Hemp variety breeding: genetics AND protocol development
Hemp has been cultivated by human beings (including you) for thousands and thousands of years. “Artisanal” breeding helped adapting the crop to various environments. Today, the demand for reliable varieties is growing as hemp has proved once again to be an asset in many sectors: medicine, clothing, building, …1 However, breeding stable yet remarkable hemp varieties and testing them is hard work. Providing adequate guidance to ensure farmers’ success can be challenging too. Add a pinch of complicated regulation, and here you are, searching for information on the internet. But it is your lucky day, because you will find answers!
“We define a commercial variety as a plant that delivers the highest return at the register and costs the least to operationalize” Doug Klier (Founder and Chief Research Officer at IGBR)
Hemp genetics insights
Image 1: The challenges of hemp breeding
Where do you live? What will you be using your hemp for? The diversity in hemp genetics is your asset to create varieties that fit a wide range of climates, soils, and purposes. Farmers may be interested in an auto-flowering high cannabinoids but low THC variety for example! They might as well seek to purchase feminized seeds (knowing that only female plants produce CBD). But how can you, as a breeder, create that? You have to study specific traits to make your variety the most cost-efficient possible. You may study its flowering cycle, CBD content, stress responses, … and many other relevant traits for the targeted environment and usage.2
Whether you - and your farming clientele - are interested in CBD, fibers, oil, or recreative Cannabis, the one thing you will be monitoring closely is the reliability of your varieties. Why? Because if you were a farmer, you would need stable varieties and accurate production protocol advice. Testing your varieties will help you ensure their compliance to THC regulation3 (for example) and find the most profitable cultivation and harvest methods.
I know that it is a lot to take in, but what’s great with hemp is: there is so much to do! Isn’t wonderful to have so many possibilities?!
“A thorough selection is necessary to find innovating varieties with interesting traits. It involves field experiments to choose the most dominant plants with specific characteristics, and elaborate strategies depending on the available germplasm and the breeding objectives.” Matt Haddad (CEO, Trilogene Seeds)
How is created a Hemp variety?
Now that you have chosen which traits you will be examining, things get more challenging. But you love challenges, don’t you? You have to choose your protocol, formulate your media and climate recipe in the lab, and select parents for crosses in the field (amongst other things, of course). And it can be difficult to track your plants while collecting data.²
One way of ensuring the compliance of your variety to THC regulations is to have specific data on its lineage history. This technique works for all the traits that you are studying (vigorous growth or yield or stress responses…); parental history is KEY
Identifying male from female flowers: on the left, nascent female flowers, on the right, male clusters
“ Parental lines history is crucial to start Hemp breeding with genetics matching with the target usage and environment. Along the selection process, plant breeders test the cultivar repeatedly for performances and compliance to THC regulaton before releasing the genetic to the market.” Natalie Darves (Dean of Faculty of Oaksterdam University)
Hemp genetics impact farmers’ success
Why do farmers need breeders? Because high quality genetics bring far better results, especially in hemp. Farmers need to trust their hemp genetics on many levels: great yields, of course, but also robust varieties that can resist pests and diseases. Depending on the location, Hemp farmers need varieties with short cultivation periods because of a brief growing season or a need to avoid unduly busy periods of sowing and harvesting. Farmers also seek fashionable terpene profiles in order to satisfy their client’s wishes – petal fragrances will help you woo producers! 5
Now, key elements that are extremely important for farmers, and breeders – and your reputation – are the compliance to THC legal levels and the sex of hemp plants. And, here again comes our friend traceability. Scientific proof shows that THC levels are partly determined by genetics.3 Therefore, the crop’s success lies in your hands (I know you are feeling powerful now, but remember, with great power comes great responsibility). Make sure to keep track of the stability of your parental lines over years and over locations. Also, focusing on selling only female seeds or clones will alleviate the producer’s pressure about detecting males and eliminating them.
Electing a superb variety is the first step to success. The second is communication between farmers and breeders: producers need your advice to adapt their methods to your specific varieties and get the best results.
