USDA Approves Low-THC Hemp Plants for U.S. Production, Breeding

A team of researchers and scientists have created what can be thought of as diet hemp plants, or plants that have been modified to produce less THC than the minimal amount hemp plants already do. It turns out the same team has also been working on achieving the exact opposite result in cannabis plants.

A variety of hemp plant genetically modified to produce little-to-no THC has been approved by the United States Department of Agriculture as safe to grow and breed on U.S. soil. 

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released a notice about the plants last week, created and submitted by Indiana-based Growing Together Research, a biotechnology company specializing in cannabis, hemp, psychedelics and agriculture. APHIS regulates the “movement of organisms modified or produced through genetic engineering.”

“APHIS found this modified hemp is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated hemp,” the USDA notice said. “As a result, it is not subject to regulation under 7 CFR part 340. From a plant pest risk perspective, this hemp may be safely grown and bred in the United States.”

Growing Together Research announced in June of this year that they had achieved the ability to modulate how much Delta 9 THC is expressed in plants. They credited the reasoning behind their experiment with attempting to help US hemp farmers whose crops test “hot,” or over the allocated .3% THC limit at which point the law requires the whole crop be destroyed. 

The same announcement by GTR also hinted at experiments underway in trying to get cannabis plants to produce more THC than normal, a feat I can only surmise will resonate much more positively with a majority of the High Times readership. 

“Based on its demonstrated ability to turn ‘down’ or ‘off’ the genes coding for THC expression, now GTR is applying the same techniques to turn THC expression ‘up.’ GTR will soon commence an effort in collaboration with Canada-based academic and commercial partners to create a cannabis cultivar with enhanced expression of THC. An initial set of high THC cultivars are expected to be created by the third quarter of 2023,” GTR said in June. 

An announcement for the super-weed has not been released yet but GTR estimated that almost 10 percent of the American hemp crop had to be destroyed between 2018 and 2020 due to testing too high in Delta-9 THC. They also suggested that current testing methods may be leading to inconsistent levels of THC and other cannabinoids in hemp-derived products. 

GTR explained their ability to modulate THC levels up and down as the “Delta 9 dial” which they activate by editing particular genes. They likened the process to a menu of genetic traits that they could essentially pick and choose from with their genomics platform. This supposedly allows them to block or encourage the production of Delta-9 THC, which is the compound traditionally associated with the “high” in cannabis. 

“Understanding the mechanics of the THC pathway are perhaps the most important component of truly unlocking the promise of cannabis and hemp,” said Sam Proctor, chief executive officer of GTR. “We are very excited about our results to date and look forward to further innovating for the benefit of stakeholders across the cannabis and hemp supply chain.”

It was not immediately clear based on the USDA announcement if these new hemp genetics will contain altered or reduced levels of hemp-derived cannabinoids like Delta-8 THC, which have skyrocketed in popularity since Donald Trump legalized commercial hemp production under the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Hemp-derived gummies, vapes and isolates can now be found in head shops all across the country, even in certain states where cannabis is still medically and recreationally illegal. This includes the sale of “THC-A flower” otherwise known as regular cannabis flower tested a certain way to skirt Delta-9 THC regulations by keeping the THC in its decarboxylated form, THC-A. 

More clarification will potentially come soon regarding the new hemp plants as the USDA was tasked primarily with determining if the genetically modified hemp plants posed a “plant pest risk” rather than regulations concerning the compounds contained in the plant, which are largely left up to the FDA and DEA. This is due to the Plant Protection Act which gives the USDA the “authority to oversee the detection, control, eradication, suppression, prevention, or retardation of the spread of plant pests to protect agriculture, the environment, and the economy of the United States.” 

After thorough review the USDA decided GTR’s new diet hemp plants are not a plant pest risk so unless any further clarification comes down the chain from other federal agencies, the plants can be freely grown and bred all throughout the continental United States. 

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