Casia Lanier   |   February 16, 2022

Is CRISPR Technology Driving the Future of Cannabis Cultivation?

Advances in medical technology and cannabis legalization across the US are driving the growth of the medical cannabis industry. But could bioengineering push cannabis cultivators out of the market?
Casia is a freelance writer based in NYC and Madrid. She is passionate about promoting emerging scientific and technological advancements in cannabis for a healthier future.

According to Marijuana Business Daily, the average startup cost for a sizably profitable cannabis cultivation operation in the US is $42 per square foot. However, additional requirements, including state licenses and associated fees, can be as high as around $87,000 in the state of California.

While the expanding legalization legislation around cannabis production and sales in the US has opened many economic opportunities for growers and cannabis enthusiasts, the cost to produce and sell is at an all-time high.

For aspiring cultivators, startup costs create a high barrier to entry, which is often accompanied by strict and often complex and continually changing regulations.

Rising Smoking Point

Bioengineering has the potential to ease regulation for producers and create more targeted cannabis strains and products at a much lower cost and at a fraction of the growing time by using CRISPR.

CRISPR technology or the Crispr-Cas-9 editing technique, developed by 2020 Nobel Prize winners Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. Their technique enables genetic engineering of cannabis strains in just a matter of weeks, bypassing the time, resource, and labor constraints of the traditional cultivation process, which requires a growth time of between 3-8 months from seed to flower harvest, depending on the strain, climate, and growing environment.

CRISPR technology enables disease resistance, increases trichomes, regulates climate tolerance, and determines CBD-to-THC ratio and cannabinoid production (beyond CBD and THC).

Bioengineered cannabis is already being adopted and implemented to create marketable cannabis products.

Ebbu Inc., a Colorado hemp company, has already implemented CRISPR technology to produce plants that exclusively produce the cannabinoid CBG. Their model serves as a prime example of how competitive this technology is and how valuable biopharmaceutical advancements could be to cannabis companies like Canada-based Canopy Growth Corps, which recently acquired it.

But this example is an enigma. Likely the industry will see large pharmaceutical companies acquiring cannabis companies, like the global biopharma company Jazz Pharmaceuticals' purchase of cannabinoid therapeutic firm GW Pharmaceuticals for $7.2 billion.

Jim Thomas, the spokesperson of Quebec-based technology monitoring organization, ETC Group, warns that this technology “with eventually disrupt natural markets in cannabis” by “speeding up the transfer to a very corporate-controlled industry."

The pharmaceutical industry has the capital to invest with a primed consumer needs base. And the pharmaceutical implications for cannabis-derived medicine created using CRISPR technology provoke an attractive point for investment.

As biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies with greater access to government and corporate funding rush to take over the cannabis market, traditional players and methods of production will be replaced, making "growers, farmers, breeders become less and less relevant,” according to Thomas.

Where’s the Greener Grass?

In addition to democratizing access to recreational and medicinal cannabis, cannabis legalization was projected to provide farming opportunities for growers and agricultural workers.

Although CRISPR technology does threaten to replace traditional cannabis workers and cultivation methods in the pharmaceutical marketplace, cannabis consumers still favor naturally grown, preferably local cannabis products.

According to Cannabis Business Daily, more than half of cannabis consumers would pay between 50%-100% more for organically grown products. And the USDA classifies organic products as “certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest,” which excludes the use of genetically modified organisms, like that of CRISPR.

Additionally, naturally grown cannabis has abundant and complex beneficial compounds that science has yet to isolate, study, and understand well enough to modify using CRISPR technology.

At the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute in Prague, Ethan Russo, Director of Research, argues that "biochemically derived cannabinoids, even when mixed and matched into therapeutic formulations, will probably never equal the botanical synergy of the hundreds of molecules that are found in cannabis."

While the pharmaceutical industry speculates about the willingness of consumers to opt for CRISPR-designed cannabis products for medicinal uses, traditional cultivators can take advantage of the open-source technology. With the help of ODIN's CRISPR kit, growers can create tailored strains for recreational use and reintroduce those strain seeds back into the traditional cultivation process. By doing so, cannabis growers can prepare themselves to compete with, and protect themselves against, anticipated pharmaceutical-lead acquisitions.

Ultimately, cultivators can secure a more invaluable role in the cannabis market space by using pharmaceutical companies' own medicine against them, generating specialized supply and demand channels on a grassroots level with hybridized, CRISPR-integrated cannabis. After all, there is nothing recreational cannabis consumers love more than a robust hybrid.

 

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