Photo by Davide Ragusa / Unsplash

Culture | 01.26.2022

Landraces: The Holy Grail Of Cannabis?

In search of the purest genetics across the world, Santiago Rodriguez Tarditi traveled to Colombia to find the wild, undomesticated cannabis that might soon disappear.

During my most recent visit to Colombia, I went on a short trip from Bogotá to Villa de Leyva, a quaint colonial town nestled in the heart of the Andean mountain range. The pueblo seems frozen in time; its cobblestone streets and slow-living took me back to a time when all that mattered was taking it easy. One of the most iconic things to do here is going to the farmers market; every Saturday, growers from all over the region flock to one of the village’s main squares where they set up their stalls and offer their produce—including cannabis.

Although Colombia is quite lax when it comes to cannabis consumption—every citizen can grow up to 20 plants and carry a maximum of 20 grams for personal use according to Ley 30 of 1986—, when it comes to buying/selling ganja it gets a bit complicated (technically it’s considered trafficking). This detail didn’t seem to bother the self-introduced Juana La Loca, a smudge stick seller who also sold cannabis tinctures made with plants she grows at home. “Sometimes, our products get confiscated”, she explained, dubious of my inquisitive nature. “Occasionally people get arrested—that’s why I don’t like to carry so much weed on me”, she continued, showing me a paper bag full of freshly-cut, organic cannabis, earthy and sticky.

The plant Juana showed me didn’t resemble the bright green, frosty nugs found in dispensaries; these looked like the ones published in the legendary High Times Top 40 strain directory printed in 1977, a collection of scrappy looking dried cannabis from all over the world. These funky flowers are known as landrace, a weed variety only found in a particular region or ecosystem where it develops unique botanical features and specific cannabinoid profiles. For those of us who grew up smoking these indigenous cultivars, finding what’s locally known as cafuche is like winning the jackpot. Not only because it’s a chance to reconnect with our roots and soil, but because landraces usually maintain their original genetics, guaranteeing a lower cannabinoid content, making it more enjoyable for lightweights like me who like to smoke a whole joint without passing out.

Photo by Getty

“Some of the most common landraces in Colombia include Santa Marta Gold, Mango Biche, and Limón Verde”, says José Alejandro Garavito, a cannabis journalist, breeder, and owner of one of the biggest germplasm banks in the region. “As a writer, I got to travel the country and visit a lot of illegal plantations—so much so that the antinarcotic police asked me to help them gather botanical samples. I traveled the whole country with a special permit that allowed me to carry any amount of illegal substances for research purposes”. With his green pass (double pun intended), Garavito mapped hundreds of geographical areas where cannabis was being grown, soon realizing that the Colombian government was conducting research in advance of the 2016 medical marijuana project, developing protocols that would result in the banishing of the existing illegal crops to make room for international players. “I took advantage of those travels and gathered the last cultivars before they were replaced with foreign hybrids”, says Garavito. “I gathered around 400 phenotypes of Colombian landrace strains”. 

Besides their genetic qualities, landraces are important for preservation purposes. Researchers have argued that cannabis is endemic to Eastern Asia; it was domesticated by traveling men who spread their seed (literally) as they explored and conquered the world. Today cannabis grows ubiquitously but as it continues to become more commercial and hybridized, it keeps losing its original traits. So when I discovered that my haul had also been pollinated and produced seeds, my happiness was doubled. (In industrial contexts, female plants are separated from their male counterparts to induce parthenocarpy, or the production of a flower that’s sinsemilla, or seedless, which usually provide higher yields).

A Colombian indigenous woman holds dry marijuana leaves at a laboratory of Toez indigenous reservation, in the rural area of Caloto, department of Cauca, Colombia, on May 23, 2016.
(Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

I managed to retrieve a couple of hundred seeds and although I considered traveling with them, I realized that it would not only be illegal but that I would potentially be incurring in biopiracy. The term is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the unethical or unlawful appropriation or commercial exploitation of biological materials (such as medicinal plant extracts) that are native to a particular country or territory without providing fair financial compensation to the people or government of that country or territory.”

