There were perhaps twenty people gathered to hear me speak. For a noon slot, not too bad. All the same, it was my first time giving The Pitch for Phylos Bioscience, and I psyched myself up through a buzzing chest as best I could. Fairbanks Alaska in July is a land without night; having spent the previous evening watching the sun through my hotel window as it barely dipped below the horizon only to creep back up from its catnap an hour later, I was a bit edgier than perhaps I should have been. I stiffened, walked up to the podium, clumsily fiddled with the microphone, had a deep breath and jumped right in. This was my moment, after all. I smiled.
“Hello, folks! Hope everybody’s had a pleasant morning. My name is Ricky, and I’m here today from Phylos Bioscience.”
Many of you in the grower and breeder communities who are reading this met me under exactly these circumstances. I smiled at you, shook your hand. I answered your questions with austerity and confidence, gained your trust, followed up on the phone, shared laughs and grow stories, tragedies and drug war nightmares. And I even fulfilled your orders for the Phylos Genotype kit, compiling a vast blueprint of your genetics and charting them in the Galaxy, the largest genomic map of cannabis worldwide.
I reassured you time and again, hundreds of times daily: “We are not out to steal your work. We are here to help you protect it, to prove prior art. We’re a different type of cannabis company. We fucking hate Monsanto. We fucking hate Monsanto. We fucking hate…” and on and on.
Within the last three weeks, a side of the company has come to public light that calls all of this into question. What I helped build was merely a pawn for a horribly different endgame. I helped build an unparalleled data set of the cannabis genome, paid for by an eager public, to help the company build barriers to entry for anyone else who breeds. I helped establish my employers in a dominant and unfair competitive position for this new venture with an eye towards becoming the industry’s number one acquisition target for Big Ag.
And in the end: I am so, so sorry to you all. I genuinely believed I was doing the right thing. I’ve never believed more deeply in what I was doing, nor been bamboozled so fully. I’d like to speak to this, and if I can’t right my wrongs here at least give some thoughts on how the community can move forward independent and strong.
Phylos Bioscience Starts as Testing Facility for Breeders
In case you’re new to this story and its many twists and turns, here’s the nuts and bolts: Phylos built their name as a testing facility, creating a super-cool 3D map of the Cannabis genome called the Galaxy. For depth of information, ease of use and simple visual appeal: it’s unrivaled in the world, truly an accomplishment to be cherished proudly and applauded by any bioinformatician anywhere. Phylos set themselves up as a guardian of people’s genetic work, helping growers and breeders establish a prior timetable of when they had their genetics before the inevitable wave of patents and big ag attorneys looming on the horizon start to rewrite the rules of what belongs to whom.
For years they had a page on their website titled “Tools for Breeders”. This dealt with developing marker-assisted selection, a technology where the specific mutation points on an organism’s DNA code are tracked and understood, then that data used to inform and accelerate traditional breeding. This isn’t GMO, where a CRISPR machine is used to rewrite sections of the plant’s basic DNA. This is simply kicking traditional breeding into overdrive: with a pre-grow genetic roadmap, a breeder could use this tech to decide which seedlings out of a crop will carry the traits they’re looking for; all of a sudden you’re looking at bringing ten plants full term instead of potentially hundreds of thousands, saving time and labor and resources and farmland.
All in all, this promised better, more refined traditional agriculture for the community and a safeguard against private labs under the direction of a multibillion-dollar ag company steamrolling us all out of existence. A level playing field, an honest and even shot for so many small and underground growers who suffered for so long in our drug war: truly a paradigm shift in agriculture with the potential to ripple outwards into the wider web of what we grow, how we grow it and in essence who we are as a culture and species.
This was one of the things that really attracted me to the company, and one of the reasons I’m so sad to see them go the way they have: a breeding program could have been introduced to the public as a series of tools to develop and further their own work. As it goes, this was simply not to be.
Phylos Bioscience Announces In-House Breeding Program
They made their fateful announcement on Instagram on April 9th: an in-house breeding program, one that by definition would not only be stiff competition for any other breeders of industrial hemp or craft flower but most likely bury with the tech they’ve gathered and perfected. Imagine if all the umpires in baseball got together and said they were starting their own team, putting the full weight of their support behind it. Should the other teams, or the general public for that matter, trust them when they tell us they’re not competing, that they just want to contribute to the love of the game?
This was the quandary Phylos presented with their public statement. True, they’d be paying royalties to the original breeders of the building blocks they started with. But they kept repeating it, over and over in the comments section: we’re not going to compete with you. At best it was patronizing and to this day it remains unfounded. And people got…really, really mad.
Community Responds with Outrage
Between the low-level emoji trolls, loud-mouthed blowhards, cannabis influencers and well-meaning, erudite responders who clearly had a much more solid grasp of genetics and science than the company was giving them credit for: it was an unmitigated shitshow. There were the most horrible names, from “Corporate fucking chads” to the worst you can imagine. There were ignorant pitchfork-wielding yokels spouting pseudoscientific nonsense, there were numerous physical threats.
On the occasion that somebody would ask for clarification or a more complete picture of what might be happening with the data they submitted, the slightest optimism in their sentiment was met with some of the heaviest ridicule I’ve witnessed anywhere, anytime. Everybody took their piece of the big bad scientists and their reputation. It was awful for me to watch; like a dream home you spent a year building reduced to cinders quicker than you could comprehend.
