Should the Plant That Can Grow Anywhere Be Grown Everywhere?
The history of cannabis cultivation teaches us what to do. And what not to do.
Cannabis is a wildly resilient and adaptable plant. It’s been grown and harvested for more than 4,000 years, migrating along ancient trade routes from southeast Asia through Africa and the Middle East, crossing oceans to reach the Americas and points in between. Today, we are just beginning to apply scientific methods to better understand the nature of the cannabis plant itself. The complex interplay of environment, farming techniques, and genetics allow us to coax and nurture various attributes out of each variety gently.
But moving forward starts with looking back and understanding what grows well, where it grows well, and why. Doing so represents not just the future of cannabis farming but also the future and viability of our planet to sustain us.
The homegrown science of cannabis
Agricultural scientists are hamstrung by cannabis’ storied history. The plant was underappreciated by European power-brokers who considered it a poor man's tobacco only used by marginalized racial groups. This racist perspective led to the criminalization of cannabis in the United States and around the world. As a result, generations of cannabis farmers, operating outside the norms of agricultural science, organically established the foundations of cannabis science, developing cultivation techniques and naturally selecting and enhancing certain plant traits and qualities.
Left to their own devices, these early pioneers also created legacies that we are now working hard to unravel. For example, there is no standardized naming taxonomy for cannabis beyond the basic genus and species classifications: cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, cannabis ruderalis. The reality is there are few true cannabis species in modern cultivation. Most of the cultivated cannabis strains are complex poly-hybrids developed by farmers selecting for specific properties, mostly optimizing their strains' THC properties.
For the past 50 years, growers have tinkered with the cannabis plant, creating more powerful and potent flowers. In the 1970s, one could expect THC content of 4 to 6 percent of the dry flower's total weight. By the 1980s and 90s, THC content had almost tripled to 15 percent. Today’s specialized strains now boast a THC content of nearly 25 percent.
But cultivating for high THC isn’t the endgame for all or even most cannabis growers. As farmers explore the litany of properties and benefits from cannabis and form new markets, they want to cultivate plants with a variety of specific properties, such as containing more CBD or featuring minor cannabinoids to plants richer in fiber.
As legal cannabis markets expand around the world, the opportunity to grow cannabis and hemp in more climates and regions is driving the need to build better plants through time-tested and proven agricultural scientific methods.
What the past teaches us not to do.
We can create plants that deliver the properties we desire and that thrive in the environment. We can develop plants that better withstand the rigors of climate change and weather events. We can couple specific plants with precise growing techniques and soil composition to enable farmers to fertilize responsibly and irrigate wisely to produce predictable yields season after season while maintaining the integrity of the earth.
But doing so requires us to apply the lessons of the past without repeating the mistakes of the past. It starts with understanding specific cannabis cultivars that are native or natural to particular growing regions. Over centuries of cultivation or wild growth, these plants have adapted to thrive in certain climates. We need to identify what these cultivars are and then put as many varieties into the ground as possible. By testing varieties under various conditions to evaluate the effects of sun, shade, wet, dry, cool, hot, soil types—even adverse weather events, we can identify and select for the combinations of genetics that form the foundation of a breeding line tuned to each climate zone.
This process of plant selection, observation, and breeding are what enabled ancient corn to evolve from a ragged plant that produced a few small ears of rock-hard, inedible kernels to a modern-day multi-billion-dollar cash crop. It’s the process that Norman Borlaugh, the Father of the Green Revolution, used to create the modern wheat plant, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal while fighting off mass human starvation in Africa.
From an agricultural perspective, corn and wheat prove that using natural selection and plant breeding techniques in a controlled environment can produce crops that adapt to specific growing environments, disease-resistant, and, most importantly, provide a consistent and predictable yield for farmers.
They also offer a lesson for burgeoning agriculture like cannabis. A warning to not outgrow the techniques and knowledge that connect farmers to earth, plant to planet. As corn and wheat farming evolved and grew into our modern agriculture industrial complex, farming itself became formulaic: plant this bioengineered seed, at this time, apply this amount of chemical fertilizer, irrigate this often, at this titration, use this herbicide, this pesticide.
We know the dire consequences of that approach on farms, farmers, and the environment.
The cannabis industry is destined to be different. We haven't achieved the scale or scope of our industrial crop cousins. Therefore, we have the opportunity to approach the science of cannabis farming with patience and foresight. Cannabis needs a generation of farmers willing to put in the time to learn the land and undertake the effort to steward it. Farmers who will research and understand their soil composition and water tables. Individuals who will cultivate the specific species and varieties right for their region and suitable for the applications and traits they desire, whether that's potency. cannabinoid variety, or fiber content.
As a collective, we must all do our part to stave off the effects of the gold rush that attracted many to take up cannabis farming. With cannabis cultivation bringing in upwards of $10,000 per acre, compared to traditional row crops that might yield $800 - $1,200 per acre, it’s easy to understand the lure of cannabis profit. And with cannabis’ resilient reputation as a plant that can grow anywhere, many farmers assumed that it’d be easy to cultivate. “It’s just a weed” after all.
We know that’s just not true.
It doesn’t take deep science to explain that if you plant a cannabis variety that hasn’t been extensively field-tested and certified for your specific growing region, even if it comes from a reputable plant or seed company, it is likely going to have a high failure rate. Add in unexpected weather events - violent storms, early and late frosts and freezes - and the potential impacts are devastating.
Despite 4,000 years of cultivation, we are just beginning to establish the protocols to help us cultivate cannabis more effectively and efficiently—without making poor choices that plague other areas of agriculture. Past generations of cannabis farmers found their way into the science without the benefit of the protocols available to us today.
We have the technology and scientific rigor to evaluate thousands of combinations of soil, environmental, and climate factors simultaneously. We can run massive numbers of field tests to identify which plants can tolerate specific growing conditions or withstand the ravages of weather events and recover and then replicate and enhance those traits from generation to generation of the plant.
We can give farmers a roadmap, not to take the decision making out of their hands or artificially augment nature, but to improve their ability to work with soil and water they have to grow crops that are predictable season after season.