$2 million research project aims to cultivate hemp varieties suitable for U.S. latitudes

$2 million research project aims to cultivate hemp varieties suitable for U.S. latitudes

Cornell University researchers have recently received $2 million in funding to conduct long-term research on hemp genetics. The aim of the research, led by Larry Smart, a professor at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, is to develop hemp varieties that can improve yields in lower latitudes.

The research project focuses on understanding the genetic basis of photoperiod threshold, which refers to the amount of light a plant needs to reach different stages of development. The ultimate goal is to develop hemp genetics suitable for grain, fiber, and cannabinoid production. The project is supported by two grants totaling $1,170,000 from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), with additional matching funds from foundation partners, bringing the total funding to $2,340,000.

Photoperiod Challenge

In a press release, FFAR stated that hemp varieties from Canada and Europe, where summer days are longer than in the United States, often result in smaller yields and limited profit when grown in the US. This is particularly challenging in sub-tropical regions like Florida, where daylight hours are shorter.

Southern US states and countries closer to the equator have struggled to find hemp varieties that thrive in hot, humid conditions with shorter daylight periods while still meeting the regulations for maximum THC content. Many existing hemp cultivars in these regions have flowered too early and exceeded the federal THC limit of 0.3%. Moreover, these cultivars have shown poor tolerance to heat and drought conditions that are common in southern states.

Most hemp varieties planted in North America originate from Europe and are best suited for regions in the US Midwest, West, and Canada. A similar “hemp zone” exists in latitudes south of the equator.

Broad Application

Smart stated, “Matching flowering time with latitude is the key barrier to improving hemp yields across all market classes – grain, fiber, and cannabinoids. While this project will lead to the development of new cultivars that can produce high yields of CBD in Florida, the tools we will develop can be applied broadly in hemp breeding programs.”

In recent years, CBD production has dominated hemp breeding efforts in the US, with little focus on developing fiber and grain varieties suitable for US latitudes. While European hemp strains have been successful for northern US farmers, cultivars that grow well in outdoor conditions in southern regions have been challenging to find. Smart’s team is currently developing hemp varieties specifically bred for southern latitudes, using hemp trials conducted in New York, North Carolina, and Florida. These new cultivars have shown improved grain and fiber yields and THC levels below the federal limit of 0.3%.

For Southern Grows

The researchers utilized whole genome sequencing to understand the genetic basis of flowering time variation and develop molecular markers that expedite the breeding process for southern-adapted cultivars. These selections will be further bred to create cultivars with a photoperiod suited for North Carolina, Florida, and similar locations.

In addition to its potential for producing plant protein, textiles, health products, and building materials, hemp could serve as an alternative crop for farmers who rely on the shrinking tobacco sector, according to FFAR.

FFAR is a non-profit public-private partnership that supports research in climate-resilient agriculture, food safety and nutrition, sustainable production systems, and animal health and welfare. Established in 2010 with a grant from the Walmart Foundation and support from various partners, the foundation collaborates with government agencies, NGOs, corporations, and universities.

Federal Funding

The Congress established FFAR in the Agricultural Act of 2014 to leverage public and private resources for scientific and technological research, innovation, and partnerships crucial to enhancing the farming economy of the United States. The FFAR hemp consortium was formed in 2022.

Cornell University’s Cornell AgriTech division maintains the only industrial hemp seed bank in the United States.

In a separate study, Cornell researchers recently announced the discovery of a gene in hemp that is resistant to powdery mildew, providing growers with a new tool to combat one of the most common diseases affecting the production of cannabinoid-rich plants.

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