Cannabis farmers scramble to protect heirloom seeds from Big Ag

Published on December 12, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
(Gillian Levine for Leafly)

Every June, the cannabis software company Meadow hosts a multi-day conference in a California redwood forest. Held at an old Boy Scout camp near Navarro, about 140 miles north of San Francisco, the event draws a crowd of idealistic techies, conscious capitalists, and small-scale legacy weed growers—with a few Wall Street sharks disguised as Burning Man radicals circulating in the mix. 

'All of the world's biggest agricultural companies want our genetics.'

I drove up this year specifically to attend a roundtable called “Preserving Cannabis Genetics and Appellations of Origin.”

The title hinted at some relevance to the percolating patent wars within the cannabis industry, particularly given the initial inclusion of Phylos Bioscience founder Mowgli Holmes (see Part 1 of this series).

Holmes dropped out of the panel, which didn’t surprise many at the conference, given Phylos’ controversial pivot to embrace corporate agribusiness.  

Patenting cannabis: a special Leafly series

Patenting cannabis: A four-part Leafly investigation
Part 1: Inside the billion-dollar race to patent cannabis
Part 2: This company filed the first cannabis patent—and nobody knows who they are
Part 3: One man’s crusade to open-source cannabis DNA
Part 4: Cannabis farmers scramble to protect heirloom seeds from Big Ag

Corporate threat replaces criminal risk

In his absence, the discussion turned into a kind of ad-hoc support group for old-school cannabis breeders.

Until recently, cannabis growers operated outside the law—and the Monsantos of the world couldn't go there.

On the panel and in the crowd, second- and third-generation family farmers from the Emerald Triangle—Northern California’s legendary cannabis growing region that encompasses Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties—spoke with great pride of heirloom strains their families have developed and kept vital. 

Theirs is a rich, diverse, and decentralized genetic heritage. They’ve managed to keep their heirloom cannabis DNA out of the hands of global agricultural corporations largely due to prohibition. Until recently, almost every cannabis grower in the world operated outside the law—and the Monsantos of the world couldn’t go there. 

Prohibition brought its own risks, of course. For decades, these cannabis botanists practiced their craft while being hunted by federal agents and local deputies. Now, in the era of state-legal cultivation and sales, they face a new existential threat: armies of corporate lawyers stockpiling patents capable of limiting what can be grown, where, how, and by whom. 

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Farmers and breeders in the crosshairs

In 15 years of reporting on cannabis, I’ve visited many of these legacy cannabis farmers. Despite all of the past and present threats to their freedom and livelihood, they’re by and large a very chill bunch.

But at last summer’s Meadowlands conference, the old-school strain breeders and growers were clearly shaken to their roots. The Phylos fallout, plus a slow-burning anxiety over Biotech Institute’s ongoing patenting project (see Part Two of this series) had them seriously agitated. 

A great cannabis patent war that’s been building up for years feels poised to break wide open, and it’s not hard to guess who’s likely to get caught in the crossfire.

Consider what’s befallen the rest of America’s family farmers over the last 50 years. Now imagine that same scenario hitting the nation’s legacy cannabis growers all at once.

(Gillian Levine for Leafly)

‘They want our genetics’

Dan Pomerantz, founder and CEO of California-based Rebel Grown—which cultivates outdoor sustainable cannabis and seeds—urged the Meadowlands round table to recognize that the real threat facing cannabis is coming directly from the so-called Big Four agricultural and seed corporations (Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, ChemChina-Syngenta, and BASF): 

“All of the biggest agricultural companies in the world want our genetics. Those people aren’t coming into our industry now, they’ve been doing it for a decade, and they’ve been doing it pretty much under the radar.Sowho’s paying for this forward-thinking technology to be applied to cannabis genetics?”

At stake, Pomerantz stressed, is the fate of not just cannabis growers, but of the plant itself.

Form a rebel alliance?

Dale Hunt is a plant scientist and an attorney who specializes in both cannabis and patents.

He created and maintains MJPatentsWeekly, a website that catalogs cannabis-related patents and patent applications from the US and Canada. He’s so invested in the space that his San Diego business is called Plant & Planet Law Firm. 

Hunt understands how deeply the Phylos episode cut the cannabis community. And yet, at the Meadowlands roundtable, he characterized Phylos founder Mowgli Holmes as nothing more than an errand boy sent to collect a bill. 

To prepare for the much bigger battles to come, Hunt said the traditional cannabis industry needs to form a massive alliance capable of pooling enough resources to scare off overly broad patent enforcement efforts or to fight them tooth-and-nail in court.

Such an alliance, he added, should amass enough actionable patents of its own to make Big Ag think twice about starting a war that could severely damage both parties.

Yes, and register with the feds

And so, irony of ironies, Hunt says the cannabis community’s best bet for protection now comes from the federal government in the form of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: 

“Some of my favorite cannabis breeders are the ones who did it in the 1970s and 80s,” he says, “and back then you absolutely knew that you couldn’t trust the government. So the last thing many of them want to do now is trust the government. But guess what, that’s who grants intellectual property protection.”

Hunt laid out his strategy of “mutually assured destruction” in an essay published last summer by the Future Cannabis Project. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, Hunt’s challenge to the cannabis community is that they must all hang together, or they will surely hang separately.

The only alternative to putting up a united front against the threat of corporate cannabis patents, he argues, is to simply give up and let cannabis go the way of corn and soybeans. Hunt wrote: 

Big Ag [will] force farmers to stop growing their own plants and start growing Big Ag’s patented GMO plants or eventually go out of business. While Big Ag can’t directly make you stop growing your own plants, they can make it impossible for you to compete with the farmers who embrace their system of patented seeds and related Big-Ag products to produce maximum-efficiency yields. The whole program is designed to drive you out of business if you don’t go along. And it will do exactly that.

Buried treasure in Humboldt County

Toward the end of the Meadowlands roundtable, a second-generation grower from Humboldt County recalled how throughout prohibition, his family kept detailed records documenting their farm’s tiny in-house breeding program, so as to choose the right plants to propagate year after year. 

To protect his family's cannabis genetic IP, one farmer dug a hole and buried it like hidden treasure.

They filled notebooks with this data, even though it could potentially be used as evidence against them in a criminal trial, simply because they found the information so fascinating and invaluable.

To protect themselves, they buried those notebooks in a hiding spot 15 miles away. 

Today, there’s no hiding spot deep enough to protect such data. It’s all going to get bought out, sold, patented, and locked up on a corporate computer server in some office park far away from the verdant soil of Humboldt County. 

But then again, the federal government spent billions of dollars over a hundred years trying to stop cannabis growers, and failed. So maybe Big Ag shouldn’t count out the old-school farmers and breeders just yet. 

Patenting Cannabis: Read the whole series

Patenting cannabis: A four-part Leafly investigation
Part 1: Inside the billion-dollar race to patent cannabis
Part 2: This company filed the first cannabis patent—and nobody knows who they are
Part 3: One man’s crusade to open-source cannabis DNA
Part 4: Cannabis farmers scramble to protect heirloom seeds from Big Ag

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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