The Fallacy of Modern-day Seed Breeding

09/28/20
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If a grower sows 100 seeds of any one cannabis variety, the majority of those phenotypes will look and behave completely different from one another. Phenotypes are different verisions of the same variety. Some may exhibit a tall, stretchy growth habit, while others may grow short and compact. Some flowers may mature in 7 weeks, while other may require 10 weeks or more before they are ready to be harvested. A few phenotypes may be rich in cannabinoid content, while others may hardly have any.

The reason for cannabis’ genetic conundrum is likely two-fold. First, the plant has not benefitted from decades of private and public breeding programs, due to decades of illegality. Crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and cut flowers have been researched and bred for decades in agricultural universities across the globe. Private companies have refined their own proprietary genetics through years of internal R&D, and then released those seeds for sale to the public.

Companies like Ball (ballseed.com), DeRuiter (www.deruiterseeds.com), and Syngenta (syngenta.com/seeds) are some of the largest seed suppliers in the world and their products are held to high standards in terms of consistency, purity, and plant performance. Unfortunately, the cannabis industry is far from being able to offer any kind of assurance to growers that purchase today’s varieties.

The other factor contributing to poor cannabis seed consistency is the time it takes to refine a new variety. Breeders are financially incentivized to rush new varieties to market as fast as possible. If a new variety wins a cannabis competition, or has a fancy name, or is promoted by a celebrity, it becomes very valuable. The average price of a cannabis seed at retail is $10-25 per seed, and a pollinated cannabis plant can yield thousands of seeds. Compare that to conventional horticulture, where $0.20 per seed is considered expensive! If the breeder took 3 years to stabilize their variety before releasing the seeds for sale, they would miss their window of opportunity. By the time the seed was stabilized, another hot variety would be on everyone’s mind. Most breeders would prefer to release unstable genetics today and earn $20 per seed, rather than wait three years and release a stabilized variety that doesn’t sell.

New cultivation businesses can avoid turning their grow operation into a genetic circus by limiting the number of varieties they use to launch production to no more that five. Plan on sowing at least 200 seeds per variety in order to find one true "keeper".