Cornell research may make hemp easier to raise and sell legally

Hemp growers in New York face the uncertainty of growing a crop that becomes illegal to sell because it unintentionally contains a higher amount of the psychoactive chemical THC than is allowable by state regulations.

Now a Cornell University study has revealed the cause behind some hemp plants’ tendency to “go hot” that could make it easier to cultivate hemp and stay within legal limits.

The culprit seems to be genetics, according to work done by Cornell researchers, and not a stress reaction to environmental conditions.

People thought “there was something about how the farmer grew the plant, something about the soil, the weather got too hot, his field was droughted, something went wrong with the growing conditions,” said Larry Smart, professor in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science. “But our evidence from this paper is that fields go hot because of genetics, not because of environmental conditions.”

Cornell horticulturist Larry Smart examines hemp plants at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. (Photo by Justin James Muir for Cornell University)
Cornell horticulturist Larry Smart examines hemp plants at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. (Photo by Justin James Muir for Cornell University)

Smart was the senior researcher for the study published last month in the Global Change Biology-Bioenergy.

Jacob Toth, a doctoral student in Smart’s lab, and lead author of the paper, developed a test that found three genetic categories for hemp plants: one has two CBD-producing genes, another has one of those genes and one producing THC, and the third has two genes making THC. The ideal selection has only CBD, or cannabidiol, genes.

Toth said, “To keep THC levels low, ensuring a lack of THC-producing genes will be important for the development of future compliant cultivars. Molecular testing is also much quicker and less expensive than current methods, and it can be done on seedlings instead of mature plants.”

The research team carried out field trials in both Ithaca and Geneva. The researchers noted that when they obtained supposedly low-THC hemp seeds, their tests revealed two-thirds actually produced THC levels above the limits.

Both types of compounds are produced only in the female hemp plants, but farmers might unwittingly use male plants with the THC genes for pollination that carry THC trait to their offspring, thereby promoting its production.

The team also came up with genetic markers to identify the sex of plants earlier, as they are identical until they flower. The technology is not affordable for an entire field of plants yet, Smart said, but promises to be useful.

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Schumer wants time extended for commenting on hemp regulations

Sen. Charles E. Schumer called upon the federal government Wednesday to allow more time for comment on proposed hemp regulations, concerned that the proposed rules would harm the rising industry of growing the useful plant.

Schumer announced his concerns while visiting the Albion farm of Gina and Terry Miller, who operate an organic hemp-growing business in Orleans County.

Proposed rules were published Oct. 31 and the comment period is due to end Dec. 31. Schumer, D-N.Y., would like the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the comment period by an additional 60 days.

“When it comes to an industry as promising as industrial hemp in the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, the feds need to get it right the first time, and not rush to any reckless regulatory decisions. Regulating this rapidly emerging industry is a must, but any rules must be part of a well-thought-out process that carefully considers the needs of all stakeholders—from farmers and growers to producers and manufacturers,” Schumer said. “These hemp experts have serious fears about how this proposed rule making could impose unrealistic or poorly thought out rules, restrict their industry, cut off growth and stop the creation of good-paying jobs. So, it is incumbent on USDA, the chief agricultural regulators in the United States, to hear them out and make improvements to the final regulations that are balanced and smart.”

Charles E. Schumer
Charles E. Schumer

Growers and hemp processers on a panel discussion at the recent Grow-NY Food & Ag Summit shared concerns about lack of clarity in the emerging regulations. A problem they mentioned and Schumer reiterated is the timing of testing to make sure the THC content (the stuff in marijuana that gets you high) of the hemp isn’t too strong. Samples are taken before harvest but results take so long that a farmer could harvest the entire crop before learning that the THC levels are too high for non-medicinal uses, and therefore have to scrap the crop.

Schumer said testing usually takes five to six business days, and the 15-day window for testing may be impossible to meet with a scarcity of appropriate test sites in the state. Additionally, the rules don’t provide for retesting or finding an alternative use for the crop if its THC level exceeds the limit.

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Schumer announces seed money for hemp germplasm repository in Geneva

Sen. Charles E. Schumer announced today that $500,000 in federal funding will go to Geneva to establish a seed repository for the hemp industry.

The money will go specifically to the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, which has an outpost on the Cornell AgriTech campus. The ARS would establish the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository.

Germplasm includes seeds, cuttings and other genetic material of plants.

“Not only will this facility act as the United States’ only industrial hemp seed bank, but it will also allow the world-class agricultural scientists at Cornell to help boost industrial hemp entrepreneurship,” Schumer said.

Kathryn J. Boor, dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences said, “The hemp seed bank and the research that it will allow by our Cornell and USDA-ARS scientists will be vital resources for New York state farmers.”

Until the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp had been considered a controlled substance because it is a member of the cannabis plant family and contains extremely low levels of the active ingredient in marijuana.

Schumer said a germplasm repository for hemp used to exist but its collection was destroyed when hemp became a controlled substance. He called the $500,000 allocation a “down payment” necessary to rebuild hemp cultivation and provide the means to make it a viable cash crop in New York. Hemp has applications for use in food, oil, and cosmetic products.

Cornell and USDA scientists maintain and have access to other germplasm repositories at Cornell AgriTech, including some for grape, apple, cherry, tomato and members of the brassica family (cabbage, cauliflower, kale and broccoli among others.)

In February, a panel discussion convened by American Cannabis Co. concluded that lack of germplasm repositories is holding back the industry.

Mitch Day, a science consultant working with ACC, said that similar to other crops, development of hemp needs plant breeding. “Breeding is the most effective way to increase yields, and germplasm is the raw material for that breeding.”

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