Do Landrace Farmers Need Modern Hybrid Strains?

The Cannabis Industry? The Cannabis Community? What to call it? Whatever. Point is, prominent “Cannabusiness” icons are starting to talk about landrace preservation.

That’s a good thing.

To date, the biggest Cannabusiness foray into the landrace realm was the now-infamous Strain Hunters. Watching the self-proclaimed “King of Cannabis” brought to mind that brutal takedown of Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazaar: “Certain writers have a style that can best be likened to body odor: irresistible to some, obnoxious to many and apparently imperceptible to the writer himself.” About ten minutes of Strain Hunters was my limit.

So, no more videos of gifting Indian and African farmers with seed that will wipe out millennia of biodiversity and with it their heritage.

Good. At last, a much-needed conversation is happening.

The trouble is, the Cannabis biodiversity crisis is still getting framed as an ethical dilemma over whether “developing country” farmers should be “allowed” to grow hybrids.

The Cannabis Community urgently needs to get past this notion that modern hybrid strains are the pinnacle of what can be achieved with Cannabis, and that landraces themselves are a nostalgic dead-end, both of which delusions are very far from the truth.

Steve D’Angelowho’s doing fantastic work on prison reformrecently posted about Morocco, where biodiversity is already far gone. The hybrids now in use get savaged by botrytis, he notes. But then he makes a questionable assumption: Branchy modern hybrids give a higher yield than the old columnar Moroccan landraces. But has this been studied? I doubt it.

In fact, the advanced high-yield Cannabis cultivars of the future will have a columnar architecture, as do the main phenotypes of the old Mediterranean landraces from Morocco, Lebanon, and Greece. Columnar architecture enables high-density planting and vastly higher total yields.

Current cultivars and planting practices in the West could charitably be described as “suboptimal”. The amount of wasted space caused by branching and distance between plants is astonishing to any crop scientist. That’s before we even get to unnecessary and unecological energy-hog greenhouses.

But even big branchy old-school Sativas can outyield hybrids, as demonstrated by Jamaican scientist Machel Emanuel. Fundamentally, the tropical landraces of the Caribbean, Thailand, and elsewhere are a basis from which cultivars that rival and exceed any modern “strain” can and will be created. If we salvage them before they go extinct.

Whatever the imagined short-term benefits, dumping modern hybrid seed on landrace farmers is not in their interest, still less their children’s.

The catastrophic consequences of bringing nonindigenous seed to regions of Cannabis biodiversity haven’t yet sunk in for most aficionados. Currently, this ecological crisis is seen as merely losing landraces themselves. The conversation is edging closer to part of what that means, i.e. annihilating cultural heritage and traditional products such as authentic Nepali charas and Thai stick. But the bigger picture, the wider truth, is that we’re simultaneously extinguishing a multitude of future possibilities.

Above all, Asian landraces and wild-type populations hold the vast bulk of the genetic diversity of Cannabis. Cultivars, cures, and creations we haven’t even begun to imagine exist there, hidden within them. Right now, with the unchecked spread of hybrids out of the West, we’re not just cutting the ground out from under landrace farmers. We’re destroying the future for ourselves and the plant we love.

It’s time to stop and think seriously about what that means.

4 responses to “Do Landrace Farmers Need Modern Hybrid Strains?

  1. In America we have a generation or two of young people who don’t care about quality or craft. I see them as the microwave kids. I want it faster and stronger. Dabs, dabs, dabs! The market pushes economic direction.
    Outdoor and greenhouse growers are your fundamentalists and preservationists. Indoor growers are your microwave growers. Cycle times and quantities are king. Give it a cool name and throw as much hype at it as possible!
    Exaggerated numbers of thc and cbd rates has created a Pinocchio effect for competition. Legalizing home growing is crucial for preservation of genetics.

    Small groups worldwide have to carry this cross. The greed of entrepreneurs only focuses on microwaves.
    Peace farmerlion

    • Hey, great to hear from you. Multiple solutions are needed. Ex-situ conservation in places like the Millennium Seedbank is the most urgent. In-situ projects in countries like Nepal and Thailand. Projects by private companies in Canada or wherever. And cultivation by hobbyists worldwide. All have a crucial role to play.

  2. What do the landrace farmers actually want to achieve overall? Is it quality, or quantity, culture or profit? It might be there’s differences of opinion between different areas of cultivation, some farmers will want to earn as much money as possible with preservation being unimportant. Others will want to earn money but also preserve the heritage with other opinions in between.
    Its legal status makes a huge difference because whilst its still illegal in many countries coordinated efforts to preserve are very difficult.
    We in the west like to bemoan the lost biodiversity of landrace cannabis in places like India, Thailand etc but im not sure we really stop to think why do the farmers even cultivate it in first place.
    Be interesting to hear what the farmers of Afghanistan etc have to say on the matter.

    • Hi – thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s really great to see this conversation happening.

      In reality, the Cannabis biodiversity crisis is only getting discussed in a narrow section of academia and the landrace aficionado niche. That’s about it right now.

      The book on Cannabis I’m currently putting together is constructed around the words of landrace farmers themselves, collected in interviews over many years. So the importance of what marginalized farming communities experience, need, and want is my primary focus in all this.

      Most landrace farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers. Economic realities are such that the appearance of “choice” here is illusory.

      I can see the temptation to frame this ecological catastrophe as a question of landrace farmers “wanting” to grow hybrids. On the face of it, that appears to be a good liberal argument about freedom and equality of opportunity. Conveniently, it also absolves those continuing to spread hybrid seed out of the West from any sense of culpability – or from having to think about the profound inequality in their relationship with these farmers.

      The economic reality is of course fundamentally not one that entails any real choice. Precisely these arguments about apparent “choices” are used to excuse the Western colonial era: “Indians “chose” to buy cheap industrial textiles dumped on them by the British. So, Indians “chose” to destroy their own textile industry”. Similar arguments were made by tobacco corporations when it started to become clear smoking causes cancer. Similar arguments are made today by Monsanto.

      Currently in Asia, there are two types of place where you find hybrids. Where tourists go. And where there’s access to the Internet and people who can afford to buy hybrid seed online, with the cards to do it. Again, this story is fundamentally about economic inequality. The people giving farmers the seeds are from outside their communities and come from vastly more privileged classes.

      Whatever short-term gains growing hybrids may bring these farming communties, the ultimate consequences are profoundly destructive for everyone. The communities’ heritage, wealth, resources are destroyed, taking with it not just authentic products such as real Nepali charas but also a multitude of possible future indigenous cultivars. The vast majority of the genetic diversity of Cannabis as a species is simultaneously annihiliated. Everyone loses.

      Imagine a man dying of hunger. Before him is a bowl of gruel. At the top of a distant mountain is a banquet. He can choose one meal. How honest is it to say that he “chose” the gruel?

      All best,

      Angus

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