The GMO debate weighs heavy as more and more food items are being genetically modified in different ways and for different reasons. For the first time, GMO cannabis is being patented and manufactured, getting ready to hit shelves in your friendly neighborhood dispensary.
“A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”
In terms of crossbreeding, the definition is “the act or process of producing offspring by mating purebred individuals of different breeds or varieties.” A mule, for example, is a cross between a donkey and a horse.
The ideas of crossbreeding and hybridizing have been around for nearly as long as we have, but prior to recent times, this included playing around with seeds to get the best version of a crop, or creating animals like donkeys. These days, herbicides can be directly introduced to the DNA of produce like soy and corn. As of right now, thought specific numbers are nearly impossible to lock down, approximately 92% of all US corn is GMO, as well as 94% of soybeans, 94% of cotton, and 75%+ of all processed foods sold in the country contain genetically engineered materials.
Proponents of GM foods like the idea that these measures are necessary, citing things like an inability to feed everyone on the planet without them, or other such nonsense that didn’t exist as an argument until companies wanted to sell their products. This isn’t to say that all GM foods are bad, but when herbicides are inserted into foods, it certainly makes me worry a bit. It’s great to be all futuristic in some ways, but maybe, just maybe, not messing with our food is the better answer here.
Of course, I’m admittedly not an expert in bioengineering, however I personally identify more with the side that says beware of mixing random genetics without understanding the consequences. Regardless of my personal opinion, this is a highly contested subject, and one without a definitive answer that all of science (and private interest) can agree on. It comes as no surprise that this argument now bleeds into the world of legal cannabis.
Will it really happen with cannabis?
It hasn’t yet, in that there isn’t currently a GMO cannabis product on shelves (apart from “GMO Cookies”, a rather delicious sounding cannabis strain that unlike its name actually does not contain any genetically modified organisms.) But that certainly isn’t to say there won’t be soon.
On September 2nd of this year, the very first license for genetic editing technology on cannabis products was awarded to Israeli-based CanBreed, a company which provides uniform raw materials to farmers. The license covers an agreement for patents for the company’s foundational CRISPR-Cas9 technology, and it’s expected the company will use this technology to more quickly provide farmers with improved cannabis varieties. CanBreed has claimed that its CRISPR technology can edit specific genes to create stable seeds for more productive farming.
CanBreed’s CEO Ido Margalit went as far as to state “We have patented all the crucial traits in cannabis, like disease resistance.” What this means exactly was not expounded upon, but it could perhaps be an indication of the use of chemicals in genetic engineering.
Wait a second, what is this license that CanBreed got?
Excellent question. After all, when’s the last time you heard about a license being given out for that? Who even knew there was a license for genetic engineering in cannabis? According to CanBreed itself, the license was extended by Corteva Agriscience, MIT’s Broad Institute, and Harvard University, as part of a non-exclusive licensing agreement which purportedly meets all regulation standards of federal law, international laws, and state or specific locational law for the US, Canada, and anywhere else applicable.
As if right now CanBreed is still working on regulation issues to be able to work with EU countries as well. Currently, the EU commission defines CRISPR technology as a genetically modified organism, and therefore illegal to sell.
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Did this come out of nowhere?
Of course not. As mentioned already, genetically engineering our food supply has practically become an American past time. When a company wins a big contract like this, it’s usually not the first attempt, and in the case of finding ways to genetically engineer cannabis, CanBreed is not the first, not even the first to claim a GMO cannabis product. Back in 2019, Trait Biosciences produced a patent-pending cannabis plant that purportedly self-produces water-soluble cannabinoids.
The plants are said to generate dissolvable cannabinoids, cutting out the need for hazardous extraction processes. Part of the issue with genetic engineering, is getting the offspring to carry on the genes, at which time it’s considered fully transformed, something Trait is working on, and which it accomplished to a certain degree in 2012. Trait offers different products from customized cannabis that produces specific and predetermined cannabinoid levels, hemp plants that produce no THC, and other products, particularly cannabis drinks. None of this is actually on shelves of course, but it does show another company’s attempts to enter the GMO cannabis game.
Then there’s Hyacynth Biologicals, a Montreal based company that’s been playing around trying to find new genetically engineered versions of cannabis to fight disease, and Cronos Group which just signed a $122 million deal with Ginko-Bioworks Inc to genetically engineer cannabinoids, or other active compounds from the cannabis plant, using a yeast-based process similar to what Hyacynth uses.
And who could discount GMO giant Monsanto – the grandfather of today’s agro-engineering, which has been rumored to be considering throwing its hat into the GMO cannabis ring. Though nothing supports their entrance into the field right now, it’s hard to imagine Monsanto taking a back seat in what could be one of the biggest new fields for GM products.
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If you look at all the hype in the legal cannabis world, you’d think we didn’t know how to actually grow the plant properly. In fact, you’d think that we – as humans – are necessary for the growth of the plant. Truth is, it’s been growing just fine with and without our help, providing us with a variety of options to begin with, options that with some minor tweaking become unfathomably strong plants bursting with beautiful colors, and coming with all kinds of different medical and recreational benefits. Maybe all this new genetic editing technology will provide for something that really is better, that really is amazing. Or, maybe it’ll be just the next unnecessary place that chemicals are injected into.
Another thing to consider about GM cannabis is that it gives larger pharmaceutical and biotech companies the ability to take the reins. As of right now, the cannabis industry, even the medicinal part of it, is not a pharmaceutical industry, per say. Anyone can grow cannabis, and tons of small companies can put out products. Once it becomes a project in bioengineering, larger enterprises can swoop in, and take the business by creating new products at much greater cost.
Maybe that’s the worst part of all of this, that the legal cannabis industry is looking more and more like a standard pharmaceutical industry, every day.
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