Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Manipulating Marijuana: Monsanto and Syngenta Invest In RNA Interference Technology

Having been cultivated and used ceremonially, recreationally and medicinally for thousands of years, cannabis – despite prohibitive laws surrounding the non-medicinal use of the plant – is undoubtedly on the radar of big agribusiness.

These companies would certainly turn a profit from developing a patentable transgenic seed for sole distribution if the use of cannabis were to become legal. It would be easy for these companies to create a monopoly over the industry by abusing their ties with federal regulators. This has all been a point of much debate within the cannabis community for many years.

With this in mind, it's fair to say that one of the only positives of marijuana prohibition, with the art of breeding, growing and distributing cannabis heavily underground for most of its commercial history, the Big 6 seed and chemical companies have not been able to dominate the industry with their patented technologies.

The trouble: things may change soon. Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Dow and DuPont have, until recently, largely focused their energy on monopolizing the food industry, but some have developed a keen interest in this still-illegal plant as well.

Whether the backwards idea of keeping psychoactive plants entirely prohibited continues, or whether full legalization is granted, or simply if only medicinal liberties remain the loophole on marijuana use, these companies are seeking new and preparatory ways to cash-in on the popular use of cannabis.

With bureaucratic regulation of medicinal use of the plant being discussed in the halls of government and on its way to becoming the standard, many agro-companies are set to be outsourced as the main providers of medicinal pot. For obvious reasons then, these companies are already underway researching genetically modified (GM) cannabis in order to control its THC content.

If these corporations are given sole administrative power of seed distribution to the licensed medicinal outlets, they may want to keep THC at very low concentrations of 3 to 5%. On the contrary, if by retract of the recent medicinal freedom, pot becomes entirely prohibited once again, they can still benefit by joining hands with the champions of the drug war and eradicating THC content in the plant entirely.

THC: Potency the Natural Way

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, one of the psychoactive components in marijuana, has always been the subject of artful breeding. Without GM technology, experienced growers have perfected ancient methods of breeding organic cannabis with around 10% or more THC. By use of a natural cultivation process called human selection – a sped up form of natural selection – marijuana growers have been learning how to increase THC content without the use of any lab or corporate product.

This has enabled the marijuana world to maintain independence from the massive seed and chemical companies.

Of course, deep knowledge of the plant, extensive farming practices, genuine care and time spent in order to learn how to breed this useful plant, are a must for growers who want to deliver a truly organic, naturally cultivated and increasingly potent product.

In North America, British Columbia has been a place of highly concentrated talent – growers from all over the world come to the Northwest to take advantage of its nutrient-rich soil, prime weather conditions, and historically lax laws to learn how to grow potent marijuana, learning the best techniques to breed a product with a high THC content.

The concentration of organic-friendly farmers and environmentally concerned activists in the area have been a bonus to growers who, like tomato and arugula cultivators, learn from each other using permaculture-based methods (to ward off pests naturally without pesticides or BT technology, for instance) and thereby nurture prime conditions for growing successful healthy crops.

With the demand for potent BC Bud always increasing, of course there will be those attracted to growing with purely profit-driven motives. Rather than take the time and patience to learn true farming practices, some unexperienced growers will look to chemical companies to help increase their crop yields.

GM cannabis has already been developed for purely pharmaceutical use and to license to the government for medicinal study in laboratories. At the same time, over the last ten years, the realization that these chemicals and genetically modified versions of our ingestible plants could possibly cause major health problems like cancer, has been front and center on the stage of awareness.

Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other advocacy groups have said the risks of GM technologies have not been adequately identified or resolved. Opponents also question the objectivity of regulatory authorities.

The fight against GM food will surely heat up as this awareness increases. With the close-knit relationship between those who enjoy an organic plant-based diet and those who enjoy using marijuana, agribusiness might be safely kept away from cannabis cultivation – just so long as growers who value the true art of growing stick to their ancient practices, and those who are destructively profit-driven are pushed out.

But this will require high levels of consumer awareness. Medicinal patients should also demand their medicinal marijuana doesn't come from the laboratory, but rather, to have experienced organic growers be the government's source for licensed marijuana.

RNA interference

The biggest concern with cannabis and GM control now remains. While they gain a monopoly over medical marijuana, the challenge of governments who continue to wage the ostensible "War on Drugs" is being taken on by some of the Big 6. Monsanto and Syngenta are currently investing millions of dollars into a new GM technology called RNA interference.

RNAi, as it's also known, is a method where the RNA - which is the code from a plant or animal's DNA that tells its proteins how to organize in order to create, say, what colour the plant will be - is interfered with. In RNAi, double-stranded RNA is inserted so that this original code is obstructed; so that the pigmentation instructions don't make it to the proteins.

Scientists in Spain have successfully injected double-stranded RNA into a purple petunia to interfere with the genes that usually tell the flower to turn purple. Where the RNA code translation was interfered with, the flower grew white stripes where the proteins had no information on how to organize in order to create the colouring.

This process initially stepped into development as an alternative to insecticides: if you can insert double-stranded RNA into a plant's seed that is designed to interfere with the offending insect's RNA instructions for, say, digestive capabilities, after ingesting the plant and therefore the RNAi, the pest will no longer be able to eat.

More on this science has been in the works. Testing has already been done creating double-stranded RNA that have been injected into spider mites, the most resilient of crop pests, which interferes with the RNA instructing the mites' proteins on muscle development so the sider mite can no longer move.

The problem with this process is that the transgenic genes intended to interfere with the plant or the pest will then be ingested by the human. No matter how small an amount this gene interference is intended to be, there are scientists raising red flags about the potential harm this could have on our own biological systems or cell and protein development.

GM Cannabis

Here, the potential applications of this technology for the cannabis industry step onto the stage: imagine what genetic instructions within the cannabis plant might be interfered with. Certainly to profit from the billions spent on the Drug War in its attempt to eradicate the world of psychoactive plants, these companies might offer a rendition of this GM technology where genes determining THC content are interfered with.

If it weren't for the growing evidence that GM and RNAi crops may be damaging to humans, it's possible to imagine a host of potential benefits to genetically modifying the cannabis plant. Larger, more potent, and pest-resistent grow shows are an attractive proposition, but are they worth the many risks?

RNAi technology is still in its elementary development stage and they're currently testing methods by which to administer it. A spray that contains this double-stranded RNAi technology, is thought to be the most marketable, but in Spain, injecting RNAi directly into the seed has been the focus of their extensive research. Another step before making it to the market is the question of how to regulate it for food-safety and health risks.

Developers of RNAi technology estimate that it could take 5 to 10 years to bring the technology up to code, so there is still time to help support and empower organic growers and non-GM cultivators.

Canada will soon employ a new commercial medical marijuana production system, where large-scale producers will be permitted to grow cannabis and distribute it through the mail. If you have a licence to purchase cannabis for medicinal use in Canada, tell Health Canada to you will not accept a product that has been interfered with using GM or RNAi technology.

In the United States, it could be a long while before the federal government allows any kind of research and development into GM cannabis, let alone any kind of sales or distribution for medical or recreational purposes, but things are moving quickly at the state level.

The slogan "Know Your Farmer" has gained popularity over the years in enlightened agricultural circles. In order to save our most ancient and beloved psychoactive plants from falling into the hands and under the control of the agri-chem profiteers, let everyone remember the slogan "Know Your Grower."

Hard work, pure talent, and unparalleled dedication to the natural world will continue to deliver us both our health and our freedom.