Cannabis is mankind’s oldest cultivated crop, and deeply entwined in human culture around the world for at least 12,000 years as fibre, and 5,000 as food and medicine. Cannabis has two forms. With drug Cannabis (“Marijuana”), the flowers are used for its medicinal qualities. It is higher in THC, the medicinal compound which also causes euphoria. The other form is Industrial Hemp (“Hemp”), a recent (~1960) definition to exclude drug Cannabis. Traditionally the two were defined by end use: “are you going to wear it or smoke it?” Fibre Cannabis was “hemp.”
Hemp has many thousands of uses for its seed, flowers, stalk, and root. Hemp was grown in temperate latitudes, drug Cannabis in the tropics. The global Marijuana market was estimated at $142 billion in 2005, but based on contemporary Colorado legal and black market sales, closer to $2,400,000,000,000 ($2.4 trillion). The global Hemp market was estimated at $600 million in 2016 (Hemp Business Journal), and $1.8 billion in 2022, a figure many consider vastly understated.
For millennia in Africa and other tropical locales have existed “legacy” varieties of Cannabis, or indigenous landraces of Cannabis cultivars there for many years, regardless of THC content. Those Cannabis varieties are localized and acclimated to that area, each with a distinct difference from all others on the planet. With over 150 Cannabinoids (the medicinal chemicals in Cannabis and other plants, which interact with the “Endocannabinoid System” in our bodies) and 200 Terpenes (the aromatic chemicals in Cannabis which are also be medicinal), the range of possible combinations of natural compounds is over 30,000. There could be hundreds of thousands of these legacy cultivars in Africa growing either wild or by the hand of man, like has long occurred elsewhere around the world. Perhaps even millions. Even in Cannabis-intolerant nations such as the U.S., where Hemp is called “ditch weed,” a remnant of western progress, animals, and other escaped populations, there are hundreds of thousands of acres still growing.
As an annual, Cannabis grows like a weed and doesn’t necessarily require human intervention. Birds and other animals spread the seeds far. Some of those legacy cultivars could be extremely old and “pure,” undiscovered, unexploited, not pollinated from outside. By contrast the gene pool in western countries is fairly narrow, approximately 200 Hemp and an estimated 1,000 Marijuana, most classically-bred for specific traits by humans over the last 60 years.
The conditions which the chemicals found in Cannabis treat or prevent is very long, and includes HIV/AIDS, all types of inflammation, epilepsy, concussion, stroke, heart attack, liver and brain diseases, pain, even many cancers.
Due to pressure from the U.S. and U.K., African governments have tried to limit and stop its use, but Cannabis remains deeply ingrained in African tradition, medicine, and economies. (Herein we will refer only to “Cannabis” to represent the plant for which we do not know the only defining point of difference between drug Cannabis or Marijuana and Hemp, namely the percentage of THC. When we do, we will refer to it by that form.)
With little economic, social, practical, medical, or toxicological justification, it is illegal everywhere in Africa but nevertheless an important source of religion, income, and wellness. Levels of tolerance and law enforcement related to Cannabis vary from country to country. Indigenous to Central and South Asia, Cannabis is thought to have made its way to Africa through contact with Arab traders connected to India. The earliest evidence for Cannabis in Africa outside of Egypt comes from 14th-century Ethiopia, where ceramic smoking-pipe bowls with traces of it stood the test of time, found in archaeological excavations. From Ethiopia, Cannabis seeds were carried south by Bantu speakers who originally lived in North Africa.
From them the use of Cannabis as an euphoriant is thought to have spread to other native Africans such as the Bushmen and the Hottentots. Dominican priest Joao dos Santos wrote about the plant in 1609, saying it was grown near the Cape of Good Hope and was called bangue. Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, described the use of Cannabis by Hottentots in 1658. Cannabis has been deeply entwined in African culture in many ways for millennia.
Although drug Cannabis is considered illegal around the world, and Hemp much less so, today western countries are changing their stance on Cannabis. As the global Cannabis market grows there is a dire need for new and better genetics, as well as an emerging opportunity for exports.
