The Shape of Today’s Cannabis Seed Market
Cannabis Seed Market
The cannabis seed industry evolved in an inconsistent manner over the last few decades, and throughout its development, methods and approaches to breeding have varied widely. Many breeders work for years to stabilize strains, and keep meticulous records documenting every single generation and its characteristics, the results of each cross and backcross.
Others may employ less fastidious methods, potentially leading to less stable or less reliable strains. This has always been the case, and the lack of total transparency has been compounded both due to illegality and industry politics – people may obfuscate about cuttings of dubious provenance, or may not keep records due to the possibility of discovery and arrest, and so on.
Today, the global cannabis seed market is bigger than ever. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how big, as there do not appear to be specific data available. A five-year-old UNODC paper on the subject did not even attempt to put a figure on its value – but as the overall value of the cannabis industry is dramatically increasing year-on-year, it is inevitable that the seed industry is also gaining in value.
The cannabis seed market has exploded in recent years
There have been several notable changes over the last twenty years or so. There are now thousands of new high-CBD, autoflowering, and feminized seed varieties available, as well as traditional regular seed, from hundreds of companies in dozens of countries. Within this chaotic array of too-much-choice, there are few obvious benchmarks that the buyer can rely upon to make an informed decision.
In some respects, the seed business has reached a certain level of maturity. In other respects, it is still a fledgling and fast-evolving industry.
Seeds Vs. Clones in Legal Markets
Furthermore, the nature and existence of the seed industry is increasingly affected – although not necessarily threatened – by the growing importance of propagation by cloning.
There are various advantages to using clones – advantages that particularly appeal to large, commercial grow operations, which are increasingly common in legal markets such as Colorado, California or Canada, and also in grey-area markets such as Spain and the Netherlands. The crop will be uniform in growth, the overall growth cycle can be somewhat reduced (or at least, the first two or three weeks of the plant’s life can be outsourced to another company), the harvest can be confidently predicted, and so on.
When propagating via clones, the lineage of the plant doesn’t really affect the outcome. The stability is ensured by the fact that each clone is genetically identical, and there is usually no intention to produce new generations of seed in commercial cannabis growing operations, so reproductive predictability is not a factor.
Cannabis seedlings under LED lighting
Again, it’s hard to quantify this is absolute terms, but there are increasing complaints within the world of cannabis seed breeding that decreasingly rigorous techniques are pervading the industry, perhaps as a response to the “pollen chucking” mentality the cloning industry encourages.
Rather than competing against the growing popularity of clones by employing more rigorous techniques, some seed producers are pursuing an approach that floods the market with cheap, poor-quality seeds, many of which are unstable f1 or f2 crosses that have no guarantee of predictability or quality.
What is Pollen Chucking, Anyway?
“Pollen chucking” means exactly what it implies – simply allowing male pollen to contact female plants in a random, disorganized manner. There’s nothing inherently wrong with pollen chucking, and it has yielded countless interesting crosses over the years, some of which have enduring longevity as they have been kept alive and propagated vegetatively in the form of clones.
However, there is a fundamental difference between pollen chucking and rigorous, organized breeding programs with an end result in mind. Again, this is not to say that either approach is inherently superior. But to create a breeding program for stable, predictable cultivars, the latter approach is the way forward.
By another definition, “pollen chucking” is simply open pollination – and if the approach is maintained over successive generations, the resulting population could end up more like an heirloom or landrace. These populations are of immeasurable value in producing stable cultivars, and have many important properties in their own right, such as resistance to mould, heat, drought or disease.
For that effect to occur, however, the pollen chucking would need to take place over enough generations for the population to achieve some degree of uniformity, by adapting to its local environment and expressing certain dominant traits most fit for that environment. On the other hand – one or two generations of pollen chucking, using parents of very different stock that may not be stable in the first place, will make for very unpredictable results.
Stability and Predictability Vs. Interesting Phenos?
Pollen chucking in and of itself is not the issue. One of the biggest problems with the shape of today’s seed market is the fact that there is little transparency and few standards of praxis among breeders.
Thus, the consumer may be purchasing an unstable f2 or f3, but have no idea of the background of the strain, and (for many consumers) will not have a full understanding of why it matters in any case.
A cannabis seedling emerging from its seed case
But when they crack the seeds and find four or more phenos in a pack of ten seeds, none of which resemble the weed with the same name previously purchased from a dispensary, coffeeshop or social club, the issue begins to become apparent. Differences in height, structure and flowering time can all affect the overall quality and yield of a crop, and lead to frustration for the grower – all the more reason for them to opt for the simplicity of clones next time!
On the one hand, this level of instability offers more chances to find interesting phenos that could themselves be the next cup-winning “strain”. On the other hand, for most end consumers, reliability and predictably, consistently high quality generally hold more appeal.
