Published in Cannabis Health Magazine, Winter , 2006

Ecce Granum Revisited

By David P. West, Ph.D.

I officially took up the cannabis issue in 1993 after I bid farewell to the commercial seed company where I'd been a corn breeder for nearly two decades. The chemical industry had been gradually scooping up seed companies for most of that tenure. With the advent of biotechnology came the ability to modify crops to fit within agchemical marketing plans, opening the floodgates of acquisition. I decided to explore other uses for my talents.

Looking at cannabis from a plant breeder's perspective, I saw a need to clarify matters of varietal difference, which is a plant breeder's territory. I came at it from my base as an agronomic crop breeder, so I took up the cause of the agronomic kind of cannabis, e.g., hemp. I set about explaining the difference between hemp and marijuana and made an effort to raise awareness of the importance of germplasm. When Hawaii wanted to try hemp, I went there and ran a project. It's all about germplasm.


Germplasm. My spell checker doesn't know this word. Thinks it's germ plasma.

"Germplasm" is the collective term for the genetic repertoire of a crop, ranging over all its varieties, that the breeder draws on for genes.

Germplasm comes in neat little packages called seed ("achene," in the case of hemp seed, if you want to get technical).

When I matriculated at Hemp U., in 1993, I naturally went looking for hemp germplasm and I found a distressing situation. The industry that had existed in North American had relied on a uniquely adapted American variety of hemp known as Kentucky Hemp. I inquired after Kentucky Hemp at the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, CO, a facility charged with the preservation of the nation's critical germplasm resources. I discovered that it had not been preserved. The whole of it was lost.

Ecce granum! Behold the seed!

Seed is a package with a nice, quasi-plastic wrap, in which we find a nascent plant in a suspended state, battery included. This little plant has already begun to differentiate leaves. Attending this embryo, or "germ," is an energy source, a battery of sorts. It's either carbohydrate or lipid: sugar (starch, the polymer of sugar) or oil. In hemp, it's oil. When conditions turn right—and depending on the species the right conditions may require such events as freezing or fire—the battery fires up and jump starts the plant to life, supplying the requisite energy for growth until the solar panels are in place and can take over. The oil in hemp burns hot in the germinating seed. Really. Hemp's seedlings are hotter than other crop's. It's been shown.

Seeds are alive and can die. Seed respires. If time runs out before conditions are right for germination, the seed dies. If seed is to be preserved for long periods, many years, the conditions of storage must be carefully controlled. Commercial hemp seed germination declines rapidly. After three years, it is usually below standards for planting (<80%).

Per my request, they found some bags of hemp seed at the NSSL, but it came from a 1949 crop. It was long dead. And because it was cannabis, it presented the lab with a unique problem that was summed up for me in a truly memorable comment: "If any of it had germinated," the lab informed me, because they weren't licensed for controlled substances, "we would have had to kill it."

Everytime I plant a seed: kill it before it grows

The DEA makes no differentiation within Cannabis (I mean the genus when I capitalize it). By their official definition, all Cannabis is marijuana. As such, feral hemp—which is the old crop escaped into the wild that grows in areas where the crop once thrived—annually comes under attack from eradicators. What this really is is a way for Police and National Guard to shift cost to the Drug War for some of their maneuvers and overtime. I kid you not.

For the most part, this feral hemp is the final state of Kentucky Hemp germplasm. Though degraded by many generations of natural selection for survival in the wild—such things as increased branching, shorter internode length, and rampant variability—it is nonetheless a resource that should be collected and preserved, since, you know, they lost the original.

There's lots of feral hemp around the continent, but in the US there is one particularly unique stand that I now believe actually predates Kentucky Hemp.

Kentucky Hemp was developed out of accessions of seed sent here from China by missionaries after 1850. (There's a strong probability that Ky Hemp arose from the hybridization of Chinese and European germpools that met for the first time in US after 1850.) Prior to that, the lineage of the domestic hemp crop traced to European ancestry.

