Global group urges moratorium on growing genetically altered hemp outdoors

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Genetically manipulated hemp and marijuana strains present a wide range of potential problems, according to the Federation of International Hemp Organizations (FIHO), which has called for a moratorium on outdoor growing of such cultivars.

FIHO said it was prompted to issue a warning after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the first genetically engineered hemp variety earlier this year.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced its approval of the new cultivar in October. USDA said the new hemp breed, developed to produce super-low levels of THC, was “unlikely” to pose an increased pest risk compared to other hemp varieties, and that it therefore may be safely multiplied and grown in the United States.

Risk to global market

But FIHO issued a laundry list of potential problems with new cannabis varieties manipulated in the lab, and, noting that hemp food and fiber producers rely on both imports and exports, warned against “the risk of destabilizing the global market.”

“Like other crops, GE/GM (“genetically engineered”/“genetically modified”) hemp comes with identified and unidentified risks and concerns,” the Federation said. “It is essential to identify and compare these risks to the intended benefits, and address them before considering the commercial cultivation and use of GE/GM hemp.”

Some countries have strict regulations or ban GE/GM crops and GMO foods altogether. (GMOs are organisms that have been modified through GE.) But there is no global consensus on what constitutes GE/GM plants and food containing GMOs, as jurisdictions define the term based on their own standards, implying risk to international trade in such agricultural products.

FIHO said the matter should be addressed by national regulators around the world.

Defining terminology

“Genetically engineered” refers to the process of altering the genetic makeup of an organism using techniques that are not found in nature. This includes techniques such as recombinant DNA technology, which allows scientists to insert genes from one organism into another.

“Genetically modified” is a broader term that encompasses any organism that has had its genetic makeup altered, whether through GE or other methods. This includes organisms that have been modified through traditional techniques, such as selective breeding.

Such genetic alterations can result in increased yields, pest and disease resistance, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition and reductions in the use of herbicides, FIHO noted, but suggested “there is significantly more to consider in the case of industrial hemp.”

Laundry list

Among environmental impacts, regulatory and trade issues, and health, social and economic concerns, the Federation specifically warned that:

  • Cross-pollination of GE/GM hemp with standard hemp varieties can introduce unintended traits to other cannabis crops.
  • The patenting of GE/GM seeds can lead to debates over seed ownership and access.
  • Large-scale cultivation of GE/GM hemp can reduce the genetic diversity in hemp species, potentially displacing traditional varieties and promoting monocultures, and making hemp more vulnerable to pests and disease.
  • Pests and diseases can grow resistant to genetically modified crops, necessitating the use of additional pesticides or alternative methods of pest control.
  • Altered hemp plants may impact local ecosystems, causing unintentional harm to beneficial organisms like pollinators and natural predators of pests that depend on hemp as a food source.
  • GE/GM hemp plants may also disrupt ecological relationships impacting nutrient cycling and negatively affecting soil health, which are crucial for agricultural sustainability.
  • The introduction of new genes or proteins into GM hemp can trigger immune-related allergic and non-allergic reactions to food products in some individuals.
  • GE/GM hemp varieties may force farmers to purchase specific seeds or technologies, potentially leading to economic challenges. In some jurisdictions, GE/GM rules would prevent farmers from growing seed for their own future production.
  • The adoption of GE/GM hemp can favor large-scale farming operations over small-scale growers, potentially exacerbating economic disparities in developing nations where traditional agricultural production practices are prevalent.
  • The introduction of GE/GM hemp could negatively impact consumers’ perception of hemp and erode hemp’s market position because consumers of hemp products are typically looking for natural products.

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