In the last 20 years, there has been exponential growth in the registration of new varieties of cannabis; new countries have opened up to legislate on its legalization, and there are more and more uses of this plant in the medical, recreational, and industrial areas.
To learn more about the challenges in this sector, consumer behavior, and why cannabis needs strong intellectual property protection, we spoke with Lana Culley, Vice President of Innovation and Consumer Preference at Aurora Cannabis.
What are the main challenges in Cannabis breeding and what are the most difficult traits to obtain currently? How do you think will be the Cannabis industry in the next five years and what role play variety protection?
Cannabis is a plant with a long history, but to date, it has been relatively untouched by modern breeding practices. This presents vast opportunity for rapid improvements in a wide range of traits, from both the agronomic and consumer/patient perspectives.
As an illicit plant around the world until recently, cannabis varieties (often referred to as “strains” in the cannabis vernacular) have been selected by growers predominantly for THC/THCA (tetrahydrocannabinol and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) content. This largely amateur (as compared with other crops) breeding effort has been tremendously successful, and we see a lot of high-THC cultivars in the market, many of which were developed by legacy growers prior to legalization. As legal cannabis gains traction and a greater share of the total
market, the target potency for licensed producers in Canada continues to increase. In less than two years – a very short amount of time by any breeding timeline – minimum potencies of medical and recreational flower products have increased from the 18-20% to >24% THC. Think of it: approximately one quarter of the flower’s dry weight is one chemical!
Needless to say, it will become increasingly difficult to continue to drive THC content higher, but with legalization and greater access for consumers and patients, other traits have become priorities for breeders. On the consumer side, differentiated aromas and visual traits, like bud size, are key to drive appeal and provide a unique and desired experience. From a producers’ perspective, pathogen resistance is key, particularly with the limited crop protection products that are available for use.
Variety protection, in its range of forms, are currently not employed en masse in cannabis globally. However, as cannabis becomes more widely accessible over the next five years – as more countries legalize and stigmas are broken down – there is likely to be a greater value placed on genetics and the value that cultivars create for both producers and growers. With that evolution, I believe it is inevitable that variety protection will become much more prevalent for cannabis around the world.
How complex is the process of variety registration in Canada and what does it imply? What other systems or countries do you find interesting in terms of their registration processes and why?
Prior to joining the cannabis industry in 2017, I worked in the broader horticulture and agriculture sector. From 2012 to 2017, I worked out of Canada’s Niagara Region, focused on commercializing tree fruit varieties, amongst other technologies, where I spent a lot of time on obtaining and leveraging Plant Breeders’ Rights and Plant Variety Protection around the world.
Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights Office treats cannabis varieties as it does any other clonally propagated plant – though admittedly the examiners are still less familiar with the traits of this plant over those more common, like apples and grapes. Aurora has obtained Canadian and international protection for its early varieties, paving the way in this still nascent industry.
Our breeding program has recently launched external licensing activities under a new brand identity - Occo. Casey Whelan joined Occo in 2021 as our Vice President, Genetics Licensing, and he and his team are focused on the Canadian and international markets as cannabis’ footprint continues to grow around the world. Protection of our cultivars is critical to enable proliferation of our genetics globally and leverage the value we’re creating.
Cannabis faces the challenge of dispelling several prejudices about its use. On the one hand, there are regulations and laws in several countries that prohibit the possession, consumption or cultivation of cannabis, and on the other hand, there is a lack of official information that allows people to take informed decisions. What can the cannabis sector do about the lack of information? Do you know any good practices or projects to provide good information to users/consumers? What is the role of companies and organization in generating better regulations and providing good information?
It is certainly true that there still exists a lot of stigmas when it comes to cannabis use, both for medical and recreational purposes. However, in Canada, where we’re approaching our fourth anniversary of legalization, we have seen tremendous progress on that front. Time in market, visibility of products and increasing openness amongst the public about use for various purposes has brought about a significant amount of change in attitude in a relatively short amount of time. Anecdotally, I field questions all the time from people of all ages, professions, and regions about cannabis products, whether it be for medical (sleep and pain being two predominant uses) or recreational purposes.
Many companies, including Aurora, spend a lot of resources investing in new research to better understand cannabis and its uses. As a company, we support human and animal health studies, both directly and indirectly, through academic and research institutions. A better understanding of the mechanisms of cannabis from a medical perspective will help many embrace the plant, but it’s important to understand the complexity of the plant and the vast number of chemical compounds – not just THC and CBD – that impact how it makes us feel, so this is not a trivial amount of work. We also spend a lot of time understanding consumer preferences; by delivering what consumers and patients are looking for, we will build increased interest and confidence in the products we make.
It will likely continue to take time for countries outside of Canada to see the stigma around cannabis dissipate, but I’m optimistic that the success Canada has seen post-legalization will help break down the regulatory and perception barriers that surround this truly remarkable plant.
 Because cannabis is an inhalable product, Health Canada regulations are extremely strict with respect to pesticides and other crop protection chemicals. Each lot of cannabis produced must be tested in Canada for 98 different pesticides with very low tolerance levels permitted.