They tried to salvage the situation with form responses to comments, a public statement from their PR person (turns out “You know what? I AM a suit. But I think I’m a pretty good one.” …is not a delicate statement when your intent and role in the industry is being called into question), but the community was relentless. They made a second IG post and a post on their website’s blog, attempting to clarify the first but eerily avoiding some of the deeper questions being asked of them. They did what they could to speak to “how scary this must be” for Everyone involved. Some were pacified by this. Most remained skeptical at best.
Phylos Founder Vows to Replace Modern Varieties of Cannabis
Almost immediately afterward, a video of one of their founders giving a presentation was unearthed, speaking at the Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference in Miami in February. The term “smoking gun” almost doesn’t do it justice: like many of us who had worked with Phylos in the field, and myself more poignantly than most having worked directly for them, put my name behind them, gone to bat for them with my honor and my word… it was really, really hard to watch. I had to go through it several times over several days just to believe what I was hearing. I cried through a lot of it, puked at one point. It couldn’t possibly be real.
“All the cannabis that’s around now will be replaced by varieties that will be optimized and specialized, and we’re going to be the company that makes those.”
“We have huge barriers to entry protecting us.”
“It would be impossible for anybody else to collect this data set.”
“Cultivators can’t do real breeding on their own.”
“Our core business is plant breeding, we had to build two other businesses to support that…so we built an entire testing business to create all that data.”
“We have a really unusual advisory board. They are not there for show… Ron started and ran a couple of seed companies that he sold to Syngenta, he worked for Syngenta for years and is now the CEO of a spin-out company from there. And Barbara until recently was the VP of technology acquisition for all of Dow / DuPont. So, having these guys around is just critical for us, because we’re building a company that is ultimately going to be acquired by that universe.”
It was suddenly, starkly clear that the brass at the top of the company didn’t give a shit about the community they had built themselves up on the hopes and aspirations of. Actually, truly the case that they looked down on that community and the breeder’s art they’ve carried, for decades, risking everything as “a quaint, rural hobby that maybe farmers get into.”
Supporting Big Ag over Craft Cannabis
Since then, their reputation is on fire and the trolls of the internet have decidedly unleashed themselves. Almost as painful to me as watching their credibility disintegrate has been tracking the body of grotesque, virulent, often badly-uninformed and occasionally decidedly ignorant vitriol being espoused in their direction and that of anybody who supports them, or wants to, for any reason, no matter how rational the rationale.
Things seem uncertain at best for their standing in our community. For being the most dedicated, passionate and capable team of people I’ve ever worked with, in any industry: they’ve chosen to support Big Ag over craft botanists, money over the community. They had a real, solid chance with one of the most valuable crops on Earth as it emerges into full marketplace acceptance to stand with the right people, change the way the game of agronomics is played. Instead, they took the money. They fucking blew it.
Worst of all: they set back the trust of the cannabis community in science, possibly by years, until a stable and reliable alternative can present itself. We need to advance and evolve if we’re to survive the coming onslaught of Corporate Weed. It is not guaranteed that we’ll retain control of our culture or our plant, and with this development things just got darker for us all.
A Word of Advice to Phylos
That all being said, I’d like to give a couple of points of unsolicited advice to the folks at Phylos. Maybe they’ll listen, maybe not: all the same I hope that one way or another they take some time to address their tone-deafness on many key points and publicly raised concerns surrounding their announcement. Who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise me in a way that works for everybody. I can’t help but hold out hope.
First of all, stop talking about “How ‘scary’ this must be” for the community. The term that more accurately describes your recent behavior is “insulting”. Here’s why: the language you’re using indicates a complete lack of understanding and empathy for a group of humans who have endured generations of legal persecution, social stigmata and violent crime. I personally have had friends lose their freedom, their possessions, their families, been lined up against a wall and executed – all for the love of this plant.
This is far from an isolated experience. If you think you’re “scaring” the devoted, hardworking community who had the guts and integrity to build this culture during prohibition that you’re now attempting to appropriate and sell off to big ag, you’ve got another goddamned thing coming. You clearly have no idea who you’re talking to, nor what they’ve endured to get here: we’re in this because we ARE this, past present and future. Check yourselves.
Secondly, you need to state, clearly, what side of the business you’re on. You can’t simultaneously use the lab experience the breeder community has paid you to build, sell yourself off to the biggest fish that waltzes into your bank account and expect to continue enjoying support from the community.
You want to sell out? Fine. But quit acting like you’re not competing with the rest of the industry. Referring back to suggestion #1: it’s insulting. This isn’t a question of a small group of bad actors being really mean and hateful on Instagram, nor is it a question of nuance and context in your communications. Stop bullshitting the people who got you here.
Moving Forward as a Community
To the community at large: we need to take a moment right now. We need to assess, to reflect, to adapt and overcome. There are clearly some mammoth changes coming our way and everything our predecessors have fought and died for is being coveted and actively taken from us by greedy businesspeople who did nothing to help our plight when it really mattered.
As a community, we need a common legal language and framework that breeders can use to protect their work.
We need a scientific community that’s open source, fully transparent and works for everybody equally. We need to support this with personal research, communication and our dollars.
As consumers, we need to support crop diversity and the ability of small farmers to innovate and drive our industry by making our purchasing choices reflect those ethics.
When we get burned, we pick ourselves the fuck back up and keep moving. Given what we’ve survived so far: this is just another bump in the long, strange trip. Not to worry, we’re gonna WIN this thing. Better goddamned well believe it, Y’all.
With peace, love and respect for everyone involved,