Adventures in hemp breeding: improving uniformity
If you’re like me, nothing says summer like a long drive through the country with the windows rolled down and a twangy tune fading in and out on the radio. Considering there are nearly a billion acres of farmland in the U.S., many of you have probably looked out of your window and marveled at the incredible uniformity of a corn, soy or wheat crop growing as far as the eye can see.
As a plant geneticist, I can tell you that this is no accident. In fact, it has taken a tremendous amount of effort over the course of centuries to remove the variability that is inherent in wild plant species to effectively “domesticate” a crop. If you’re a farmer, the benefits of uniformity are vast. When every plant germinates, grows and matures at the same time, every ear, pod or head across thousands of acres can be harvested at the ideal ripeness. This results in maximum yield and maximum quality — in other words, economies of scale.
Hemp is another story altogether, and a super exciting one at that. With the passage of the Farm Bill in late 2018, hemp became legal in the U.S. for the first time in more than 80 years. That’s a long time for a crop to stagnate. To put things into perspective, 80 years ago corn yields averaged about 25 bushels per acre. In 2018 average corn yields were 175 bushels per acre – a seven-fold increase!
Hemp is what we call “semi-domesticated,” meaning it is somewhere along the journey from a wild plant to a fully domesticated crop and needs genetic improvement in many areas including architecture, disease resistance, yield, essential oil composition and importantly, uniformity. Check out this picture I took during a recent trip to Oregon: You’ll notice some huge, round, bushes intermixed with tiny “runts” and numerous skips, where the seeds didn’t germinate at all. All these plants were from the exact same variety, in fact the exact same bag of seed purchased from a reputable producer. Obviously, there is room for improvement, and that is exactly what we are working on at Arcadia Biosciences. We are bringing modern breeding science and genomics technology to develop high-quality non-GM hemp varieties that deliver attributes appreciated by consumers. What’s more, this work will also improve hemp’s uniformity, stability, resiliency and yield, enabling farmers to maximize the value potential of this newly-legal crop.
As you can see from the pictures below, taken in one of our growth chambers at our Davis headquarters, we are making rapid progress towards these objectives. The first two photos show the inherent variability in two different commercially available “varieties.” In the third photo, you can see a dramatic improvement in uniformity in ARCADIA2297, the code number of one of the varieties developed using our modern breeding platform.
It’s not every day that you get a brand new crop with the potential to deliver so much value across wellness, protein and industrial use markets, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to use modern science to rapidly deliver innovation in this space.
Randy Shultz, Ph.D., Vice President Research & Development