A hemp plant genetically engineered to produce lower levels of the cannabinoids THC and cannabichromene (CBC) “may be safely grown and bred in the United States,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced.
The hemp plant was genetically modified and submitted for review by Growing Together Research, a biotechnology firm headquartered in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The company announced earlier this year that it had achieved “the first known stable transformation and regeneration of multiple THC-free hemp cultivars” and in June announced it would work to increase THC production in cannabis plants.
“We reviewed the modified hemp plant to determine whether it posed an increased plant pest risk as compared to cultivated hemp,” USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said in a notice last week. “APHIS found this modified hemp is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated hemp.”
It its request for the USDA review, Growing Together Research said the changes are intended to make the engineered plants free of THC and CBC and also boost resistance to the herbicide bialaphos. It says genes in the new hemp plants came from multiple donor organisms, including plants, bacteria, a virus and at least one artificial sequence.
The company said in the request that it believes the intended resistance to the herbicide “is not expected to result in any other material changes to metabolism, physiology or development of the plant.”
The APHIS review focused on whether the new hemp plant poses a “plant pest risk.” The process, according to the agency, “examines the plant pests and diseases that are known to be associated with a commodity, identifies those pests that are likely to remain on the commodity upon importation into the United States, and evaluates the mitigations that may be required to avoid, reduce, or eliminate the risk of pest introduction into the United States.”
In its response to Growing Together Research, USDA determined that the engineered hemp variant is “not subject to the regulations under 7 CFR part 340,” which regulates the movement of genetically modified organisms. It may, however, be subject to other regulations, for example permitting or quarantine requirements, USDA said.
The department has been attempting to work more closely with hemp growers and breeders since the crop was legalized through the 2018 Farm Bill. Earlier this year, the agency released updated guidance on how to identify, describe and evaluate different varieties of the plant.
Another new resource is a video instructing hemp farmers on how to build and use a Ghostbusters-like backpack vacuum, which USDA says can collect up to 10 grams of cannabis pollen in less than a minute.
USDA has been promoting the hemp market in a number of ways, including recently teaming up with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to host farmers for an educational event focused on cultivating cannabis in a “bio-based” economy.
The department also recently shared the success story of an Indiana-based hemp farm, touting how the agency offered financial and technical assistance to help the business to maximize its output of high-quality CBD oil.
USDA also renamed a trade advisory committee to prominently feature hemp among a select group of specialty crops—and doubled the number of hemp industry representatives on its federal trade advisory panels—reflecting the agency’s understanding of cannabis as a uniquely valuable commodity.
Nevertheless, the hemp sector took a major economic hit last year, according to an analysis from USDA that showed the crop’s value drop precipitously. Stakeholders have largely attributed the downturn to a lack of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations on marketing hemp derivative products, such as CBD oil, but FDA has insisted it needs Congress to enact such rules.
Bipartisan lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced companion bills this session that aim to reduce regulatory burdens for farmers that grow industrial hemp for non-extraction purposes.
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