Ecce Granum: An essay on seed

by Dave West



The American Seed Trade Association has a motto: "First, the Seed."

God apparently concurs as S/He chose plants that bear seed as the first gift to bestow upon "Their" mortal creation. Check it out: the First Gift (Genesis 1:29).

Nice gift. Contemplate for a moment the great coconut versus the microscopic tobacco seed. Or the tiny mustard seed, greater than which our Faith is not. From a single seed come thousands more. Seed enough to eat, to feed and to sow to perpetuate the cycle. All Man's needs covered: food, fuel, clothing and shelter. The grass heroically protruding through astroturf on a Florida freeway and General Sherman (no, the tree) both started from a single seed.

The seed is truly the ultimate repository of freedom. The freedom to divorce from the restrictions of decaying and corrupt entrenched human institutions, to go back to the land and provide for oneself and family. To strike at humanity's free access to seed is to undercut liberty at its very root, to create dependency on the glass onion of institutional strata through which all needs must be filtered and fulfilled. If you can grow your own, the canalization of your consumption through the economic system is compromised. Can't have that! The system (uh-oh) depends on all needs being met by buying, preferably things mined. Not by growing. Implicit in growing is a giving-back. Implicit in mining is theft.

This is where I always end up: the seed. Hemp is so threatening to the prevailing order because it strikes directly at the insidious assumption that somehow government has legitimate jurisdiction over my Right to go into my own garden, plant a seed and provide for my needs with the harvest. Where did they get that? I don't recall relinquishing the First Gift to a priest of any stripe whatever guise they come in this time.

Cannabis is just the leading edge of a much larger assault on this Right which has as its primary target your access to any herb which might assuage your body's ails, be it St John's Wort or Boneset or Cannabis by means other than that prescribed (pun intended). It is already out there: the assumption backed with force of Law that government authority can tell you you can't use a plant but must use a synthetic product of the pharmaceutical industry. We're not in the green wood now, we're in the dry.

That Right is so fundamental, nobody thinks about it. The Grand Obfuscation twists words and meanings in grand Orwellian fashion. For instance, when did the act of growing a plant become "manufacture?" I once asked the Tobacco Growers' Information Service in Raleigh NC if a farmer growing tobacco was manufacturing tobacco or even nicotine. The response was the appropriate hrmmphh at the very idea. Inconceivable. I can think of but one example where simple horticulture is deemed manufacture. How odd.

So, if I grow tobacco in my garden, will the ATF come? They might, said Bill Drake, who started the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. He told me of his experience growing tobacco in cooperation with the local Natives on rez land: "The ATF feds showed up, suits and Florsheims, and demanded to know where our permits and quotas were."

The assault on seed of course seeps through the fissure in society called the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs in its purest form is a war on botanical resources. You are not allowed to use an herb you grow but must by State decree use a synthetic substance manufactured from petroleum or coal tar. Whether you meet it in Wisconsin where one LEO with the Wisconsin "Cannabis Enforcement and Suppression Effort" reportedly said

"Eradicating wild marijuana is important, even though its potency is only 0.5 percent to 1 percent compared to 6.66 percent for high-quality, commercially grown marijuana...Wild marijuana can lead youths to get addicted to other drugs."

Or in the mountains of Columbia where coca eradication gives cover to our Special Ops propping up the usual slimy figures;

Or in Uzbekistan where UN money funds the development of a fungal biotoxin for poppy eradication.

By destroying the botanical resources--"bad plants" --the dependency on synthesized pharmaceuticals is secured. Step up to the gate, buy your ticket, confident that the lucrative trade in extracted, synthesized, adulterated, concentrated powders to stick up your nose or in your vein is free of competition from a leaf or a flower.

One has to wonder if Thomas Jefferson had presciently anticipated his Great Experiment becoming Eradication Nation might there not be an Eleventh amendment in the Bill of Rights? An amendment something to the effect that no government shall obstruct the Right of its citizens to provide their own from seed. But that was long before the coming of the organic chemical industry. Long before Zyklon-B. Unimaginable modern things.

Ecce Granum.

Seed is basically a package. What it holds is a blueprint and a battery. The blueprint is the DNA encoded instructions for building another of that type of plant. In fact the process has already begun. The seed contains the germ, the embryo, the tiny plantlet with rudimentary leaves in a state of temporarily arrested development. Surrounding the embryo, the "battery" is stored energy coming in the form of carbohydrate (starch or sugar), protein and/or oil. In the case of cannabis, it's oil.