Seedlings at Trilogene Hemp breeding center
“For every usage, micro climate and photoperiod, there are different factors to breed for. Diversification is very important to get plants adapted to a region and a cultivation method.” Matt Haddad (CEO, Trilogene Seeds)
Optimize production with protocol research
As a breeder, it’s your mission to recommend to farmers a variety that fits their needs. I’m sure you conduct variety testing experiments to identify which variety is most suited for a given use in a given environment. For example, you assess the height and yield (and many other traits) of several industrial hemp cultivars in randomized complete blocks in given climates, photoperiods and soils. It’s a lengthy task but don’t panic: Use your methodical spirit: first, choose your variables (branch structures, stress responses, yield, …). Then, try and develop an equation that produces a cultivar-specific valuation. It will help you spot commercial cultivars: plants that generate more revenue at the best cost. ²
Farmers also require your help to find the optimal production protocol that maximizes yields and reduces costs: which and what quantities of fertilizers? Which soil or substrate? How much water and when? How many males for a good pollination (seed and oil production)? To give such advice you need to conduct agronomy testing on each of your commercial varieties. Such protocol development is core to your capacity to guide farmers in choosing and growing a variety in the best conditions.
Beware to remain disciplined. Planning your experiments and collecting your data neatly will lead you to reliable results and significant statistical analysis. And more than that, protocol development will help you tackle significant issues, for example female hemp seeds developing into male plants. As a praiseworthy adviser, you will teach farmers how to avoid such cases. You can also educate them about harvesting times in order to bypass THC compliance issues – not too soon (yield would not be great), but not too late (the crop could turn ‘hot’). ⁵
In a nutshell, you (and your protocol development) can make a difference!
“The most time consuming is the cultivar-specific optimized protocol development (lab and field). This includes media formulation and climate recipe as well as selection in the field.” Doug Klier (CEO and head R&D at Integrated Genetics and Biopharma Research)
Automating Hemp genetics and agricultural research
From plant breeding to production protocol development, Hemp research on genetics and agronomy involve precise experimentation and accurate data analysis. Pretty much like any other plant species study in fact. But most breeders in the world are using a plant breeding software to centralize their work on Corn, Cereals, Vegetables, Forages, even tropical crops like Cocoa, Coffee and Tobacco.
Then why on earth are most of you Hemp breeders and researchers working on “Excel sheets or other software that are inadequate for agriculture”, like Doug confessed to me?
I’m not saying the only option is RnDExperience, the standard software we deliver at Doriane, which is highly flexible and fits all the needs of a Hemp research team. But such a true plant breeding software is more than useful to prepare your breeding and testing campaign, follow the progress and take the good decisions.
All along your experimentation process, you can save time and avoid errors in your daily operations with tools to manage your stocks, monitor your tasks, print and scan labels, collect trait notations and data on your media formulation and climate recipe for instance.
What’s cool also with a dedicated software is you can configure your own dashboards to track your architectures and select your crosses, or even implement your own equation to evaluate your cultivars and find the plants that produce more revenue and cost you less operationally.
1- Contribution of Polish agrotechnical studies on Cannabis sativa L. to the global industrial hemp cultivation and processing economy by JOANNA PONIATOWSKA, KAROLINA WIELGUS, MILENA SZALATA, MARLENA SZALATA3, MARCIN OŻAROWSKI2, KATARZYNA PANASIEWICZ in Herba Polinica (International journal edited by the Institute of Natural Fibres and Medicinal Plants)
2- Interview with Doug Klier (CEO and head R&D at Integrated Genetics and Biopharma Research)
3- Interview with Natalie Darves (Dean of Faculty at Oaksterdam University)
4- - Development and validation of genetic markers for sex and cannabinoid chemotype in Cannabis sativa L. by Jacob A. Toth George M. Stack Ali R. Cala Craig H. Carlson Rebecca L. Wilk Jamie L. Crawford Donald R. Viands Glenn Philippe Christine D. Smart Jocelyn K. C. Rose Lawrence B. Smart from Cornell University
5- High Grade Hemp Seeds (2020) How Hemp seed genetics can make or break your hemp farm
6- Interview with Matt Haddad (CEO, Trilogene Seeds)
1: © Doriane SAS
2: © Alchimiaweb
3: © Matt Haddah, Trilogene Seeds
4- © UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center
5- © Douglas Klier, Integrated Genetics and Biopharma Research (IGBR)