Published on: 30/06/2023
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS GENETICALLY MODIFIED CANNABIS?
At the moment, the answer is clearly no.
GMO cannabis (or weed seeds) does not exist, although some laboratories scattered around the world are conducting initial experiments on the subject.
But to talk about GMO cannabis is still early, and most of the time rumors about it have turned out to be fake news.
What are GMOs and what are the advantages and disadvantages
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, that is, organisms with DNA modified by genetic recombination or mating: in other words, selected traits of genes are transferred from one organism to another, not necessarily of the same or similar species, but also between unrelated species.
In the European Union, regulations are strict: in the food sector, impacts on human health and the environment are assessed before consent to modification is given, in an ongoing exchange between EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) and the European Commission.
At present, no GMOs are grown for commercial purposes in the UK.
In fact, the use of genetically modified organisms has advantages and disadvantages.
The benefits are related to creating more resistant plants: pests and insects can be a major problem for crops, which can be solved by genetic modifications that make them stronger or can naturally ward off pests. Other genetic modifications can make plants drought-resistant, allowing cultivation in countries with low rainfall.
Another advantage lies in the ability to improve the crop by selecting only the healthiest plants: in this way, the risks of poor harvests are halved or even nullified.
Finally, GMO production can make a contribution to reducing pollution and maximizing yields, with a relative decrease in waste.
Conversely, GMO crops can threaten delicate environmental balances, achieved after millennia of existence, and have side effects: for example, long-term studies on possible effects on humans are lacking.
GMO cannabis: many rumors but few certainties
In recent years, rumors around the existence of genetically modified cannabis plants have chased each other frantically, but these are largely urban legends. Experts have repeatedly debunked unverified reports that opened up such possibilities.
One of these fake news dating back a few years ago, involved a major biotechnology company, Monsanto: in 2015 the company allegedly filed a patent for the world’s first GMO cannabis seeds variety.
It took only a few hours to disprove the news, recklessly put out by some sites: no official statement and no trace of the patent quickly deflated the story.
In 2012, the Huffington Post erroneously reported the conclusions of a scientific study that had recently analyzed 38 seized cannabis samples: the newspaper announced that the analysis had revealed the presence of GMO cannabis, when in fact the study had found no marker genes in 37 of 38 samples tested. And the only one with marker was likely due to cover crops used to mask illegal cultivation.
Selective hybridization: a form of cannabis plant selection
The reality is that cannabis is a plant with a wide genetic variety: the chances of finding very different characteristics from plant to plant is high. To this we must add the practice of selective hybridization, which unlike genetic modification uses genes from the same or very similar species.
To give an example, a plant that is more productive, has a particular flavor or has a higher CBD content (at the expense of THC) can be selected for cultivation by professionals in order to maximize the yield. However, selective hybridization, unlike genetic manipulation, takes place over a relatively longer period of time and mostly only among similar species.
Ongoing experiments on GMO cannabis
Although genetically modified cannabis does not currently exist, experiments are nonetheless underway.
A few years ago, some direct researchers at the University of California at Berkeley genetically modified brewer’s yeast to produce tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, while more recently the U.S. biotechnology company Growing Together Research Inc has developed a technique to genetically increase or decrease THC levels in cultivated varieties, with the aim of using them for medical purposes.
As Dr. Reggie Gaudino of the Steep Hills Cannabis Lab in California has stated, sooner or later one of the big agricultural biotechnology corporations will also enter the industry head-on through genetic modification.
No genetically modified cannabis variety is currently on the market, despite rumors over the years. However, several experiments are underway, which could lead to interesting results in a few years from now.
It must be added that in the industry the idea of genetically manipulating cannabis leaves (or auto flower cannabis seeds) one rather perplexed and creates unease among those in the industry.
The possibility of GMO cannabis, as frightening as it may be and posing the right ethical questions, may nevertheless represent an excellent possibility for more efficient varieties, with cannabinoids such as CBD in higher concentrations and more resistant to disease, pests and drought.
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