Previously I assumed the extensive stands of feral hemp in the Plains States was escaped from that grown in eastern Nebraska at the turn of the century. I changed my mind when I learned the surprising story of what became of David Myerle.

Myerle was a "hempreneur," a true enthusiast. His activities centered in the first half of the nineteenth century and you can read about his attempts to establish a viable hemp industry in Tennesee and Kentucky, and later in Missouri, in James Hopkins' classic, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. Myerle wasn't lucky in business; his failures kept pushing him westward.

Not long ago, a file dating to the 1840s was discovered in the National Archives. The file contains letters and other documents associated with Myerle's final mission: bringing hemp to the Indians. At Myerle's urging, the Indian Agent from Fort Leavenworth did, in 1844, deliver hemp seed to Native Americans on the Plains and they grew it, and then they replanted the harvested seed and sowed it again, and they brought in seed and fiber for sale. Myerle showed them how.

Today feral hemp can be found spread from Kansas, through Nebraska to South Dakota. It is quite plausible that these feral plants have their origin in that seed given the Indians by the US Government. Of course, had I the genetic tools in hemp I used to have in corn, I could prove it. My feeling is that for the hemp to be spread as extensively as it is, it needed to get started before the land was settled.

Alex White Plume collected seed from these plants which he planted in fields on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. And each year the Feds have cut down his crop and hauled it off. Alex is now enjoined not to plant it again. We await the 8th Circuit Court's decision regarding the Indian's right to this crop, given them originally by the government so they could be self-sufficient farmers. [Note: surprise surprise, the court found for the goverment.]

Ecce granum!

Germplasm can be as rough as the feral hemp on the Plains, or it can be refined by years, centuries and millenia of human selection. Take, for instance, the case of Japanese hemp.

In 1896, the USDA reported "Japanese hemp is beginning to be cultivated, particularly in California, where it reaches a height of 15 feet." Now there's an example of germplasm they should have preserved! Today, it's very difficult to obtain seed of Japanese hemp. I know: I tried. I went to Japan to see if I could procure seed of their hemp for the Hawaii Project. I couldn't. At least not seed of the true Japanese hemp cultivar.

One thing about germplasm: it's a resource and a national asset, and often a private asset. When people know what they've got, they don't just give it away. At the very least, they license it. Germplasm has legal similarities to software.

Hemp is highly regarded in Japanese culture (see Its use there recedes into prehistory. Motifs at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo show hemp, and hemp fiber is used in Shinto religious ceremonies. Hemp is the fabric of Japanese royalty, it is required for their ceremomies. It was nearly lost.

In 1949, General MacArthur, who was running the US occupation, forced the Hemp Control Act on Japan. (Comeuppance, perhaps, for the hassle the US had over hemp in WWII. Recognition, at least, of the military importance of the fiber.) Hemp cultivation declined as a result and the cultural memory faded. As the story was told to me, the time came when the Emperor passed away and suddenly they found themselves in crisis because ancient tradition required the burial garments be made of hemp. Luckily, hemp culture had been preserved in an area too remote to be touched by the occupation and it was saved. Barely.

Ecce granum!

Hemp as a fiber crop had a rough ride in the 20th century. In the 21st , seed is on the ascendancy as the end product. These little packages of genetics are also mighty packages of nutrition. Hemp as food almost seems a modern discovery. Of course, it's not.

But perhaps you would be surprised to hear how, in 1997, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded two erstwhile hemp "experts" on a mission to Russia to encourage Russians to grow hemp! My Adventures in Hemp has provided many an irony but none greater than this! Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle! But that is how Yitzac Goldstein (then of Hemp Textiles International) and I found ourselves in Russia, traveling from hemp mill to hemp mill, trying to talk up the notion of growing hemp in accordance with the guidelines for organic certification. It was arranged by a maverick lady at Winrock International, but the money came from USAID. LOL. This is one of those un-told tales.

