Should we be worried?
With legalization on the horizon in many places, cannabis could accidentally reproduce a scenario other crops have faced for over 50 years now: streamlining.
Bold improvements in yield, logistical efficiency, or waste reduction pressured chemical companies and seed makers to engineer fruits, vegetables and grain that prioritize cash performance and profitability over the consumers’ experience. Variety usually comes at a cost of some sort, and it’s no different in cannabis. For instance, mother-plants, take up a significant amount of many grows budgets and space. In other crops, the number of commonly available cultivars has experienced a drastic reduction over the years, and today, the apples or tomatoes you find across the world are much less diverse than they used to be a few decades ago. Notably, today’s fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops that are consumed in across the rest of the world are increasingly grown from patented varieties or cultivars. Many of them are GMOs, particularly cereals and grains.
The cannabis landscape is currently rich with thousands of different cultivars and strains. In addition to the numerous landrace strains, breeders have also managed to develop hybrid cultivars in an informal and organic fashion. Without intending to do so, cannabis breeders have pioneered the now-popular concept of “open-source”, following an untold code of conduct.
But in our bid for legalization, we’ve incidentally introduced a new threat: large corporations may start to take over cannabis genetics from the people who spent their entire lives building this industry. And the same folks may facilitate the corporate takeover while trying to protect us against it.
What does that mean?
Few truly grasp what is at stake here. For cannabis legalization to truly manifest and serve those who believed in the plant during prohibition, biodiversity is critical. Without a wide variety of cannabis strains available to grow and breed, production and processing of the plant would inevitably consolidate into the hands of large conglomerates that have traditionally profited off of the War on Drugs. There may be a few success-stories along the road, but in the long run, everybody loses, except a handful of spoiled giants.
As this article is being written, both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) have started granting patents on cannabis cultivars. We saw this happen with other crops before your Monsantos and Bayers of the world got into the game. Should we expect a different outcome than what we observed for other crops? Most, if not all, current cannabis cultivars are in the public domain and cannot get legal protection.
Patents in the world of cannabis will likely make growers and farmers dependent upon seed makers, having to comply with license agreements and probably even royalties. Eventually patents result in a locked genetic landscape, where innovation becomes rare and costly, and products eventually standardize.
You may think to yourself, “As a breeder, I should ‘patent’ all my strains ASAP!”
Well, that comes at a cost. For exclusive rights over a plant (PVP, PBR or Plant Patent) to be granted, an applicant has to go through a certain process. The cultivar cannot be considered to be in the public domain, and there are a multitude of reasons that most of your strains may not even be eligible. Additionally, the cost is not limited to application fees, but also includes lab tests, IP agent fees, and more. Once you have your “patent”, you are obligated to challenge any infringement on your rights and therefore spend even more money, or else risk losing your patent.
You may quickly notice that list logically encourages a reduction in the number of patents and therefore cultivars, as it’s financially and practically impossible to enforce your exclusive rights over multiple cultivars without some very significant capital. And, as is the course of business, organizations innovating in a patent-driven industry tend to either absorb or get absorbed by other organizations, contributing to more concentration and more streamlining. While breeders may continue to operate on the fringes, this scenario implies the demise of mainstream cannabis breeders.
Lastly, for a patented strain to be seen as economically viable, patent-holders need and want to enjoy the granted exclusive rights for as long as possible. Creativity and variety are the antithesis of this idea. If we follow this logic, we may end up with a few hundred patented strains generating the lion's’ share of profits for a few large corporations and fewer introductions of new phenotypes, resulting in limited consumer experiences and patient treatments.
On the opposite side of the equation, an open-source innovation approach to breeding seems ideal for the cannabis industry to reach its full potential. Patients and consumers are strain-aware and variety is a must. This can be fostered via a balanced relationship between breeders, growers, patients and consumers.
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