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USDA Releases New Hemp Handbook As Agency Works To Rebuild A Post-Prohibition Seed Bank



As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) works to rebuild a government seed bank for hemp that was destroyed during prohibition, the agency is issuing updated guidance on how to identify, describe and evaluate different varieties of the plant.

USDA’s latest version of its Hemp Descriptor and Phenotyping Handbook, released earlier this summer, is the agency’s deepest dive yet into the different forms and qualities of hemp. Intended to help researchers better differentiate between hemp varieties, the new document includes all sorts of details on the morphology, yield, cannabinoid content, oil production, seed viability, fiber quality, pathogen resistance and various other traits.

The eventual goal is to allow users of the genetic repository, including hemp scientists and breeders, to more fully understand the range of hemp varieties and and select them for various applications.

As USDA puts it, “Robust, reliable and high-dimensional data generated from these phenotyping efforts will empower conservation of hemp genetic diversity and aid selection of materials with unique trait combinations for breeding programs.”

Image of hemp plant sex characteristics


The agency also maintains so-called germplasms for various other crops. Hemp is playing catch-up with other agricultural commodities, however, given that the plant was only federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

USDA’s Plant Genetics Resources Unit (PGRU) coordinates the genetic repository in Geneva, New York, collecting and exchanging samples with both domestic and foreign sources. Information gained through the phenotyping efforts will be publicly available through USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Some hemp samples have already been posted to the database.

USDA first published its hemp phenotyping handbook in September 2021. The new update, released in July, is being referred to as “version 3.0” of the document.

In addition to clarifying details throughout, USDA has expanded sections on pathology, seed evaluation and fiber quality in the latest version. The agency has also added new protocols around feral collection, seed threshing, tissue cultures, gathering pollen and other details, and it says it will continue to update procedures as better methodologies emerge.

One new resource is a video instructing hemp farmers on how to build and use a Ghostbusters-like backpack vacuum, which USDA says can collect up to 10 grams of cannabis pollen in less than a minute.

As the agency describes:

“These resources will be backed-up at the ARS National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, regenerated, monitored, and maintained with best management practices, so that high quality germplasm can be distributed to researchers and breeders within the hemp community. Vulnerable or threatened genetic resources for hemp wild relatives and cultivars will be safeguarded so that these critical sources of genes for hemp research and breeding are widely available. In addition, new genetic resources for hemp that might be suitable for U.S agricultural systems will be introduced.”

USDA has been promoting the hemp market in a number of ways, including recently teaming up with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to host farmers for an educational event focused on cultivating cannabis in a “bio-based” economy.

The department also recently shared the success story of an Indiana-based hemp farm, touting how the agency offered financial and technical assistance to help the business to maximize its output of high-quality CBD oil.

USDA also renamed a trade advisory committee to prominently feature hemp among a select group of specialty crops—and doubled the number of hemp industry representatives on its federal trade advisory panels—reflecting the agency’s understanding of cannabis as a uniquely valuable commodity.

Nevertheless, the hemp sector took a major economic hit last year, according to an analysis from USDA that showed the crop’s value drop precipitously. Stakeholders have largely attributed the downturn to a lack of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations on marketing hemp derivative products, such as CBD oil, but FDA has insisted it needs Congress to enact such rules.

Bipartisan lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced companion bills this session that aim to reduce regulatory burdens for farmers that grow industrial hemp for non-extraction purposes.

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Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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