Awards Aren’t Necessarily the Key to Stability
There are plenty of cup-winning seed companies whose products aren’t necessarily as stable as they could be. Rather than seeking out the companies with the most awards, or the latest cup winners – what’s really important is to do some background research, if you want to know more about what you’re buying.
This could mean lurking on forums to talk to other growers that have grown the seeds you’re thinking of buying, using a reliable site to search for information on lineage and more, contacting the breeder directly to ask whatever questions you might have, simply trying the seeds out and seeing what you get, or some combination of the above.
Of course, doing some background reading on the basics of breeding and stabilizing new strains will serve you well, and will help to ensure that any questions you direct to fellow growers or to breeders are well thought-out and constructed.
The better educated you are on the basics of seed breeding, genetic inheritance and so on, the more you will derive from discussions with breeders and other growers. Once you are fairly confident in your level of understanding, it should become easier to identify and avoid breeders that give poor or unsatisfactory responses on breeding records.
Cannabis is Pretty Hard to Fully Stabilize, Anyway
It’s worth noting that cannabis is widely said to be hard to stabilize to the point that every plant produced from a pack of seeds is homogenous.
This is partly due to the high level of genetic diversity within the global cannabis population, even within relatively isolated landrace populations, and the fact that cannabis is generally dioecious (having separate male and female plants), while most crops are monoecious (male and female flowers on the same plant).
Landrace cannabis, Malana, India
Breeding dioecious plants produces genetically diverse offspring, as it necessarily involves combining genes from two parents. Conversely, monoecious plants (such as tomatoes) can often be self-pollinated, and genetic diversity can be sharply reduced in just a few generations.
As well as this, when crossing two very distinct parents (say from two different landraces) it takes several generations to achieve full stability. On top of this, some breeders hold that after seven or so generations from the original parental cross, many of the desirable traits are actually lost.
So cannabis seeds may not always breed true, even when they are from breeders that take the time and keep records to ensure predictable, meticulous results. Nevertheless, you’re likely to get more consistent and predictable results than from breeders that have taken less time and care to stabilize properly.
Typically, reputable breeders cross and backcross for several generations (usually at least four or five, sometimes as many as eight or nine times) to ensure predictability. Otherwise, they may use parent stock from stable, inbred lines (IBLs) and create what is often termed an f1 hybrid, which should also express a high degree of uniformity and predictability (but will not produce true-to-type seeds if allowed to reproduce).
So What is a True F1 Hybrid?
It’s important to note that if a breeding program uses two parents that are genetically stable, the resulting f1 hybrid should be generally stable and homogeneous. With crops that have undergone rigorous, intensive breeding programs to create true IBLs, such as maize, the crossing of two such inbred lines yields an f1 hybrid that not only expresses a very high degree of hybrid vigor, but that is also highly genetically uniform.
With cannabis, the same effect is apparent, but again, the degree of homogeneity may not be quite so high as with other crops. It’s still high enough for many breeders with a solid reputation to confidently offer f1 hybrids as predictable seed stock for growers – such as the famous NL5 x Haze f1 hybrid originally offered by The Seed Bank (one of the precursor companies of the Sensi Seed Bank) back in 1989. The NL5 x Haze still offered by Sensi today is an inbred, stabilized version of that very lineage (which has the added benefit of being true-to-type!).
Here’s a quick guide to what the terms f1, f2 and so on mean in terms of Mendelian inheritance. Plant genetics are far more complex than this, and we now know that various factors such as epigenetics also come into play. But even according to these basic principles, when starting with parents that are not of stable lineage, the offspring will not be as predictable as this diagram suggests.
What About Landraces and Stability?
Landraces by most traditional definitions (although these definitions often vary considerably) should be relatively genetically similar (compared to a untouched, unisolated wild population), but heterogeneous and diverse enough to be adaptive to changes in environment.
Landraces are populations that have developed over multiple generations in a particular area, and that have begun to express dominant phenotypes based on the environmental conditions of the locale (with the aid of physical isolation and some degree of traditional agricultural intervention).
Over time, as undesirable or unfit traits are selected out, individuals in the population become gradually more homogeneous – although still much more heterogeneous than a deliberately-bred heirloom or cultivar.
Biodiversity hotspots like Malana must be preserved
Usually, landraces are not considered to be true-breeding. However, they tend towards expression of certain traits, and true-breeding lineages can generally be established from them with relative ease. A heirloom vegetable or fruit variety should generally be true-breeding (“true-to-type”) – it can perhaps be considered “one step up” from a landrace in terms of the rigor applied to its breeding and maintenance (a landrace itself perhaps being “one step up” from a wild population), and is often derived from a landrace population.
A cultivar, then, could be considered one step up from an heirloom. Here’s an interesting look at what “cultivar” means according to the US and Canadian definitions (and how they can be patented…).
Every cultivar and hybrid currently available today, whether in the form of a seed or a clone, ultimately descends from landrace parents from one or more (and potentially dozens of) locations. The modern varieties available today descend from tropical and equatorial sativas and temperate afghanicas or indicas – but even before those varieties ever landed on Dutch shores, local farmers selected hemp plants that had palatable flavour and effect for smoking!
