Genetically modified foods are at an inarguably integral part of the U.S. food supply. In 2014, organic manufacturer Nature’s Path reported that 80% of U.S. processed foods contained genetically modified ingredients, and that as of 2010, over 90% of the country’s soy, cotton, and canola crops were genetically modified as well. Cannabis, however, as an only recently (and incompletely) legal crop, has so far dodged involvement from any of the giants of corporate agriculture.
Cannabis’ uncertain legal status through the years has made it notoriously difficult to study, and assembling comprehensive, applicable knowledge of the genetics forming cannabis’ many strains and varieties has eluded the industry until very recently. In January of this year, Sunrise Genetics unveiled the first complete cannabis genome map, while Phylos Bioscience continues to add more stars to its Phylos Galaxy, a visualization of the world’s largest database of cannabis DNA. This new abundance of knowledge, however, does not automatically open the door to genetic modification; clear and precise understanding of a crop’s genetic makeup is vital information for traditional growers as well.
Until now, growers have had to rely on largely superficial cues throughout the breeding process. Using phenotypical data is not without its successes, but since underlying genetics can be expressed in a multitude of ways, it is inexact at best. (As a side note, the widespread practice known as cloning is one of the few traditional ways of guaranteeing desired traits in a new generation of plants. Despite the name, the process is deceptively simple, and involves growing genetically identical plants from cuttings — an inherent ability cannabis shares with many other plants). A more complete understanding of the cannabis genome will, ideally, enable growers to increase the accuracy of their already-proven breeding techniques so that they can create more specialized strains of cannabis that reliably create specific effects (something we’ve written about in more detail here).
However, traditional techniques take time. It can require many generations of plants before desired traits are stabilized, even with the shortcut of in-depth genetic knowledge. And despite continuing skepticism in the world at large, GMOs have largely been embraced by American consumers. Right now, as the regulations of the cannabis economy are being written, there is a strong movement in the industry for prioritizing traditional methods and organic cannabis farming, but as cannabis continues to become more and more mainstream, it is uncertain how long that will last. GMO cannabis is not yet a reality — but as the market continues to expand, it is far from outside the realm of possibility for the future.