Regulatory changes in Israel have enabled a cannabis company to advance breeding methods and grow plants that promise to yield higher levels of cannabinoids.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the industry, interest is growing in using synthetic production methods, including biosynthesis and fermentation, to bolster the production of various commercially and medically promising minor cannabinoids that naturally occur in minute amounts in plants.
But Noam Chehanovsky, co-founder and vice president of R&D for RCK Medical Cannabis, believes that further work with breeding and production of hybrid seeds will lead to plants being able to produce significantly higher yields of specific minor cannabinoids with greater consistency and less risk of loss due to disease or pests.
Chehanovsky predicts this will combine with both forecasted changes in consumer tastes and the price advantage already enjoyed by plants to put growing cannabis back on top and Israel at the forefront of the new plant-led revolution.
Perhaps the most important innovation is also one of the oldest around. Chehanovsky has been working on selective breeding methods he says will eventually produce strains of the plant with a higher yield of minor cannabinoids such as CBG, THCV and CBGV.
“It’s only a matter of time before we can produce plants that yield as much as 7% of THCV and 10% of CBG, compared with the current 1% to 2%,” he said. “Our breeding process uses cutting-edge technologies. For example, we’ve developed our own genetic markers so we can analyse leaves to select which plant is desirable at an early stage so we don’t need to grow to full size with flowers, so we can breed selective strains in a short time.”
Chehanovsky is looking to combine that with more modern innovations in biology to produce more consistent crops that have less risk of failure. His long-term vision is to produce hybrid seeds that are identical and consistent in quality in order to replace the more laborious method of cloning from mother plants. The belief at RCK Medical Cannabis is that developing these seeds will enable global mass production of cannabis for the development of new medication.
“We’ll do this by producing a special female version of the plant that can self-pollinate, and its brother, so they will grow plants of consistent quality,” Chehanovsky said.
Will changing tastes see hopes dashed?
Using seeds could also prove to be better than the standard process of cloning mother plants so their offspring are identical. Cloning is work-intensive, inefficient, and may be dangerous to the health of the plant. It also requires the original plant to be fully grown, which takes time and introduces risk of loss to disease or infestation.
“We’re revolutionising the industry by changing the way people grow cannabis,” Chehanovsky said. He added that consumer tastes are also changing in a way that will favour plant-grown cannabinoids. Currently, synthetics are popular in the North American market, where edibles, creams and ointments are making progress. But inhalation of products – and in particular the use of flower – is going to outstrip ingestion in the future, at least in Israel and potentially in other jurisdictions, he predicted.
“Each population has its own DNA. North America is seeing a lot of growth in edibles, while the Israeli market is more about smoking and oils, but tastes are evolving,” he said.
Israelis prefer to inhale because pain relief is a popular reason for use, and the impact of inhalation is more immediate. Inhalation of full-spectrum products may also lead to the entourage effect.
“In Israel 90% of the cannabis patients are smoking flowers and only 10% are using extracts,” Chehanovsky said. “Synthetic cannabinoids can’t replace flowers because people enjoy the experience of smoking or vaping with the aroma and flavour produced by the terpenes and other metabolites. You need all of the elements of the cannabis in place to achieve that entourage effect.”
However, not everyone agrees. Alex Revich, equity partner at Hybrid Pharm, said that the culture is changing and ingestibles will continue to take market share from smoking because younger generations perceive smoking as old-fashioned. Vaping, which could use synthetic or plant-derived cannabinoids, will also make a comeback and dominate the inhalable market even in territories impacted by the vaping-associated lung injury, or EVALI, crisis. This chimes more with CBD-Intel’s market data, which continually finds flowers to be a niche product across tracked markets.
“Young people look down on smoking, and they’re the future market,” Revich said. “The future is around ingesting – vape pens will be huge and eating products will be big. In California, which is leading the market, sales of edibles and vapes are going up and joints are going down. Young people just aren’t into them.”
A possible boost to the economy
Chehanovsky is not entirely opposed to that view. Although he feels flowers will continue to be an important part of the market, particularly in Israel, he also envisages a future where the cannabis sector is as diverse as other consumer goods sectors.
“The cannabis industry will end up like the alcohol industry – with a wide variety of products on offer,” he predicted. “When you talk about wine, for example, there are so many different kinds; it will be similar with cannabis.”
Altogether, cannabis production has the potential to bolster the Israeli economy, and regulators are taking notice, according to Tamir Gedo, CEO of medical cannabis firm BOL Pharma.
“Regulation in Israel is more advanced, but it’s still not easy,” he said. “There’s a huge gap between the perception of the population and the perception of the regulators.”
But despite the issues, Israeli regulation is still better than in many other places, and as a result Gedo estimates the value of the cannabis sector to the economy now outweighs that of the food supplement industry and could eventually even outstrip pharma.
“In other countries they’re trying to sweep it under the mat instead of constructing regulation that makes sense and ensuring there’s no abuse of cannabis in the market,” he added.
But to do so production must still align with pharmaceutical-grade European regulation, and legislators must do more work to encourage growth. “There’s an infinite amount of growth and production protocols and strict compliance with pharma-grade GMP [good manufacturing practices],” said Gedo. “It does mean the quality of the product is high and, yes, the future is bright – Israel is now the third biggest market in the world behind the US and Canada – but it takes time. Every year in the cannabis industry is like a dog year because of the hesitation of the regulators.”
- Noam Chehanovsky and Tamir Gedo will be expert speakers at Cannabis Business Europe 2022, “the #1 Event on the Development of the European Medical Cannabis, CBD and Hemp Industry”, in Frankfurt on 14th and 15th June. CBD-Intel legal analyst Anthony Traurig will also be taking part in the event, presenting the topic: “The status of EU harmonisation on CBD”.
– Lorraine Mullaney CBD-Intel staff