Certified seed shortage means hemp crops exhibit wide range of phytochemistry, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images
The high variability of hemp plants now being grown in North America means claims of standardization should be take with a grain of salt, a botanical expert says.

Eleanor Kuntz, PhD, is co founder and CEO of LeafWorks​, a botanical identification and agricultural consulting firm specializing. Kuntz participated in a panel discussion at a recent event focused on CBD put on by the American Herbal Products Association in Denver, CO.

Kuntz uses the latest in DNA technology to help customers nail down their botanical IDs.  And she consults with farmers on the best varieties to choose for their particular pieces of land and advises on best agricultural practices.  LeafWorks recently launched several services particular to cannabis, including helping clients to identify male plants.

In addition to her PhD in genetics from the University of Georgia, she is also a trained herbalist.  Kuntz studied at Sage Mountain Herbal Education Center under noted herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. 

High degree of variability

Eleanor Kuntz PhD

Kuntz said in her work on cannabis, she has found that the plant naturally exhibits a high degree of variability.  A plant that might perform one way in one location with a given agricultural protocol might perform quite differently in another.

This means that the phytochemical profile of the resulting plants could be drastically different, Kuntz said.

While this might be true for many other plants, in those cases the differences have been worked out over time and those differences accounted for.  In the growing of ginseng, for example, Kuntz said there are decades of experience in what the phytochemical profile of the plants looks like when taken from different locations.

In the plant stocks being used in the hemp/CBD industry, she has found that there is little hard data to go on for the moment.

“There is such a high demand of seed in the market that there is not enough seed to go around, so you have a lot of non homogeneous seed,” ​Kuntz told NutraIngredients-USA.

Dearth of certified seed

With that being the reality, Kuntz said she takes a dim view of some of the claims being made within the industry about raw material supplies.  In her view, claims that a raw material source is ‘guaranteed’ to be less than 0.3% THC by weight (the legal definition of industrial hemp as opposed to marijuana) could in many cases be more of an aspirational statement than a statement of fact.  There just isn’t enough standardized seed to go around to back up all of those sorts of claims that are being made, she said.

Kuntz said the majority of homogeneous, well characterized seed currently available comes from Europe, where hemp has been legally cultivated for decades.  The problem is, most of those plants were selectively bred to fulfill a different purpose.

“Most of the cultivars that are exceptionally well characterized and are homogenous are fiber varieties from Europe. Those are great seed stocks but they are not CBD hemp. It would be like growing a Granny Smith apple when what you really want is a sweet variety.  It’s just not the right plant for the job,”​ she said.

Certification can’t be rushed

Boosting the characterization and homogeneity of a seed stock along the path toward having a certified variety is the work of years, Kuntz said.  It involves careful ID work and meticulous agronomical record keeping.

“When you do seed certification trials you would grow that test seed in every possible location for where it would be likely be grown,”​ Kuntz said.

She added that best practice would also be to do chemical analysis of the plant in each test location at several points in the growing process as opposed to just testing the end result.

“That would be the smarter way to do it,”​ she said. “That could give you detailed information about best agricultural practices, such as when the best time to harvest would be.”

The people in the game are the real shocker

With all that being said, Kuntz said the current situation with the variability of hemp seed stocks is not particularly surprising.  It has been observed in other plants that suddenly get popular, such as chia.  It’s just that those situations have not gotten as much press, and the pressing question of whether your raw material has too much of a controlled substance in it—THC in this case—is pretty much unique to cannabis.

But what has surprised her is the variability of the people seeking to get involved in the trade. You’ve got everything from experienced farmers seeking a new revenue stream to dreamers who’ve never had a particle of dirt under their fingernails trying to get into the game.

“The real shock has been the diversity of individuals who have become interested in these plants. There is a lot of hype right now and a lot of people want to grow hemp just because they​ can grow hemp. Not because it’s the best choice for their land or their location. And a lot of these individuals are not using the right plants,”​ she said.

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