Cannabis Cultivation in the Technology Era
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It’s quite the exciting time for cannabis enthusiasts as we witness the exit from a rocky adolescence and the eager embrace of a bright legal future ahead. The industry is experiencing growth at a frenetic pace, with legacy growers jockeying for career opportunities and market share among ambitious, well-funded newcomers moving in rapidly.
In the US, cannabis legality is an inconsistent patchwork of regulations at the state level. While several states enjoy a booming recreational market with cannabis tourism dollars pumping up the economy, access in others is limited to patients with qualifying medical conditions (the lists of which also differ among states). Globally the market is estimated at over $300-billion in annual expenditures and with the United Nations and World Health Organization potentially repositioning to soften the historically prohibitionist stance, sustained growth and a broadening consumer base is more than likely in the cards.
On the heels of the influx of new producers came highly competitive cultivation markets and an overall downward trend for wholesale prices. Thus, optimization and enhancement of cultivation operations to increase yields, and avoid crop devaluation due to poor quality, are critically important to the bottom line. Furthermore, preserving product quality throughout the post-harvest supply chain to the end consumer is crucial to establish and maintain longevity in the markets. Production of consistent phenotypic characteristics and quality from harvest to harvest is a desirable but lofty goal. A notable consequence of modern-day cannabis prohibition is the scarcity of peer-reviewed literature surrounding cultivation practices, including optimization and standardization. Hawley and their colleagues recently summarized the status eloquently in HortScience:
“Given the novelty of legal commercial cannabis production, relatively few developments have been made through breeding, genetic modifications, or production strategies aimed at producing consistent cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Without access to consistent metabolite profiles, clinical studies have been unable to thoroughly assess the medical applications of cannabis on a broad scale.”
Developments pushing the industry forward are technologically- and data-driven, heavily focused on scalability, yield optimization, and quality assurance. The indoor-vs-outdoor dichotomy is evolving toward hybrid growing operations. Massive warehouse-style hybrid greenhouses, capable of harnessing natural sunlight and sometimes augmented with sub-canopy LEDs, offer increased environmental control and enhanced security compared with pure outdoor cultivation. They are also less energy intensive than traditional indoor cannabis cultivation, substantially reducing demand on the power grid. With revised legal status in several geographies, controlled studies can be undertaken to correlate biomass yield and glandular trichome production with light wavelength, photoperiodicity, and other factors to establish baselines for different cultivars.
Several other segments of the commercial supply chain are experiencing rapid innovation and have potential to accelerate progress toward consistent consumer products. For example, methods for clonal micropropagation of desirable genetics is commonplace in commercial production of more established high value agricultural commodities. Micropropagation produces hundreds to thousands of copies of the desired plant stock, retaining the desired phenotypic characteristics more reliably than starting from seed. Furthermore, advanced plant tissue culture techniques can genetically “rescue” diseased specimens in order to re-establish daughter plantlets unafflicted by the pest. Disease-free tissue culture stock sources represent a potential safeguard for large-scale cultivation, where resources permit investment in future-proofing favorite cannabis genetics.
Determination of genotypes underlying phenotypes in cannabis cultivars is gaining attention and funding, with potential to direct informed breeding and appropriate strain selection for a particular biogeography (latitude/climate/elevation). Genomic stability, measured as percent homozygosity, in cannabis genomes is one example of current private-company offerings that can assist breeders in selecting back-cross mates. As Backer and colleagues articulate regarding this exciting time for cannabis science: “The vast amount of genomics data currently available for cannabis can be used to better understand the effect of genotype on yield.”
Despite human-directed breeding with the goal of maximizing THC, cannabis is nonetheless a chemically diverse botanical matrix with multifactorial effects on human physiology. Preferences and effects vary among individuals, resulting in an ever-increasing demand for specific products to suit a wide range of desired outcomes. For example, the terpene content of processed cannabinoid formulations can be customized to promote sleep or energize the consumer. Products infused with linalool, also found in lavender, would be a good fit for relaxation, while others augmented with menthol or limonene could support and sustain activity. Products boasting both THC in combination with CBD are now commonplace in dispensaries. “One-to-one” or “two-to-one” THC-to-CBD formulations are popular as lighter alternatives to the heavy-hitting, high-THC options. Another significantly important product type are high-CBD, THC-free formulations sought after by individuals unable or unwilling to tolerate THC, or subjected to drug testing to determine consumption of the psychoactive component of cannabis.
Accurate batch testing of products by third-party independent laboratories to verify dosage label claims is thus imperative to promote and maintain consumer confidence in the products they purchase from store shelves. Considering all cannabis has to offer, maintaining integrity through accurate labeling is paramount to support and sustain its positive trajectory.
References & Citations
- Global Cannabis Market. New Frontier Data, 2019.
- World Health Organization Recommends Reclassifying Marijuana Under International Treaties https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2019/02/01/world-health-organization-recommends-rescheduling-marijuana-under-international-treaties/#3684102f6bcc (accessed Apr 23, 2019).
- Kennedy, B.; Staff, T. C. Wholesale cannabis prices tumbled in 2017 — and they haven’t hit bottom https://www.thecannabist.co/2018/03/08/marijuana-prices-2017-cannabis-benchmarks/100103/ (accessed Apr 23, 2019).
- Hawley, D.; Graham, T.; Stasiak, M.; Dixon, M. Improving Cannabis Bud Quality and Yield with Subcanopy Lighting. HortScience 2018, 53 (11), 1593–1599. https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI13173-18.
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- Bilefsky, D. Legalizing Recreational Marijuana, Canada Begins a National Experiment. The New York Times. January 10, 2019.
- Reuters. Uruguay Pharmacies Start Selling Cannabis Straight to Consumers. The Guardian. July 19, 2017.
- Eichhorn Bilodeau, S.; Wu, B.-S.; Rufyikiri, A.-S.; MacPherson, S.; Lefsrud, M. An Update on Plant Photobiology and Implications for Cannabis Production. Front. Plant Sci. 2019, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2019.00296.
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- Here Are The Best CBD Products Of 2019 That Are The Real Deal https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-best-cbd-products-of-2019-that-are-the-real-deal_l_5c4b745ce4b0287e5b8a87e0 (accessed Apr 24, 2019).