Is Tissue Culture the Future of Cannabis Cultivation?

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As the cannabis market continues to grow and evolve, it’s important that companies continue to evolve along with it.  And with some analysts projecting that the cannabis industry could be worth almost $66 billion by 2025, these businesses are well aware of the opportunities in front of them, and are constantly looking for new ways to improve and optimize their systems.

Growers in particular are acutely aware of the need for constant improvement.  As both medical and recreational cannabis laws around the world continue to be liberalized, the demand for large amounts of consistent, high quality product will no doubt rise as well.

One way that these growers are harnessing the power of technology is by looking beyond traditional cultivation methods.  Tissue culture, a technique that’s been used extensively in other industries, is one of these new technologies that many believe could become one of the dominant methods for cannabis production in the future.

How Tissue Culture Works

Developing this technology on a large scale is a complex and highly technical process, but the fundamental idea behind it is this –  tissue culture involves taking small samples of tissue from a plant, and using it to replicate that same plant in vitro. 

The process begins with the initial samples being sterilized before being given an agar gel with nutrients and hormones.  It’s these hormones that set off the growth process, causing the cells to produce roots.  At a certain point, the plant is developed enough that it begins to multiply.  Once this happens, cultivators can separate them and ultimately move them into soil after they’ve had a chance to harden.

The beauty of this process is that it can be done using only a few cells off an existing plant, while replicating it hundreds of times.  Not only is this an incredibly efficient way to go about cultivation, it’s one that produces a very consistent and stable result.

It’s also one with a proven track record of success.  The idea was first conceived of in the early 20th century, and for the last few decades, it’s been used for a number of different purposes.

Current Approaches To Growing Cannabis And Their Issues

The traditional approach to growing cannabis has been limited to a few different techniques.  The first is the the “natural” approach of simply planting seeds.  This is most likely the method that you’ve gone with if you’ve ever attempted to grow your own pot.  

And while it certainly does work, it has its downsides.

First off, planting individual seeds is a very time consuming process.  And it’s not just the initial planting process that takes time, it’s also the fact that these plants have to go through a germination phase.  It’s also fairly inconsistent, leaving the grower without a lot of control over their plant, meaning that the end result can vary substantially.

Cannabis Seeds
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org

To rectify these issues, a number of growers have gone with a different method that involves taking clippings from mother plants, using rooting solution on them, and placing them in soil to create a clone.  This gets around a number of the drawbacks of growing via seeds, and is generally a faster and more cost effective method if done correctly.

However, replicating plants from clippings comes with its own issues.  The kind of large-scale “mother rooms” that you may find in a company like Canopy Growth are expensive, and require substantial amounts of energy and resources to maintain.

The Benefits Of Tissue Culture For Cannabis Growing

Tissue culture has a few distinct advantages over both the seedling and clipping methods which are common in cannabis cultivation.  The first is volume, since the number of plants which can be multiplied using a single tissue sample can very well result in hundreds of duplicates.

The second is the space and cost factor.  Mother rooms are not only expensive to maintain and require a lot of energy, but they also take up a lot of room.  By contrast, growing plants in vitro is far more of a space-saving option (particularly for companies with limited square feet in their facilities).

But one of the biggest draws for growers is the effect that this technique can have on the overall product.  Cannabis plants grown via tissue culture tend to be more resistant to diseases and infections, result in higher yields, and overall have the potential to produce a more consistent product.

What Tissue Culture Can Do For Cannabis Producers

If the supply shortage experienced by the Canadian cannabis industry over the last year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of suppliers who are able to not only produce great product, but to do so quickly and keep up with demand.  Following the legalization of recreational marijuana last October, a number of provinces experienced painful supply shortages throughout 2019.  This not only lead to headaches for retailers and customers, but also to the propagation of a black market problem that legalization was supposed to help rectify.

And while there were certainly a number of factors (an excessive amount of red tape by Health Canada certainly hasn’t helped matters), one of the reasons for the shortage is at the production level.  

A lot of analysis over the last year has found that these licensed producers not only have a quantity problem, but a quality one as well.  Reports of low quality legal cannabis have been widely circulated throughout Canada, and accusations of dry, harsh, overpriced and (in some cases) moldy weed being sold in legal retail outlets is common (which has no doubt helped drive customers to the black market).

The bottom line is this – cannabis is fast becoming a massive industry with an incredible demand.  These new companies need to find ways to not only produce large amounts of quality plants, but to do so in a way that’s cost effective.  One of the ways they can go about this is by borrowing and adapting techniques like tissue culture that has the potential to help them overcome many of the challenges they’re currently facing.

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