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Hemp seed genetics can solve the 1% THC problem

The USDA backed off its negligence threshold of 0.5% THC, moving the level up to 1%--blessed relief to farmers. New tools in the toolbox should make hitting the mark easier.

The hemp industry is united in its desire to see the definition of hemp change to accommodate a level of naturally occurring THC at 1%, up from the current, arbitrary 0.3%. At either level, THC is so low as to not be able to get anybody high. Crappy weed from the ’70s had maybe 7-9% THC, and marijuana at dispensaries today is typically at least in the high teens if not the 20s-percent level.

The problem is that farmers can grow hemp that goes “hot”—exceeds that 0.3% level—which forces producers to destroy their crop and potentially get slapped with a felony from the DEA.

“States have reported between 5 and 20% of crop going hot,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp at the Winter Hemp Summit held virtually Jan. 14. “There’s a critical need to revise the definition of hemp to 1 percent THC or less by weight.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule regarding hemp, which was released Friday, Jan. 15, at least changed the “negligence threshold”—the point at which farmers are compelled to destroy their crop, not to mention potentially face felony charges for growing marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, from 0.5% to 1.0%.

But there’s another way to get to the 1% mark besides just changing the definition of hemp. And that’s by starting off with seeds bred to not exceed that onerous THC level.

As described in the USDA’s Interim Final Rule, certain state hemp pilot programs under the 2014 farm bill authority developed seed certification programs to help producers identify hemp strains with potentially lower THC concentrations.

“USDA acknowledges that this remains a significant hurdle to the hemp industry and is committed to assisting with the research and development of compliant hemp varietals,” the agency noted in its final rule. Using seeds designed to exude low THC levels, says the USDA, “will assist hemp farmers to purchase recognized hemp varieties that have been tested for purity and are properly labeled.”

Nearly every kind of agricultural crop has seed certification standards. The fact that hemp seed geneticists are just now getting comfortable with producing stable seed genetics shows the road ahead before hemp can rightfully claim to become a bona fide American commodity crop. Still, the work is vital, and the work continues apace.

Genetics meet regulations

Seed geneticists are finally being able to offer seeds that hold the promise of becoming plants that will not exceed the 0.3% THC level—at the very least, that do not exceed 1%.

“It’s definitely a complex and controversial issue,” said Matt Haddad, CEO and founder of Trilogene Seeds, based in Colorado. “Typically, none of our genetics will go over the 1% THC threshold, even if pushed farther than full maturity.”

And, bonus—seeds are also being developed that also grow best in different regions across the country, to account for variables like humidity and temperature shifts. Once these seed strains are developed, then the work of seed geneticists is to make sure the seeds remain stable for the market-desired traits.

“Our main focus is on farmer compliance and being sure our farmers can be successful this year,” said Chris Pauli, research scientist at Front Range Biosciences, at the Winter Hemp Expo, held virtually on Jan. 14. “Uniform yield and uniform compliance—those are the top two things farmers should be focused on.”

Pauli said Front Range Biosciences also is producing seeds for “regional adaptations.” A lot of this work is focusing on terpenes—known for being the aromatic compounds in hemp but which house still-researched benefits.

“As new compounds are discovered,” said Pauli, “new plants for different regions can be supplied.”

New West Genetics, also based in Colorado, has spent five years tweaking strains that are stable and have multiple attributes.

“We’ve been adapting from Canada to South Africa, so we’re selecting for disease resistance,” said Wendy Moser, CEO of New West Genetics. “It takes years to do that. It took five years to stabilize our value-added traits.”

Moser said New West continually fine-tunes its seed genetics, and has varietals that are dual purpose, like hemp fiber that’s also rich in the up-and-coming minor cannabinoid, CBG. Other genetic traits make for much higher rates of female plants, with just enough males to pollinate grain. Enhanced levels of CBD always seems to be in vogue. Other seed traits are focused on exuding superior levels of amino acids and protein.

The protein story is vital if hemp is to make inroads in the lucrative animal feed market, which is currently dominated by soybeans. Cattle ranchers are always looking at the cheapest way to get the amino acids their animals require.

“Hemp’s got the same nine amino acids as soy but at lesser quantities,” said Moser. “But we can fix that. We are figuring out how to adjust genetics to fit into existing supply chains so we can get our foot in there, at scale, to change what our animals are eating.”

The USDA recommends using certified seed, but it’s still early in the game for that.

Haddad said he has worked with the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) to develop protocols to get feminized hemp seeds approved but that’s still a work in progress. AOSCA currently has nearly 75 different hemp varieties eligible for seed certification, half of which originate from Canada, which is a world leader in hemp for grain applications.

“It’s sort of a higher standard that you want to work toward to validate that your seed does what it’s supposed to do,” said Moser. “The goal is to give farmers the assurance, benefit and cost savings with what they’ve got.”

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