Seeking to learn more about the topic, I Googled “biopiracy + cannabis + genetics” and came across an article titled Who Really Owns Cannabis Genetics?. The piece explores the rise of a marketplace where companies who come across unique phenotypes end up patenting them and become the sole “owners” of that particular strain, potentially resulting in the monopolization of the plant. The article brings up an important question: “Who gets to own nature? It’s a fundamental ethical question, but one that is settled legally: Finders keepers.” This immediately reminded me of Monsanto and the pharmaceutical industry’s patenting of plants, an oppressive practice that’s been highlighted by activists seeking to protect traditional agriculture worldwide. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The article mentions a few cannabis companies that have come under scrutiny for their seed retrieval practices, namely BioTech Institute LLC (which operates under Phylos Bioscience), a business that has amassed utility patents for the cannabis plant. What does this mean? Well, although we might not see it now that the cannabis industry is still in its early stages, a dystopian future might very well be possible: one day all the seeds in the world could be patented and owned by multinationals, requiring anyone who wishes to grow them to pay fees to a company (instead of honoring Mother Nature). The article, written by Angela Bacca, also mentions Green House Seed Company, a company founded by Arjan Roskam and Franco Loja—two European entrepreneurs known as the Strain Hunters—who scour the world in search of landrace genetics. Their trip to Colombia is recorded in an episode that aired on Vice, but beyond the sensationalist vibe of filming in a war-torn country, there was little talk about their conservation efforts or how they were going to give back to the communities where they extracted the seeds from. So I reached out to them via email.

Although the company was initially open to an interview, two weeks passed after I sent them a series of questions (including ones about their conservation efforts and biopiracy) and the only answers I received were a “Thx Bro” from Arjan Roskam via Instagram and a “Sorry that our guys did not get back to you, they are all very busy and traveling a lot the last months. Arjan is currently traveling on business and your questions were passed to Dust, Strain Hunter, and chief Grower.” Unfortunately, the deadline for this piece had already been pushed back a few times and we couldn’t wait longer, which is why I reached out to another group that’s working with landrace cultivars.

Trident Seeds was founded in December 2018 and we are not a single entity, but a team of people who have been on the lookout for cannabis landraces in India since 2010”, said the group known as Landrace Mafia. This collective traversed Southeast Asia looking for cannabis hotspots and connecting with farming communities, initially as a hobby, “but then came a day of sudden realization, when farmers of the infamous Kerala Gold strain were ripped off from their livelihood and were forced to either stop cultivation or run away by the Anti-Drug Enforcement agencies,” they wrote via email. “It was a disastrous and rather unbelievable thing, that a strain we used all our life, is now nowhere to be seen.”

Since then, the Landrace Mafia has taken to preserving cultivars from human encroachment and genetic pollution by hybridization. “There are many other local landraces which have gone extinct in the past 30 years only due to the urbanization of villages into cities, clearing of agriculture/forest land for construction projects, bringing a lot more population and attention of law enforcement agencies to places which previously were natural cannabis habitats.” Their preservation efforts include collecting seeds that are then distributed to breeders in legal areas who run open pollination projects that strengthen those phenotypes, which are in turn circulated among farming communities. “This ensures genetic preservation in both seed and plant form of each landrace variety, thriving at multiple locations, supporting hundreds of tribes and communities around the world.”

A one hectare marijuana plantation in the mountains of Cauca, Colombia. Photo by Carlos Villalon

Looking at their photos and comparing them to the ganja found in modern-day dispensaries, the differences are so striking it’s almost impossible to accept we’re talking about the same plant. Not just in terms of appearance, but also in effect—a fact that was notable when I consumed the landrace strain I had come across in Colombia; the high was milder and cleaner. It felt natural; more connected to Earth. Although I didn’t run any tests on that particular flower, landrace heirlooms tend to have low THC ratios (8-14%) compared to industrialized hybrids such as Ghost OG, which can reach up to 25-28%. “Psychosis and schizophrenia are getting more prevalent with the increase of THC levels in modern-day hybrids,” says the Landrace Mafia. “There has been a dramatic rise in cannabis-related ED visits among all age groups and genders in recent years, compared to the past. The cannabis of today isn’t what it used to be 40 years ago. A continuous rise in THC percentage will not be ideal for the future generations.”

When I asked them about potentially legally protecting their seeds, Landrace Mafia answered that “seed patenting is a social evil that has been targeting numerous farming communities worldwide. Cannabis is medicine and curbing the use of unique strains by any means is a crime and the original rights of any seed [belongs to] Nature.” It takes only a quick visit to any cannabis industry growth facility to understand how we have pushed cannabis genetics towards rapid and unnatural growth, putting at risk millennia of evolution and ultimately the plant itself. This could potentially create a “genetic bottleneck” that would limit the plant’s adaptability. “Reintroducing landrace genetics to the hybrid gene pool is the only way to stop this from happening,” clarified Landrace Mafia. 

As a cannabis consumer and someone deeply concerned with environmental wellbeing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the underlying problem with this (and every) industry is that humans have created an anthropocentric myth based on capitalist gains, precipitating an intensified disconnection from our planet. We see ourselves above nature rather than part of it. But not all is lost; as I continue to research I come across more and more growers adopting organic, biodynamic, and regenerative practices that epitomize ways in which to respect Mother Nature. As cannabis continues to become legal globally, conservation is key to avoid losing the original code of cannabis, which could potentially lead to its mass extinction. And nobody wants that. 

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