We will consider cannabis seed as a packet of genetic information first, and then as a packet of nutrition.

Seed is alive and can die. It respires. If time runs out before conditions are right for germination, the seed dies. For some seeds, this can be a long time. Two thousand years old date seeds recovered in excavations at Herod the Great's palace on Masada were successfully germinated. Certain weed seeds can persist for over a decade in soil.

Agricultural seeds rarely have such longevity and cannabis is no exception. Commercial hemp seed germination declines rapidly. After three years it is usually below standards for planting (<80%). Cannabis germplasm resources such as those preserved at the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg must be stored under special climate controlled conditions. (Which, of course, can be expensive. Hint, hint.)

In the United States we have the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, charged with long term preservation of genetic resources. In the case of the cannabis varieties produced by the USDA's breeding program, they dropped the ball. Of the ten bags of seed sent there in 1949, none has survived. Consequently, all of that strain called "Kentucky Hemp" and its derivatives--a unique strain of hemp developed in this country from Chinese germplasm--is lost.. The consequence is quite serious for the effort to return hemp to North American agriculture. This crop, from the view of genetics, has been driven back to before the turn of the century.

These pellet-sized packages of genetics are, in strict botanical parlance, "achenes:" "simple, dry, one-celled, one-seeded, indehiscent fruit in which the seed coat is not attached to the pericarp." We'll just call it seed.

Were you to survey a collection of accessions of cannabis germplasm, you would immediately be struck by the wide variation in seed phenotype, ie., their looks. Seed size is customarily reported in terms of gram weight (mass) per 1000 seeds. Your average industrial hemp from Europe runs around 17g. /1000. Overall, the range is quite wide from millet-sized to seed almost the size of soybean, those of Chile and Korea being some of the larger. Of course this trait depends on the condition of the fields where the seed was produced. Plants that produce more seed will tend to produce smaller seed. The color ranges as well, from mottled green camouflage to a green so dark it's black.

Seed for planting--the genetic package--is differentiated as named varieties: 'Fedora 19' 'Fedrina 74', 'Felina 34', 'Ferimon', 'Fibrimon 24' 'Fibrimon 56' 'Fibriko', 'Kompolti', 'Kompolti hybrid TC', 'Uniko B'. There were several named varieties bred by Lyster Dewey in the US earlier this century, with such names as 'Ferramington,' 'Kymington,' 'Chington,' and 'Chinamington'. These genetic entities are (or were in the case of the American hemp varieties) stable --although variable, along the lines of a racial grouping-- and recognizable to the trained breeder's eye.

Until circa 1850, the cannabis--hemp-- grown in North America had a European lineage. Around that time, missionaries in China sent back seed which performed better at the latitudes of Kentucky and Missouri. These imports from China were selected locally for adaptation and emerged as a new variety of hemp known as Kentucky Hemp. This hemp was the foundation of the hemp industry in Kentucky, Missouri and later Wisconsin.

Because seed is a package of genetic information, the death of the seed in the hands of the National Seed Storage Laboratory is a great tragedy. We comprehend this "germplasm" issue well enough when we discuss hypothetical cancer cures perhaps to be found in the threatened Amazonian rainforest. The issue is no less with the unique varieties of hemp now extinct. "It's the germplasm, stupid!" over the appropriate leaf might well grace a Tee-shirt. (Go for it.)

As the hemp industry struggles to recover in North America, new equipment will be invented employing modern engineering. And though we've lost the know-how for handling the crop, people will learn new ways, it was always too labor intensive. The loss of these factors of hemp production, though unfortunate, is not dire. The loss of the germplasm, that's serious. Plant breeding is a slow science. It has taken decades, for instance, to develop kenaf varieties adapted to Texas.

The seed growing wild around North America is a repository, in the "genetic package" sense, the only one we have, of Kentucky hemp. But like an old tome left in the elements, the message is badly degraded. Meanwhile, the eradication squads are rappelling down from helicopters.

Currently in North America we must import certified hemp varieties from Europe. That puts us on a par with pre-1850 from a plant breeder's perspective.

