Cannabis and ag: Are we on the same team?

Do opportunities exist to use ag breeding expertise to improve cannabis production?

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

When it comes to the breeding and genetics of cannabis, “it’s still a bit of the Wild West,” Bill MacDonald told Better Farming.

He co-designed the Commercial Cannabis Production Ontario college graduate certificate program curriculum. He also coordinates the program at Niagara College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus.

Because growing cannabis was illegal for so long, “all the breeding (was) underground. No one really knows what they’re getting,” MacDonald explained. Labs are trying to develop stable cultivars.

Breeding is “highly important for integrated pest management, and plant and disease management,” added Sebastien Jacob. He’s a professor of horticulture and greenhouse and cannabis commercial programs at the same campus as MacDonald.

For years, scientists have bred varieties of other greenhouse crops to have beneficial agronomic traits such as disease resistance.

cannabis in hands
    Larisa Shpineva/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“This (work) doesn’t exist yet in the cannabis industry. It’s coming; the research is just barely starting,” Jacob said.

In illicit cannabis production, “everything was bred on THC” levels, Macdonald explained. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the component of cannabis that’s primarily responsible for psychoactive effects.

“Nothing was been done on disease resistance because illegal growers used any pesticide they could. Nothing was regulated,” he added.

Cannabis cultivars are often adapted to very different growing conditions.

“Some of these plant cultivars come from dry, hot countries like Pakistan,” Jacob said. Growers in Ontario who attempt to produce cannabis on a large scale face disease challenges in the province’s humid environment.

Scientists aim to breed beneficial agronomic characteristics. Improved genetics may also target better cannabis products.

The biggest complaint from cannabis users is that they don’t like the end product, MacDonald explained.

“There’s now what’s called microcultivators and those are a maximum of 200 square metres (2,152 square feet) of growing space. So, they’re like the craft breweries,” he explained. “That is part of the industry that’s really up and coming.” BF

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