Within landrace populations of cannabis, certain characteristics remain variable to some extent (typically more variable than with a rigorously-bred cultivar). For example, the landrace cannabis varieties of Malana may all look very similar, but they express obviously variable terpene and cannabinoid profiles. These variations may be influenced by microenvironment, particularly when it comes to outdoor-growing plants, but there is also some degree of variation in genotype.
If growers take a landrace from its native habitat and breed and maintain it elsewhere (even if they recreate the local environment and conditions as faithfully as possible in an indoor environment, for example), this is known as ex situ cultivation (and plants of this type may be known as an allochthonous landrace. If it’s allowed to reproduce in a relatively free manner outdoors, however, it may become an autochthonous landrace within a few generations.
Such a change in environment may restrict the plant from reproducing freely in its natural habitat with whatever pollen happens to be floating around, but there will still be significant variation between individuals. The population may even become rapidly more variable, as it responds to even small changes in environment and throws up new traits that may be more fit. These variations often lead to interesting phenos that form the backbone of new breeding projects!
Landraces Are Gradually Gaining Recognition
As the cannabis industry grows throughout the world, the traditional homelands of cannabis – such as India and Kazakhstan – are beginning to recognize the importance of the natural bounty they have on their doorsteps.
In India, homegrown organizations such as the Indian Landrace Exchange, the Indian Heirloom Seed Co and others are busy collecting, identifying, preserving and exchanging landrace and heirloom seeds from throughout the country. The Bombay Hemp Company, an industrial hemp startup founded in 2015, is working with families in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Kashmir and Jammu to produce traditional hemp products.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there have been rumours that the respective national governments have begun to recognize their vast natural resources in the form of the Chu Valley wild cannabis fields, although what shape this make take remains to be seen.
Interestingly, a new definition of landrace was recently proposed in a study, Toward an Evolved Concept of Landrace, published in Frontiers in Plant Science in 2017.
According to this definition, landraces “consist of cultivated varieties that have evolved and may continue evolving, using conventional or modern breeding techniques, in traditional or new agricultural environments within a defined ecogeographical area and under the influence of the local human culture. This includes adaptation of landraces to new management systems and the unconscious or conscious selection made by farmers or breeders using available technology”.
The Future of Cannabis Seed Varieties
What the future holds for the global seed market is unclear. The importance of landrace and heirloom varieties must be internationally protected and recognized, perhaps with a series of “appellation of origin” type certifications such as those implemented by the wine, cheese and cured meat industries (a scheme already being called for by Californian cannabis farmers).
An internationally-recognized standard for seed breeding and transparency in commercial indoor breeding projects should also be adopted so that consumers can be better informed about the seeds they are buying. As well as this, a moratorium on the introduction of foreign genetics to traditional landrace and heirloom areas should be agreed to and implemented by cannabis seed producers and farmers worldwide, at the very least until landrace and heirloom varieties can be properly identified and protected.
Feral cannabis, Malana
Lowland, autoflowering biotypes of cannabis, India
Of course, all of this will be extremely difficult to implement, at least before the integrity of the landrace zones is entirely contaminated. Already, landrace populations in Morocco have been all but obliterated, and there are anecdotal reports that Jamaica, Panama and many other Caribbean and South/Central American populations have been totally contaminated too.
It’s worth also noting, however, that introduction of foreign genetics does not automatically spell the end of a landrace. According to a 1998 definition, “an autochthonous landrace is a landrace grown for a long period in the farming system concerned. As the environment changes annually and as the landrace becomes ‘contaminated’ with few genotypes of other landrace(s), or cultivar(s) it will continuously adapt itself”.
Thus, a resilient landrace population should be able to absorb a certain degree of foreign genetic material without compromising its overall character. So the race to protect the remaining landrace populations is not lost – it’s simply a question of ensuring that not too much foreign material is introduced.
In Morocco, for example, the sheer quantity of cheap, feminized and often poorly-stabilized genetics introduced into the local genepool (and the clear preference among farmers for HYVs, leading landraces to be outright rejected in their favour) means that the battle is already probably lost – unless sensible and much-needed breeding programs can be implemented that make use of local drought-resistant adaptations, perhaps with controlled introductions of stable foreign varieties for improved flavour and cannabinoid profiles.
It’s also worth remembering that in many countries such as Morocco (where cannabis is not indigenous but has been introduced in several waves over more than a thousand years), were it not for introductions of foreign genetics, landraces could never have become established in the first place. However, up until now, most introductions have been limited, and of relatively-stable landrace/heirloom populations.
Today, a free-for-all situation is emerging, and if it spreads to other formerly-untouched populations, we could end up cutting ourselves off from the rich pool of landrace varieties we depend on to develop commercial varieties for places that cannabis does not grow naturally.
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