‘Landrace is a nasty-sounding word that brings with it not just the stink of pigsties but 1930s Europe,’ ran a provocative post to The Real Seed Company’s Instagram that appears to have had the desired effect, i.e. getting people talking and – better still – thinking.
Back in early 2019, while updating the URL for this blog, I noted how landrace ‘has become the unfortunate popular jargon for traditional Cannabis strains’:
‘It’s enough that in our era there are smokers who are Nazis. Now you can’t even speak about these plants without sounding like Himmler yourself. Landraces! …should I salute? Various authoritative dictionaries state this unappealing word originated among Danish hog breeders of the 1930s. Along with the stink of pigsties, it certainly brings with it all the dark resonances of that godforsaken era. Its application to crops in fact dates to at least the 1890s. Regardless, it’s now aficionados’ word of choice for distinguishing modern hybrids like Skunk No.1 from the region-specific traditional plants that produce old favourites like Afghan hashish, Nepali charas, or Thai ganja. I’d sooner say old-school Cannabis or traditional Cannabis. But, for now at least, landraces it is.’
Not for much longer, insh’Allah…
Once upon a time, ‘landrace’ was an obscure technical term employed only by botanists and other specialists who understood what it means. Now ‘landrace’ is on its way to popular use in international cannabis commerce and discourse…. Or rather, popular misuse and popular misunderstanding…
Confusion has been the status quo since aficionados latched on to this jargon several years ago, three years of which I’ve since spent doing what little I can to drive home that the core meaning of landrace is in fact ‘domesticate’. As Dr. Ernest Small writes in Cannabis: A Complete Guide: ‘The term landrace (land race) refers to populations of domesticated plants that were selected over many generations by farmers in a region.’ But check the first page of Google for the drivel-strewn forums, seed sites, and multipage theses from revered ‘strain hunters’ and you’ll see most still claim landraces are wild plants.
This widespread mistake erases the central role of the peoples who created these foundational strains and the marginalized farmers who’ve maintained that ancient biodiverse heritage through the nightmare of prohibition. But the error comes with other problems. Among the roots of the current confusion is that when the word landrace gets used, ordinary consumers and other non-specialists hear ‘race’. With ‘land’ to drive that misconstrued meaning home, the connotations of landrace become, well, a little concerning, not least given the long history of racializing cannabis to ‘other’ and degrade marginalized social groups – the very such communities who’ve born the brunt of cruel and misguided drug laws. Recall, for example, the history of the name marijuana.
Popularizing ‘landrace’ is, in other words, a problem both of connotation and denotation: Not only is the term misleading and extensively misunderstood, it’s also open to reinforcing a whole bunch of associated ideas that are dangerously unhinged. Cannabis is already plagued by racialization. Now imagine this word built of ‘land’ and ‘race’ on product packaging, menus, and adverts around the world. Just let your mind run with that a moment – say, as one of many inflammatory permutations, a field of real landraces and stood next to them someone’s idea of who the ‘real’ Indians or ‘real’ Afghans are. With the world breaking apart in a wave of Internet-driven derangement and stupidity, a whole lot of it based upon delusions of race, who in their right mind would want cannabis to get dragged back into this mess?
But the Internet is the Internet. Objections to my take surged in on social media like a rush of bile, most a predictable online vomiting of anger and confusion. No need for a PhD in sociology or an MBA from Harvard to know what quarters that was coming from. Amid the puke-spattered parade of straw men, however, a few points are worth addressing, such as that the race in ‘landrace’ just means ‘breed’ or ‘strain’.
The English ‘landrace’ translates terms such as the German ‘Landrasse’. Rasse and its equivalents in other languages of mainland Europe carry two related meanings: race and breed. By contrast, race in its equivalent sense in contemporary Standard English only ever means race. ‘Land race’ is occasionally the orthography in academic literature, a spelling that like the term itself is a relic of an archaic sense of ‘race’ (see Merriam-Webster link above) and serves simply to sow further confusion.
Look at those same studies beloved by strain hunters and in the more outdated you can even find landraces explicitly defined as races – for example, as ‘races or populations that have not been bred as cultivars, but, under natural and artificial selection (notably largely of an unconscious nature), have become adapted to the conditions under which they are cultivated.’ With most aficionados still convinced this word landrace refers to ‘natural’ or truly wild populations – a mistaken idea that again renders its meaning indistinguishable from the notion of race – Cannabis looks fated to suffer an unending blight of terminological chaos.
