Photo: A cannabinoid hemp field grows near Pueblo, CO. Photo by Jean Lotus
By Jean Lotus
The state of Colorado is taking steps to deal with cross-pollination of cannabis plants in a way that may provide a roadmap for the emerging industrial hemp and marijuana industries going forward.
A new cannabis bill, signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in June, aims to address the problems of pollen drift which can interfere with the final production of both crops. A new working group, convening in November for seven months, will come up with recommendations to curb pollen spread among cannabis plants. The recommendations have the potential to provide a blueprint for hemp and cannabis growers nationwide.
Colorado has a multi-million dollar marijuana industry, bringing in $2.2 billion into the state last year. Many outdoor growers in the southern part of the state around the city of Pueblo, for example, fear that pollen from male hemp plants will destroy the cannabinoid content of their flower crop.
Meanwhile, Colorado’s hemp farmers registered more than 40,000 acres of cultivation last year. Cannabinoid hemp farmers growing for CBD worry that industrial hemp, grown for fiber or grain, will generate pollen that will ruin their crops.
Even greenhouse-grown hemp and marijuana plants are not immune from pollen spread.
“A greenhouse isn’t always necessarily air tight,” Sam Burney, business manager at Denver-based clone-grower Royale Botanicals, told Let’s Talk Hemp. “If your neighbor is throwing pollen everywhere from his plants, you could suck pollen in through a gap.”
The two cannabis cousins, marijuana and hemp, are different phenotypes of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp is defined as cannabis with .3% THC by dry weight (the compound that gets you high).
However, nature doesn’t care about human-imposed THC levels, and drives cannabis plants of any type to reproduce any way they can.
Cannabis has long had a female mystique, referred to in song and legend as “She” — because male plants spoil the party.
About six weeks into growth, the male cannabis plant distributes pollen, which disperses into the air, seeking out the sticky cannabinoid-filled resin on hemp and marijuana flowers. When the two meet up, THC, CBD and other cannabinoids stop production and the plant diverts its energy to producing seeds.
A Michigan State University study showed that a single male cannabis flower can produce 350,000 pollen grains which the wind can disperse over great distances.
For this reason, cannabinoid hemp and marijuana growers aggressively uproot male and hermaphrodite plants in a process called “roguing the males (or herms).”
Cross-pollination isn’t just a cannabis problem. In the early 2000s, agricultural giant Monsanto sued hundreds of small U.S. farmers alleging that pollen from their crops altered the patented GMO varieties sold by the mega seed company.
The new Colorado state working group may propose several-mile buffer zones between hemp and cannabis, or require female-only or clone-only crops in certain areas, or require only certain strains be grown in certain regions.
Any new rules would also have to take into account the growing number of farmers who want to grow fiber and seed hemp strains, which are predicted to generate $10 billion in U.S. trade of hemp-derived products by 2025, according to a new study by the National Industrial Hemp Council.
Hemp grown for seed and oils requires male pollination to create protein-rich hemp seeds. Hemp grown for fiber is thickly planted on large tracts, impractical to monitor for male or hermaphrodite plants.
Colorado is taking a crack at cross-pollination guardrails which farmers believe are necessary for the hemp industry to move forward. The new rules could start a policy of nationwide best-practices.
“There’s enough land for everybody to grow whatever they want to grow,” Zachariah Dorsett, at Longmont, CO-based Blue Forest Hemp Farms told Modern Farmer. “I just think it’s about being a good neighbor and creating a sustainable economy for everyone.”
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Jean Lotus is a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hempreneur who writes about the American West and sustainable food and technologies.