Additionally, as industrial Hemp production expands many look to previously-untapped regions to grow such as Africa and other tropical locales, despite the availability of willing farmers in the north. Some with good intentions mistakenly believe they are helping the locals by doing so, when the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. It belies a colonial mind-set. Although perhaps admirable for its altruism, there are many issues with such a program:
- Tropics are the Wrong Latitude For Hemp. As a photoperiod crop, hemp tended to be grown in the north because more sunlight hours there allowed more biomass to be grown before flowering and then harvest. In the north, with as many as 18 hours of sunlight, hemp starts to flower when night-time hours approach 12. At tropical latitudes, sunlight can be 12-14 hours all year, confusing the plant and causing premature flowering. Sub- and tropical latitudes are better for drug Cannabis. Think of the traditional hemp powerhouses, they are all in northern temperate latitudes: France, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, England, Russia, China, Canada, U.S.A. And the traditional drug Cannabis powerhouses? All are tropical: India, Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Malawi, Hawaii.
- Legacy Cultivars Exist There Now. After at least 12,000 years of Cannabis history in the cradle of our species (many believe that Cannabis is as old as the body’s Endocannabinoid system, or millions of years), the “artificial” cultivars from the north never sprung up, either spontaneously or by introduction. Instead it was the legacy cultivars which exist today which have proven to be appropriate, hardy, and useful; the “best” of the genus in that locale. Whereas the “artificial” European cultivars are the product of intentional breeding, the legacy cultivars are the ones nature allowed to exist, in many cases helped by the hand of a human to improve it for local use. In those legacy cultivars we might find such important traits as drought tolerance, swamp hardiness, UV resistance, heat and cold tolerance, higher production of seed, better seed, bigger seed, oilier seed, different seed, easier shelling or oil pressing, more protein or other nutrient, more of a rare chemical or cannabinoid, higher output, nitrogen-fixing, finer fibre, better oil, more biomass, more bast or more hurd, finer bast, longer hurd, photoperiod improvements (flowering time, day neutral), and the like not found in the European cultivars. Perhaps even the cure for a disease? All these are possible due to the wide variation in the diffusion of Cannabis genetics in Africa over millennia, and the wide variety of environmental factors to which it would be exposed, such as the composition of soil, water, UV, hours of sun, response to insects and other animals, cross-pollination with other cultivars of Cannabis over time, and no doubt brilliant breeding by locals prizing the plant for its medicinal, spiritual, nutritional, and ceremonial use.
- Genetic Pollution Irrevocably Destroying Legacy Cultivars. Recently, some have wanted to introduce Hemp to Africa, not realizing there might be a good reason it’s not there yet. Seed and some fibre Hemp uses require male Hemp to pollinate it. That northern (European and Canadian) pollen will drift and pollinate all Cannabis downwind, as far away as hundreds of kilometers. The male Hemp will pollinate legacy cultivars, destroying their value by reducing potency, changing chemical composition for the worse, and providing seeds good for little more than eating, not planting. It could be a situation of losing $100 of legacy cultivar value to gain $1 of Hemp value. Over time, the resulting genetic homogeneity and change reduces whatever unique traits the region’s Cannabis might have produced. This type of genetic trespass is a big problem in legal marijuana states. Additionally, various “Strain Hunters” are visiting these areas and leaving behind Dutch marijuana seed, possibly to intentionally sabotage subsequent Strain Hunters seeking legacy varieties.
- Lack of Documentation of Existing Legacy Cultivars. The existing Legacy cultivars have yet to be identified, cataloged, and announced, let alone exploited for breeding before irrevocable pollution by foreign Hemp genetics. Legacy cultivars need genomic testing to establish the cultivar, to blockchain it to prove its existence at a certain time for later defense and protection, and to document the chemotype (chemical composition) and phenotype (appearance and performance).
- Potential Loss of Highly-valuable Legacy Cultivars. Genetic pollution by foreign Hemp varieties trade high value for low, an unfair swap.
- Lack of Development of Existing Legacy Cultivars. “Certified seed” is the bedrock of the industrial Hemp industry in the temperate areas. However, there are only approximately 200 certified cultivars. For each cultivar, a “Maintainer” applies to a certifying body to certify its cultivar, which must be grown with certain requirements. The most basic requirement is that the seed must be distinct, consistent, uniform, and stable genetically (not change over time). Certified seed is sold to farmers, who plant it in large acreages. The farmer may not reuse or breed with the seed except under explicit agreement, which is rare. The seed is usually used for pressing oil, shelled for food use, or as animal feed. Most existing certified cultivars are for fibre, a few for seed, and almost none for cannabinoids. There is a need for new varieties and legacy cultivars might be the key to developing them, especially for use in tropical latitudes.
The chances of foreign pollen forever changing legacy cultivars before they can be preserved increases by the day.
