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This Is Proof We Need More University Research On Hemp

A pilot program of select universities has been a boon for hemp studies, but new government involvement may endanger needed research.

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Little research and data exist in the cannabis industry today. But a small group of universities has come together to change that. These universities are operating Hemp Pilot Programs under the state-run 2014 Farm Bill that expires on Oct. 31, when the USDA takes control on the federal level (because of the 2018 Farm Bill).

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Unfortunately, the DEA's way of asserting itself into the picture is worrisome to growers and researchers because of the severe legal ramifications it could cause.

The 2018 Farm Bill gave authority over hemp to the USDA and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) schedule of Controlled Substances. But, the DEA isn't walking away quietly. 

The DEA argues that THC can easily exceed 0.3 percent levels during the hemp separation and extraction process, making it a Schedule I controlled substance. Indeed, THC levels can temporarily rise during production, but the finished product may end up within the allowed THC limit - this is where the problem lies. The DEA considers hemp a Schedule 1 controlled substance at any point THC exceeds the limit. This potentially puts growers and manufacturers in a criminally liable position. 

And then we have the USDA's rules. The 2014 Farm Bill's Pilot Program will expire on Oct. 31st, 2020, a problem for many growers because they are at the end of the harvest season and may not be able to wind down in time for the deadline. Adding to the complication, they have one day to get approved for a new USDA license to complete their 2020 harvest because a dual license isn't allowed.

Last week, Congress extended the hemp pilot program through September 2021. Whether the President has signed the extension yet or not is unclear, but it looks like a done deal. 

According to James K. Landau, co-chair of the joint regulatory committee of the New York City and Hudson Valley Cannabis Industry Associations, "the global pandemic has made it difficult for states to finalize plans and submit them to the USDA for approval within the time allotted. An extension of the pilot program is important to give hemp farmers across the country certainty and states more time to submit their final plans.”

Related: An Argument for Farming Hemp

Why we need hemp research

Hemp cultivation takes more than planting a seed in the ground and hoping you get cannabinoid-rich plants with low THC levels. Soil, seeds, spacing, and harvest time are just a few factors that will make or break a crop. And the quality of the harvest will lead to new cannabinoid and hemp strain discoveries that could reveal medical breakthroughs.

Universities are searching for the best growing and extraction practices for maintaining allowed THC levels while producing CBD rich hemp plants that may result in medical cures.

Here is what they researched in 2020:

Cornell University's School of Agriculture has an extensive Hemp Pilot Program headed up by Larry Smart, Professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Science.

Professor Smart provided us with the following updates to their 2020 research:

 Cultivar evaluation

  1. Four years of evaluating yield, compliance, and pest and disease incidence of grain and fiber cultivars across multiple sites.
  2. Three years of evaluating CBD cultivars for yield, cannabinoid production over time, and pest and disease incidence across two sites.
  3. Trial documenting the effects of stress on CBD and THC production and the ratio of the two.
  4. Field evaluation, cannabinoid production, and genetic characterization of CBG cultivars, including pest and disease incidence.
  5. Characterization of seed quality of multiple hemp cultivars, including production and quality for baby green production.
  6. Studying diseases affecting hemp in NY State along with the effects of disease on cannabinoids and terpenes.

Breeding and genomics

  1. Hemp breeding to develop a high-yielding fiber and grain cultivars with low THC levels and high CBD levels. 
  2. Characterization of the genetic diversity of hemp varieties using whole-genome sequencing.
  3. Development of high throughput molecular markers that breeders can use to quickly screen for chemotype and sex.
    1. In vitro expression and characterization of cannabinoid synthases to better understand enzymatic activities and evolution.

Next year, Cornell will add "broadacre cultivation" for CBD to their research study, a trend they say is emerging in the industry.

Related: American Hemp Farmers May Prosper During The Pandemic


Dr. Sathya Elavarthi, associate professor of applied agriculture science, spearheads DSU's newest hemp-cultivation research. DSU is tackling a broad range of issues around hemp that will no doubt benefit us all:

  • Chemistry students will investigate extraction techniques most applicable to the desired end-use of hemp products and biofuel feedstock.
  • Biological Sciences students will engage in cancer research to explore the conditions under which cannabidiol (CBD) – a chemical compound in hemp – induces cell death versus cells protected against cell-damaging stressors.
  • Food Science students will investigate different extraction methods from hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil and test the methods' effectiveness.
  • Animal Science students will look at the effects of hemp extract on parasitic larvae in light of parasites' increased drug resistance.


North Carolina's hemp program, headed up by Dr. David Suchoff, an alternative crops extension specialist and assistant professor. NCSU's hemp program mainly focuses on providing methods and data to help farmers produce abundant yields and quality hemp crops:

  1. Biomass data, cannabinoid profiles, nutrient content, and plant growth progress is collected. 
  2. Little data exists on when to harvest hemp, many growers look to the marijuana industry to determine harvest timing, but marijuana growers harvest to maximize THC levels. NCSU is experimenting with a plant's growth cycle to keep THC at legally allowed levels. 
  3. Plants are grown in different terrains of NC (mountains, coastline, and flatlands) to determine which will produce the best product.
  4. Best planting practices like spacing and mulch evaluations get tested for optimal size, shape, and plant yield. 
  5. Nitrogen and potassium fertilizer rates get evaluated to determine the effects on final yield, quality parameters, and growth throughout the season. Results showed that increasing the nitrogen rate increased the dry weight yield. 
  6. Various hemp drying methods. 


The goal of the Hemp Pilot Program at UF/IFAS is to develop a viable hemp industry in Florida.

Jerry Fankhauser, lead oversight manager for the pilot program and assistant director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of UF/IFAS, is spearheading the UF/IFAS Hemp Pilot Project with Hemp project coordinator Dr. Zack Brym, assistant professor of agroecology at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead.

The project is well into its second year of research and outreach activities on the campus in Gainesville and various Florida sites. Research efforts with hemp have expanded to the Colleges of Pharmacy and Medicine at UF.

"A multi-disciplinary team of UF/IFAS faculty staff and students are looking at various aspects of hemp growth, development, and overall performance. Whether such production is for the grain and fiber side of the market or the high cannabinoid (CBD, CBG) market sector that is commanding a lot of attention at present", said Fankhauser.

The universities are doing important work. Let's hope the government doesn't risk stalling the progress they have made so far for the sake of the economy, our health, and hemp's viable industry.