But the issue at stake here isn’t technical terms, scientific precision, or indeed plants. Forget UN glossaries, ecological monographs, or whatever other literature written by experts for experts. Instead, think of this as a discussion about confusion and irrationality, which fill the sewer out of which crawls racism. Among the most strident objections to even having this conversation were from people who had been suckered by the DNA ancestry testing industry and insisted that their race is a real thing. That’s the problem here: Not a word for pigs or plants per se, obviously, but what this ugly word is now open to reinforcing as it spreads out from the realm of well-informed experts into the minds of the rest of society – not least, the very concept of race itself, and with it a host of dangerous associated delusions.
Popular notions of race still take their cue from redundant race science. This is race taken to be a biological reality – a ‘fact of life’ encompassing humanity and grounded in the solid materiality of bodies, organisms, and DNA. Delusions based on this are entrenched each time this word landrace gets misconstrued, regardless of intent or what the word should refer to or ‘actually means’. Cannabis should not be left open to reinforcing such fantasies or getting dragged back into them, not least now we’re extricating ourselves and our plant from a tragic history of racist brutality, policing, and mass incarceration. Race as popularly understood is a dangerous delusion – an empty cultural construct, an idea in people’s heads. A lot of confused and aggrieved people’s heads, more specifically.
Race in this sense – the ‘race’ heard and understood in landrace because the one sole pertinent sense in English – is the same race as in Jüdische Rasse. For people as for pot, this is race imagined to be rooted in matter (blood, soil, land) and thus inherent to reality. A young black man appears black because of his intrinsic blackness, for example, a defining physical property from which his qualities as a citizen and individual emerge. More than that, his character and potential do not so much emerge but are delimited and confined. He is caged in his inherent blackness. This is the thinking of a racist, spelled out. Inchoate, incoherent in the thick skulls of its advocates as it may be, the dangerous stupidity of belief in race has real-world consequences. Cannabis, as we all know, has been relentlessly coopted for racist ends, above all to degrade and persecute. But if those consequences need further spelling out, perhaps get off the Internet and read a book, preferably one about genetics or genocide.
2019 may have seemed fairly crap at the time, but today it carries a halcyon gleam. We’ve since had an attempted coup by dipshit white supremacists in America, still far and away the most powerful and heavily armed nation in the world. By any sensible reckoning, the writing is on the wall, including for this ugly little word ‘landrace’. But let’s be clear, the problem is not about its particular sequence of sounds or letters. This is not mindless policing of language. The problem is with the concept race itself, for which ground is being ploughed and sown each time this unappealing term from the darkest days of European history is misconstrued – just as it has been continually for the last three years of the ‘landrace craze’. By way of further context, a 2017 UK survey found 44% of respondents still agree with the statement ‘Some races are born harder working than others.’ Of course, the objection here will be ‘But “landrace” is a word for plants not people!’. To which the obvious answer is ‘Yes, and so is “marijuana”. But we all know why prohibitionists drummed that name into the consciousness of white America.’
‘Anybody who has been misunderstanding the term landrace has been doing just that, misunderstanding. Or worse, not knowing. Because things are actually quite clear when you take the time to read the literature’ objected one colleague by email. ‘Everything will be just fine and dandy as long as consumers and all other non-specialists take time out to scour the monographs and rigorously educate themselves on this once obscure piece of botanical terminology’ was my not especially unfair parody of this argument. Point being, we’ve had at least three years of Cannabis aficionados and ‘experts’ themselves failing to do exactly that. Meanwhile, next to nobody among the wider public understands this term or grasps the science of race. For the life of me, how anyone fondly imagines everyone else in the English-speaking world – including, very soon, countless consumers – is not going to make the same mistakes and worse when confronted by this word landrace, I honestly do not know. The history of cannabis and race displays what possibilities await….