Mission of the Institute for Genetic Preservation (IGP)
Therefore, in order to preserve and exploit existing legacy cultivars before genetic pollution inevitably and irrevocably changes them, IGP will find, identify, document, certify, develop, and commercialize the existing varieties for the benefit of the farmers’ village and the nations from which they arose. Cannabis, and any other genera identified as being in danger from genetic pollution.
IGP will first look to Africa, and these 18 countries (in no particular order): Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania, Morocco, Uganda, Zambia, Gabon, Egypt, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Benin, Cape Verde, Gambia, Lesotho, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. Ironically, in some Cannabis is already in the country’s top 3 exports. Medical and industrial Cannabis are exempt from the UN’s international drug control treaties.
IGP will expand to other continents when appropriate; South America and Asia (including Siberia because it is the source of legacy cultivar Ruderalis, useful for growing at latitude extremes).
The program will seek out legacy cultivars in the countryside using tips, word-of-mouth by locals and police, myths and legends, helicopters or airplanes, and remote-controlled drones. This phase can use a domestic scientist, due to language and cultural issues. He or she will obtain data of the find, collect samples of the flowers and the stalk then and also the seed upon harvest, obtain seeds if possible from farmers, then send all the physical samples to the IGP HQ for processing. The protocol will include documenting them visually and with GPS coordinates, elevation, and date, make pertinent notes, decide which village is appropriate for claims of provenance, and ask village elders and locals near the finding for any additional information they can provide on the variety.
Once the specimens arrive at HQ, they will be catalogued and the data entered into the record. The samples will have tissue cultured, analyzed for its “genetic fingerprint,” and any seeds obtained analyzed and grown out and tested. Each will be fully documented and archived in a cryogenic library using Tissue Cultures and properly-stored seed. The documentation will be published and a license to use them marketed to breeders and seed banks around the world for commercialization. If a variety is found to have a marketable differentiation, it will be branded and developed. IGP will breed as well, and hunt for favorable genetic mutations via selection, as well as the usual grow-outs for seed or testing. Where appropriate IGP will certify varieties under either a AOSCA or OECD scheme, and apply for PVPA and patent protection. A portion of the license or commercialization fees will be returned to the village it was found, via the national government.
IGP could also be a consumer seed bank with proprietary varieties available to the hobby breeder or home grower, depending on local laws.
In this project, I anticipate that the science will the easier part, interfacing with the various stakeholders will be far harder. It is a transition time for Cannabis, nations big and small are legalizing at a break-neck speed. The same countries who would cut off your head for Cannabis a few years ago now encourage you to start a cannabinoid business in their land. Tropical nations want in on this new Green Rush, as well they should: the legendary marijuana varieties are from tropical nations. Malawi, Columbia, Jamaica, India, Mexico, Panama, Thailand… Africa and South America are literally perfectly-positioned to take advantage of this emerging global medical, financial, and agricultural revolution.
The Headquarters where processing, storage, growing, and breeding occur need to be free of law enforcement interference, as well as criminal theft by both sides of the law. Since some specimens will be well over 20% THC, no doubt some type of license will be required to handle these materials, from the health, agriculture, and/or top law enforcement minister. Ideally it would be close to the tropics, and especially Africa at first. But southern Europe is not out of the question, relatively close still and it offers a better regulatory environment and security for such research. Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, or even Greece.
Security might be needed while our scientist is traveling unarmed in disputed and tribal areas. We will need the support of local and national police and the national Army, but also local tribal and gang leaders. We will need to obtain permission from war lords, gang leaders, and anti-government factions in some areas. It might not always be appropriate to have armed national Army soldiers with the scientist, especially off the beaten track.
Then there is the issue of graft at the national and local levels. We will need to frame IGP as a non-profit scientific economic development program for rural farmers.
A program like this could have a mix of NGO + commercial entities to administer it. The commercial side could fund the start of the NGO, but still get the upside in an acquisition.
There is no doubt to many experts that there is a need to preserve these legacy genetics, and then to use them for the good of humanity in medicine and food. But it has many moving parts and is quite ambitious. Someone will likely take just one small slice of this project’s mission and run with it, say go Strain Hunting in Africa himself then commercialize a variety he got there.
But a larger vision like IGP has the power of boldness and scale. It can get big, fast.
This information is not intended to answer all your questions and be the final word. Rather, it is intended to inspire you to do the research to actually accomplish it. It is to show you a vision and a path to realize it. Make it your own, modify it as you see fit. It’s not for me to do, it’s for you. I put the idea out knowing that someone will see it and make it their own, copy it or make it better or whatever. To encourage diffusion of the new idea I open-source it by disclosing as much of the vision as possible, then let human nature take over. Richard Rose