Seed genetics: feeling the strain

Experts say that Colombia’s diverse climatic and soil conditions mean it has the opportunity to become a global cannabis seed bank, and companies are racing to breed the perfect strain.

From the sweltering Caribbean coast to the wide-open plains of the Llanos, in humid valleys and over the Andes, some of the world’s top cannabis breeders are looking for their own version of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. As cannabis legislation takes off around the world, Colombia’s climate and regulatory framework have created an opportunity for the South American country to become a global source of marijuana genetics. Breeding the perfect strain could be the biggest prize in Colombian cannabis.
“The major growers talk about mass production of cannabis in Colombia, but there is very limited knowledge of how to grow North American strains in tropical conditions,” one executive from an international seed company told CCI. “We think the winners will be the companies that use Colombia as a platform to see how their existing strains grow in the tropics and how they can accelerate genetic adaptation.”

SEED SEEPAGE: Although Colombia has a long history of domestic cannabis cultivation, most companies are working with the more familiar North American strains, carefully bred by a cadre of underground enthusiasts since the 1960s. Expert breeders in California and Colorado have created a gray market for seeds, but the continued federal criminalization of the plant makes it impossible to enforce intellectual property. Over the last year, many of those seeds have found their way to Colombian soil – using some ingenious transportation methods – to take advantage of the government’s fuente semillera (seed bank) registry process.
Colombia has strict agricultural and phytosanitary regulations and food and plant products must be certified with the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA). Recognizing that the country had an existing domestic genetic stock, when the plant was legalized for medical purposes the ICA gave companies until the end of 2018 to register their strains with the fuente semillera. Companies filed thousands of applications to register strains – some of dubious provenance – before the deadline fell. Once the ICA have checked and approved the genetics for a particular growing region, the cultivar can be legally produced commercially. Today four companies have received their cultivars (see graphic).

“With lab-assisted breeding you can see dramatic differences in one year. With three generations of plants you can isolate cannabinoids, breed out THC and make inroads into raising the CBD levels.”
Steve Dale, MedCann

So far most of the attention on the Colombian cannabis sector has been focused on companies planning large- scale, low-cost production of extracts for export. Companies supported by Canadian cash and expertize have certain leeway for a trial-and-error approach. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some firms in the Medellín region saw their first harvests ravaged by local plagues and alien soil conditions, which may contain damaging glyphosate or heavy metal particles. One company that has placed the development of cultivars at the spearhead of its growth plan is MedCann, which focuses on the large scale outdoor production of both low and high THC cannabis in the department of Meta, in the eastern plains.

Steve Dale – known in stoner circles as Breeder Steve – is one of the company’s founders, visiting the plots for vital periods before and after the selection cycle of each harvest. “Equatorial cannabis strains typically have THC of 5-6% and they have a different morphology. They’re taller, with thinner leaves and elegant branches, they shed water and dry quickly,” he says. “Our task is to take CBD varieties from temperate zones and cross them with equatorial varieties to acclimatize the chemovars. We’re also looking to bring in lesser known cannabinoids, such as CBDV which is found in many Lebanese strains.”

“Companies rushed to meet the deadline for the fuente semillera and now many own low quality genetic material that fails to germinate and is not adapted to local conditions.”
- Giovanny Areiza, Breeders

By identifying the most successful plants from every generation and then putting them under the microscope, Dale believes rapid adaptation is possible “In the fields I’ll look to pick plants that are more erect and try to identify which terpenes are causing plants to attract or repel mites. Sometimes I’ll leave the plants a little longer than I should just to see which ones attract mold earliest,” he says. “With lab-assisted breeding you can see dramatic differences in one year. With three generations of plants you can isolate cannabinoids, breed out THC and make inroads into raising the CBD levels.”

BREEDERS: Not all companies have the luxury of an experienced in-house breeder, however. In response to this challenge, independent breeders aim to provide reliable genetics to growers. Medellín-based Breeders SAS has been adapting cannabis to Colombian soils for ten years. It has its THC cultivation license, scientific research license and 105 strains passing through the ICA registration process. The company is currently undertaking agronomic evaluation of ten varieties. “Companies rushed to meet the deadline for the fuente semillera and now many own low quality genetic material that fails to germinate and is not adapted to local conditions,” says Giovanny Areiza, the company’s research director.

Meanwhile, other international companies offer additional tools for customers, including genetic testing services and the sale of climatized seeds.
THE HOLY GRAIL: The country’s breeders are in search of different things. For Areiza, “The goal is to produce psychoactive cannabis cultivars with high quality THC profiles focused on the elevated productionofresinsandtrichomes,which are ideal for medicinal extract production for national use and exports. Also, these new cannabis varieties are more resistant to common plagues and diseases in Colombia,” says Areiza.

For another multinational company executive, the holy grail of Colombian genetics is to find a low-tropically resilient plant with less than 1% THC – thereby making it possible to grow and cultivate without government ordained quotas – but with the rare cannabinoids (such as CBG, CBD and CBN) that have demonstrated therapeutic uses.

HYBRIDS: Some firms are looking to build upon the robust genetics found in Colombia’s existing cannabis stock. At their project in the Sierra Nevada mountain range near the Caribbean coast, PharmaSierra believes the solution to the challenge of developing sustainable cultivars for large scale production is through crossing highly productive North American strains with regionally adapted Colombian strains, shortening the path to large scale outdoor production.

“It took over six years for Dr Alejandro Navas, from CorpoICA, to stabilize hass avocados for commercial production in Colombia; a century before, it took decades to stabilize and now clone bananas. How long will cannabis take?” asks Sam Larson, the company’s CEO. “Standardizing cultivars takes years and in the long-run Colombian companies are going to have some amazing intellectual property. But by using hybrids we get the benefits of both ingrained pathogen resistance and high flower yield, which we can cross-breed over the course of generations to arrive at the optimal traits we require.”

WORLD BANK: Colombia’s wide and varied climate and topography has its disadvantages. Different humidity levels, temperatures and altitudes can cause North American strains to express their active molecules differently. A nightmare scenario would be for a sub-1% THC crop to exceed that threshold: the government has made it clear it would destroy such crops without a THC license. But varied local conditions also bring opportunity. “There are lots of equatorial countries, but Colombia is the only one with two oceans and a range of altitudes which gives it the opportunity to acclimatize a wide range ofplants,”saysDale.“Ifyoudroppedthe same high CBD strain into the eastern plains, the Magdalena valley and the Caribbean coast, you’d probably find you had very different plants after a few years.”

Those new strains could be stabilized, licensed under Colombian phytosanitary conditions and exported to other countries with similar climatic conditions. “The biggest opportunity is for Colombia to become a global seed bank and for the ICA to develop international agronomic relationships, especially with Latin American nations such as Mexico, Peru and Argentina,” says Areiza. The race is on and Colombia has a head start on other nations. Further government support and a strengthening of key institutions, including the ICA, will be necessary to take full advantage of the opportunity.