As a package of nutrition appreciated by man and his furred and feathered friends, cannabis has several unique qualities. Cannabis stores its energy primarily in the form of oil, the seed usually being over 30% oil. The caloric content of oil is 2.5 times greater than an equivalent weight of starch or protein. Hempseed oil burns hot in the germinating seed. Way back in 1914 an obscure article in the Botanical Gazette reported experiments which showed the germinating hemp seed almost four times hotter than oats or corn.(Figure 1) This may explain hemp's ability to germinate and grow early in cold spring soil, allowing the crop to get a jump on weeds which it will progressively smother and eliminate.

Figure 1: Normal Germination Temperatures of Selected Crops

Plant oils are extremely variable. For one thing, to the plant these oils are fuel for burning. So plants tend to tolerate a lot of variation in the chemical make up of their seed oils, and they respond readily to breeding selection for higher or lower proportions of particular fatty acids.

Oils are triglycerides. Off the three carbons of the glycerine backbone extend carbon chains of fatty acids. Variation in the chemical composition (number of carbon atoms and position of double bonds) of these fatty acids is responsible for the character of the oil.

Hemp oil, like flax and tung and perilla oils among others, is a "drying" oil. The same features which give hemp oil its nutritional value, also make it useful in paint and explain its instability. Hempseed is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, those having two or more double bonds between the carbons in the chain. These double bonds are unstable, tending to oxidize. From a nutritional point of view, this oxidation is rancidity. But for paint or oilcloth, the propensity of the fatty acids to form cross-linking bonds as the oil dries makes the waterproof, solid surface so valued by the classic painters of the lowlands.

Hemp oil is considered a "nutraceutical," both a food and a medicine. Hemp oil has a relatively high percentage of the essential fatty acids (EFAs, essential because the body doesn't synthesize its own, they must come from the diet), linoleic (~50%) and alpha-linolenic (~30%).(The percentages vary greatly with growing environment and strain.) The proportions are excellent from a nutritional vantage. A smidgen of another EFA, gamma-linolenic, valued for treating skin conditions, is a bonus. Currently, GLA in commerce comes from the seed oils of Borage and Evening Primrose.

A Kentucky farrier old enough to remember when hempseed was plentiful was full of anecdotes of its arcane uses. Reportedly, hempseed was fed to horses to induce estrus. Also reportedly, hempseed given a lame horse would disguise the limp long enough to close the sale. I cannot vouch for these efficacies, but this year Kentucky cattle rancher Donnie Colter found he made $13 more per animal for calves supplemented with hempseed meal, the high protein byproduct of oil extraction. Meanwhile, University of Kentucky researchers are also looking at feeding pelletted hempseed meal to catfish.

This would probably not surprise the Latvian babushka who traditionally made her "black butter" from ground hempseed--like peanut butter-- a nutritious staple in her family's diet. How sad that this tradition has been lost. Centralization and bureaucracy wreak their havoc regardless of political label, whether power reside in Moscow or Washington.

Our biggest problem with hempseed is that the plants don't make enough. Seed yield in hemp is one of the significant agronomic issues the crop faces. Reported seed yield is under a ton per acre, not up to the competition from other established oilseed crops, including its natural rival, flax.

The naturally dioecious hemp crop only bears seed on half the plants in the field. The "monoecious" genetic trait causes female and male flowers on all plants, thus increasing seed yield per acre. Maintaining the monoecious character in the plants requires constant intervention by the breeder, or with successive rounds of reproduction dioecism will progressively return. Although the earliest work on the genetics of monoecism was done by the American geneticist, Hugh McPhee, this trait was first exploited by the Russian breeder, Greisko, and was first incorporated into agronomic hemp varieties by the German breeder, von Sengbusch.

Varieties of hemp have not been developed specifically for the oilseed crop [was true, but no longer --dpw], although some landraces may be superior for this use over the fiber hemp varieties currently contributing seed for crushing. An oilseed hemp could conceivably be quite different in plant type from the fiber type. For instance, the stem would ideally be shorter and stouter. The seed should mature uniformly in an easily harvested head on top of the plant. As with most crops, yield gains per acre come from more plants bearing seed per acre, not increased yield on individual plants. Thus a single stem with a compact head with minimum branching would allow dense stands and higher yields. The left over stems could go for paper. Such a plant might resemble grain sorghum.

But such developments presuppose the boot of oppression is lifted off this plant, this Gift, and an end to this Phytopogrom.


Ecce Granum Revisited


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