Claude Levi-Strauss, the brilliant French anthropologist, decades ago already divined the illusory nature of race, delineating its function as a social construct in a world of power. ‘Stop politicizing everything!’, complained ‘100% White’ Barry from England and others threatened by the prospect of a conversation about ‘landrace’ because already invested in dim-witted political fantasies of land and race. Today, the hard science of genetics and genomics can demonstrate the emptiness of their delusions, empirically. Nigh on everything to be said with respect to the unreality of race in human biology applies as well to Cannabis, which for millennia has been diffused and transported across continents by humans. In the words of renowned geneticist Adam Rutherford –
‘Here is the baseline: All humans share almost all of their DNA, a fact that betrays our recent origins from Africa. The genetic differences between us, small though they are, account for much, but not all, of the physical variation we can see or can assess. The diaspora from Africa around 70,000 years ago and continual migration and mixing since, means that we can see that there is structure within the genomes that underlies our basic biology. Very broadly, that structure corresponds with land masses, but within those groups there is huge variation, and at the edges and within those groups, there is continuity of variation. Of all the attempts over the centuries to place humans in distinct races, none succeeds. Genetics refuses to comply with these artificial and superficial categories. Skin colour, while being the most obvious difference between people, is a very bad proxy for the total amount of similarity between individuals and between populations. Racial differences are skin deep.’
Much the same goes for Cannabis, where Mandolino et al. (2002), for example, quantified DNA polymorphisms in ten drug- and fiber-type varieties and identified greater variability between individuals within a varietal than between varietals – data which confirmed ‘the existence of a single, widely shared gene pool.’ Likewise in so-called ‘landraces’, greater variation can be found between individuals within a distinct identifiable strain than between the populations of identifiably different strains. Gilmore et al. (2007) analyzed a globe-spanning collection and observed a low rate of sequence variation. All of which is to be expected in a single species with a history of cultivation and utilization stretching back, respectively, at very least some five to ten millennia.
‘Race’ has no formal recognized use in taxonomy either. The formal taxonomic rank that comes closest to the imagined one of race is f. (forma). In Cannabis, so far as genetics relates to the practical art and theoretical science of taxonomy, as Ernest Small comments, ‘Recent DNA evidence does indicate that at the molecular level, combined genetic loci may be usable to discriminate European hemp strains, Indica type plants, and Sativa type plants (Lynch et al. 2015; Sawler et al. 2015). The situation is perhaps analogous to human blood group geography, thought to have resulted from a combination of random drift and selection for disease resistance (Anstee 2010), and certainly not warranting formal taxonomic recognition. The information is, however, useful for tracing genetic relationships and identifying strains and cultivars.’
Heredity is a reality, in other words, albeit inordinately complex and extensively misunderstood. Race as popularly understood is illusory, real only in so far as we insist on making it real by believing in and acting upon it. Tragically, it’s an illusion over which humanity continues to tear itself apart.
For those still wondering, the intention always was at some point to light a fuse on this conversation, once enough rats had got on board the landrace ship. So far, the objections are much as expected: incoherent, myopic, and morally vacuous assertions that betray a callous indifference to the historical bonds binding science, race, land, and all forms of racism – not least antisemitism. While the chancers stick their fingers in their ears, the wider context is this: Racism and nativism are sicknesses of the mind, rife not just in the West but in nations such as China and India. Look at Xinjiang or Kashmir, two crucial ancient centres of our shared global cannabis culture. In Xinjiang, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Uyghurs by the Chinese state began in the 1930s by targeting Cannabis cultivation….
There’s a lot more to be said, no doubt, given how closely humanity and Cannabis are intertwined. But, with legalization on the brink of going global, there are few good reasons to keep using the term landrace. There are many good reasons to stop. The conversation necessary for that to happen, however, is only just beginning.
Alternative phrases involving ‘domesticate’ are already abundantly available (region-specific, traditional, heritage, etc.) and it’s entirely feasible to use context to avoid the term altogether. The sole obstacle at this point is a nice single word with which to directly replace ‘landrace’. A popular option is ‘heirloom’, which is well-established in the seed-saver world but also rather vague and contested.
The West Coast will likely decide this, as ever. It would be a bold gambler who bets on a win for ‘team landrace’ – the entrepreneurs and aficionados determined to keep using this ugly word for our beautiful plant. Or ‘landracists’, as I prefer to call them…. I’m sure they won’t mind. You see, the race in landrace doesn’t mean race….