Cannabis research booms with backing of commercial growers

The budding marijuana industry is spurring new research around cannabis that will have long-term effects on a variety of fields, from farming to new medicine, as companies look for solid scientific data on the substance.

With the looming legalization of recreational pot next summer, and the expansion of licensed medical marijuana producers, scientists at the University of Guelph say more organizations are turning to researchers for help growing better plants.

The Ontario university has a long horticultural research history and some of its staff and students are already deep into the study of medicinal marijuana.

On Friday, a team of two environmental science professors and a graduate student published a research paper — one they called the first of its kind and the first of many to come — about optimizing the growth of medicinal cannabis indoors.

The study looked at the rate of organic fertilizer in soilless products holding cannabis before it flowered and the optimization of tetrahydrocannabinol — the primary psychoactive part of cannabis — and cannabidiol, which has been touted as a potential treatment for certain forms of epilepsy.

“There is hardly any scientific information on how to produce these plants and now there is so much interest in this area,” said Youbin Zheng, who led the study funded by a licensed medical marijuana producer as well the federal government.

Words such as “OG kush” and “grizzly” — types of marijuana strains — have now appeared in a scientific journal, this time in HortScience, and there’s more to come.

Zheng and fellow professor Mike Dixon have a series of studies in the pipeline that examine the effects of irrigation, lighting, fertilization and soilless technology on cannabis growth as they try to bring scientific rigour to marijuana research.

Building on anecdotal evidence

Dixon is blunt when reflecting on the current cannabis research landscape.

“Much of the work now is largely based on anecdotal bulls–t from people who think they have it all figured out and did all their research in their basements,” he said.

The idea now, he notes, is to take the medicinal marijuana world from the backwoods to pharmaceutical-grade production.

Dixon has been part of pioneering research into the growth of plants in space and is using that knowledge and technology to help grow better medicinal marijuana. He plans to leverage the windfall of research money coming in from cannabis companies for his work.

“I’m shamelessly taking advantage of the cannabis industry sector’s investment,” he said.

“The bottom line is we’re developing technologies that will allow Canadians to exploit production systems in harsh environments.”

Molecular complexity

Marijuana production companies — there are more than 60 approved by Health Canada now — need a “huge number of trained scientists,” Zheng noted.

Then there are the potential medical applications associated with marijuana — there are more than 150 compounds found in cannabis that need to be explored, Dixon said.

Another big area is vertical farming — where crops are grown in stacks in vast warehouses with artificial lighting, either in solution or with soilless products — that can allow cold-climate countries to grow food year round, Dixon said.

The results of research on marijuana — driven by interest from the cannabis industry — could be applied to other areas, he explained.

“The funding isn’t coming from food, which has the lowest possible margin as a commodity, but pharmaceuticals,” Dixon said.

“But we can use this research to develop life-support technology, as in food, which can become an economic engine for a country like Canada that will carry us for the next 300 years.”

The dean of the Ontario Agricultural College, at the University of Guelph said the cannabis industry is also expected to help draw new students to the school’s programs.

“One of our greatest challenges is recruiting people into our programs because people typically don’t understand the fact that agriculture and food are high-tech, high-growth sectors and demand an awful lot of people for really interesting careers,” said Rene Van Acker.

“The cannabis industry is doing us a favour by drawing a lot of attention to the sector and drawing attention to the fact it is a high-skill, high-tech area.”

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