their environment. Lack of biodiversity has caused massive problems throughout history.

One example of low genetic diversity contributing to a major agricultural problem is the mid 1800s potato famine of Ireland. At the time, Ireland was heavily dependent on potatoes for nutrition. The type of potatoes they cultivated were grown from clones, not seeds.

When everybody uses clones, it can be disastrous.

Basically, this meant all potatoes were clones of their parents and contained identical genetic information. The lack of genetic variability proved disastrous when an invasive pathogen, P. infestans, wiped out the entire population of potatoes. The resulting famine displaced millions and reshaped the political landscape of the time.

Modern cannabis farmers have a myriad of options when it comes to seed or clones. GMO cannabis may never take off. If it does, this might reduce the available variety of genetics to commercial and recreational growers. This is similar to what happened to potato farmers in Ireland.

If a large enough percentage of cannabis crops in America are cloned from a single plant, they will have similar weaknesses. A new plant pathogen could evolve to target that weakness. The resulting blight may spell the end of cannabis. But the likelihood of a single plant taking over global production and destroying everything seems unlikely.

GMOs affect genetic diversity in several ways.

One thing that GMO cannabis would do the real world is crossbreed with normal plants. Cannabis DNA, like our own, contains codes that seem deactivated but are still passed from generation to generation. This tends to lead to an increase in diversity as the new genetics are added to the child strains.

GMOs may also be the salvation of cannabis. If all modern cannabis was weak to a new pathogen, genetically engineered cannabis may be the only thing left. Efforts like the Cannabis Evolution Project document and protect diversity by allowing us to recreate genetic profiles if lost.

Potato, tomato and carrots have all been genetically modified but we still have heirloom and wild varieties in circulation. Some people simply don't want GMOs and therefore create a niche market that assists in preserving biodiversity. Even though genetically modified crops have become a staple of industrial agriculture, they are never the only option.

Adam Rhodes

An adventure seeking nerd, nothing too serious but people seem to like him, Adam is also the creator and writer for The Strain Domain

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