Genetically modified organisms—especially when it comes to food—have long been a controversial subject. This is why non-GMO and organic foods have become a familiar sight at supermarkets. But now that controversy is heading into the realm of cannabis with a number of Canadian companies looking at modifying and even patenting cannabis molecules.
Supporters of genetically engineering cannabis molecules say that the science has the potential to create purer products and speed up innovation. Critics, however, say that genetically engineered cannabis is a step too far and could lead to small growers being pushed out of the market by large corporations.
Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.
Startups Looking to Patent Cannabis Genes
Genetic engineering has long been used in agriculture. For instance, farming companies have controversially patented genetic sequences that can help with such things as pest resistance and faster-growing crops. Since those genes are highly valuable, patenting them becomes potentially very lucrative for companies.
However, genetic engineering in cannabis is a new frontier, largely because research into cannabis is very new. Cannabis is a complex plant, yet only two of its compounds— tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)—have been studied specifically. The potentially hundreds of other marijuana compounds are poorly understood, which means they hold a lot of future discoveries for researchers. That’s why a number of startups in Canada and the U.S. have begun seriously investigating the genetic engineering potential of cannabis.
For example, one startup in Montreal, Hyasynth Biologicals, is using genetically altered fermented yeast to create a synthesized version of cannabis DNA. This process allows scientists to create cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, which have the same properties as cannabinoids found in cannabis. But these lab-made cannabinoids are different from ones extracted from actual cannabis plants because they’re virtually pure versions of the solitary cannabinoid.
Big cannabis companies are recognizing the value that genetic engineering holds and are investing heavily in it:
- Marijuana producer Organigram recently invested $10 million in Hyasynth.
- Aurora Cannabis recently acquired biotech firm Anandia Labs.
- Cannabis giant Canopy Growth Corp. recently bought the Colorado-based hemp research company, Ebbu LLC.
Patent Laws for Cannabis Hold Profit Potential for Companies
Intellectual property concerns aside, companies that are able to synthesize pure cannabis genes first—and patent them—will have a big advantage in selling products derived from those patents in the cannabis marketplace.
But cannabis gene patenting is controversial. And that controversy is made even more complicated by differing intellectual property laws in Canada and the United States. Unlike the U.S., Canada makes it illegal to patent “higher life forms.” That means companies can’t actually patent new breeds of cannabis plants. However, they can patent modified genes that are synthesized from cannabis.
This distinction is important because scientists at firms like Hyasynth aren’t really focused on creating new strains of cannabis, but rather on synthesizing molecules from those marijuana strains. That process doesn’t alter the cannabis plant itself, which means patenting those molecules doesn’t violate Canada’s ban on patenting higher life forms. But it does mean that a private company holds a patent on genetic sequences derived from cannabis.
Opposition Growing Against Genetically Engineered Cannabis
Unsurprisingly, cannabis genetic engineering is stirring up plenty of backlash. Opponents take issue with private biotech companies owning pieces of the so-called building blocks of life. That criticism, of course, extends beyond cannabis genetic engineering itself. There’s growing resistance to genetically engineered products meant for human consumption, whether that’s food or cannabis.
Opponents also have another reason to be hesitant about embracing genetically engineered cannabis: biopiracy. Biopiracy happens when scientists patent slightly modified versions of genetic plant sequences—or the plants themselves—that have long existed and have been grown and used by indigenous peoples.
An example of a famous biopiracy case is when a scientist from the U.S. successfully patented the South American plant Ayahuasca, despite the fact that indigenous groups in the Amazon had been using the spiritual plant for generations.
Additionally, when biotech companies begin patenting genetic sequences, there’s an elevated risk that they could put small growers out of business, as those growers will suddenly find themselves in violation of those biotech companies’ intellectual property.
Proponents of Genetically Engineered Cannabis Say Fears Are Overblown
While those potential events sound scary, proponents of genetically engineered cannabis say the opposition is overblown and based more on emotion than reason. They also point to a number of benefits to gene patenting for cannabis.
For example, patented synthesized genes can be used to create purer products, which are expected to help satisfy a growing demand for health-related cannabis products.
However, the claim that CBD is healthier when isolated in pure form is controversial, too. The cannabis plant’s many compounds may work better when consumed together, a phenomenon called the entourage effect. And this effect is considered key by many to getting the most out of the plant’s health benefits. So, isolating compounds may make those compounds less effective.
Health benefits aside, there are other arguments as to the advantages of genetic patents. Proponents say that growing actual cannabis plants is time and energy intensive, whereas genetically engineered cannabis products can be grown much faster and more efficiently. This fact could offer a solution to Canada’s current cannabis shortage and take the pressure off of traditional cannabis producers, who are struggling to keep pace with demand.
While patenting modified genes makes plenty of people uncomfortable, it does have the benefit of fostering competition among researchers. Patents allow companies to profit from their discoveries. Without that motivation, it’s hard to see why such companies would devote their resources to further research if competitors could immediately mimic and sell their discoveries.
It’s clear that genetic engineering of cannabis will likely become increasingly controversial as the cannabis industry continues to grow. Ironically, as cannabis moves from an illicit product to a mainstream big business, it also now finds itself at the centre of a new mainstream controversy.
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