After decades of prohibition, the importance of developing hemp genetics suitable to growing regions across the U.S. is a priority for the hemp industry. Both public and private stakeholders are devoting resources toward research that they hope will yield new hemp cultivars that will make the crop economically attractive to farmers and processors, as well as competitive with traditional staple crops. In this article, Hemp Benchmarks highlights some recent initiatives in hemp genetics research and discusses the state of the field with industry insiders, as well as what the future might hold.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) established its Hemp Germplasm Collection at New York’s Cornell University, with the mission of developing “a comprehensive collection of genetically and geographically diverse hemp germplasm;” that is, the genetic materials contained within the plant.
This past March, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee released a report that encouraged ARS to “conduct biotechnology and genomics research in collaboration with capable institutions to elucidate the genetic control of key production and product quality traits in hemp to facilitate cultivar development.” The Committee also allocated $2.5 million for ARS “to partner with institutions already engaged in such research to conduct hemp genetic improvement research and breeding with new breeding and editing techniques.”
Also in March, the nonprofit Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) announced it was committing up to $2.5 million to establish the Hemp Research Consortium, a public-private partnership bringing together universities with industry participants. In a press statement, FFAR acknowledged that while many mainstream crops like corn and soybeans have been advanced by decades of genetic research and breeding practices, hemp has been hampered by its previously illegal status. “Hemp must make up ground through dedicated genetic research and breeding to provide growers with locally adapted varieties that can meet regulations on THC levels,” the statement continued.
However, the development of customized hemp genetics will not occur overnight. “Good genetics take time,” said Wendy Mosher, President and CEO of New West Genetics, a Colorado-based company that specializes in hemp genomics, breeding, and agribusiness. “The average time, with traditional breeding, for a varietal development could be 10 to 13 years,” she told Hemp Benchmarks. “For typical varieties using genetic marker-based breeding, maybe five to seven years. It takes a long time.”
Mosher also noted that genetic researchers have spent about 50 to 60 years working with soybeans, while modern corn varietals are the result of about 120 years of scientific investigation and experimentation. “So this is what we’re competing against!” she laughed.
Given that hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years all over the world, Mosher believes it is readily adaptable to the modern agricultural market, for use in a wide variety of climates. “That’s why Big Ag will look at it,” she added, “because it can be grown almost anywhere.”
Despite hemp’s long history, fundamental knowledge regarding different genetic traits and how they are expressed is still being worked out. For instance, Mosher noted that it was prevailing knowledge in the hemp industry that cannabinoid potency was directly affected by environmental factors, such as elevation or temperature. “But we know now, through studies out of Cornell and [Colorado State University], that the cannabinoids are 80% controlled by genetics, so those should remain stable.” Yield, on the other hand, “is highly influenced by the environment,” she continued, “so you’ll see yield differences from place to place.”
Mandi Kerr – CEO and Founder of the Global Hemp Association, a Utah-based non-profit that works to advance the industrial hemp sector – told Hemp Benchmarks that an important aspect of hemp genetics development is considering where those genetics have already been successful. That information can then be applied to develop current and future varieties.
Those lessons can include concerns about high THC levels in non-consumable hemp crops, such as hemp fiber, illustrating that regulatory approaches may need to shift as research advances. For example, Kerr said, “when you look at the history of [hemp] fiber quality in China, a lot of the THC levels [for those fiber crops] are not below 0.3%. They’re a higher THC level of up to, say, 6%, that’s providing the highest, strongest quality of fiber.” Consequently, the current federal regulations on THC levels in hemp, Kerr added, “have actually stifled the industry for quality of fiber, because of that risk.”
Kerr believes certification and scalability will become watchwords for hemp genetics development in the near future. “Everybody thinks that they’re a [hemp varietal] breeder,” she said, adding that more attention is rightfully being paid to GMP (good manufacturing practices) certification, as well as food-grade certification, of hemp and hemp products.
For her part, Mosher at New West Genetics said certified hemp seed, validated by third parties, should become a priority for the hemp industry. She advises hemp stakeholders to “try to distinguish between who’s got true expertise for what you want. Everybody’s got their specialties. And then watch for innovative traits coming out; there’s a lot of companies doing that.”
Mosher expects that a developed hemp genetics market will mean better hemp prices for hemp grain producers and processors, while making hemp a more competitive commodity versus corn, soybeans, and other mainstream crops. For example, more advanced genetics, such as the amplified genetic trait that New West has developed, “can bring down the price of [hemp] grain to the processor,” she said, “so the grower will benefit, they’ll have more yield. But they’re going to sell that seed for less, at a lower cost, so we can begin to compete. Soy is around 28 cents a pound – this is an average – across the U.S. We could bring it down to that cost, as opposed to the 55 to 60 cents [per pound that hemp grain] is selling for now.”
She also believes that, when it happens, federal approval of hemp for use in animal feed will play a crucial role in bringing hemp and hemp products into the agricultural mainstream. “We grow around 160 million acres of corn and soy in this country, around 90% of it is for animal feed,” Mosher said. “That’s why we need a place for our off-spec [hemp] grain to go. That is a huge risk mitigator for any grower.”