The hemp mills we visited were in a depressed and depressing state. Oil shortage had shut them down because they were built with oil-heated drying tunnels. Meanwhile, huge mounds of hurds rotted out back. At one mill, we were encouraged by meeting a mill manager with hempreneurial spirit. The floor of his mill was covered with curing cement blocks he made using cement and hurds in a machine he'd engineered himself.

As far as I know, nothing came of our efforts to convince Russians to produce organic fiber. Producing fiber under organic standards is a major undertaking, particularly if the mill also receives non-organic crop, as the lines must be segregated. There has to be sufficient market potential. It was a hard sell to hardened mill managers.

Yet I believe our visit was not for naught.

One day, in the vicinity of Kursk, scene of the greatest tank battle of all time, and not-to-be-forgotten, we were brought to visit an elderly gentleman who had been involved with traditional Russian hemp. The conversation came 'round to the seed and its uses and I asked what he knew of "black butter," something I'd only heard rumors of, back then.

Our translator, Lyudmila, didn't know about black butter, either, and she took a keen interest as the old man told of how it used to be a staple in the Russian diet. The younger generation did not know, had lost the knowledge, of how hemp seeds were processed to a peanut butter-like consistency and what a critical component it was to the traditional healthy diet; or of a drink made from the seeds analogous to soy milk. There, that very day, Lyudmila and the old man, whose name I don't have, forged an alliance to rediscover this lost wisdom.

We came home; time passed. Then in April, 2003, I chanced to see an article from The Moscow Times telling of a small town in the Kursk Oblat that had put a cannabis leaf on its flag in commemoration of its hemp history. My heart leapt to read of the group there dedicated to the recovery of the area's hemp lore headed by a woman named Lyudmila. Though it is a common Russian name, I want to believe.

These days I get my hemp butter, rich in Omega 3s and 6s, from Manitoba Harvest and I wonder how the Russian babushka of old would judge the taste. I don't know. As with those Commonwealth delicacies, Marmite and Vegemite, it's something of an acquired taste. I find it mixes well with peanut butter, and wouldn't that be a marketable product? Half 'n half? (MH, I'm talking to you.)

Looking at these instances of loss and near-loss of a hemp tradition, product or seed, I see a common thread. They all result from the imposition of a dictatorial, centralized political power structure. From the US occupation of Japan through the Politburo on down to the dictates of the DEA, there is a central theme of loss of local control leading to loss of local knowledge. States can make their own decisions about the death penalty; counties can decide to be wet or dry; but the Feds get to decide who can grow what?!

Seed embodies the opposite of centralization: dispersion. In seed we have the encapsulation of freedom at its most fundamental, decentralized. To me, that is the take-home message of Genesis 1:29: That the first gift of God to men would be seed to keep men free; that it was not given to a ruling party or a priestly class to dispense, to control, but directly to man. "Here, this is for you, all the seed-bearing plants." Well—if you believe that stuff. I have a sense that it establishes a precedent, anyway.

Henry David Thoreau's last preoccupation was with seed. He said, "I have great faith in seed. Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect great wonders." 1

Thoreau would go. The originator of the principle of civil disobedience would have put it on the line—wouldn't he?—had he been confronted with our political system that has criminalized the possession of seed. Imagine what he might have said were he to witness the incarceration of his fellow citizens for the crime of possessing seed and growing plants! Especially this plant, then.

Criminalizing the possession of seed! That is what the "drug" laws do. Just look at the wording of the U.S.'s Controlled Substances Act, which serves as the model for other nations' CSAs. Note how carefully the wording evades and eludes: planting seed is "propagation;" plants are "substances;" and to grow a plant is to "manufacture." It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that these Orwellian twists are intentional obfuscations. What rational person would accept that the mere possession of seed, the mere growing of a plant, is, in and of itself, a criminal act? Where would we be as a species, as a civilization, had there always been co-optation in that realm? Governments get away with things, doesn't make 'em right.

We've been hoodwinked into accepting their assertion that the growing of plants is an act of "manufacture" when the very word itself means "made by hand." In all other venues, we draw a distinction between agriculture and manufacturing. But the CSA carefully, connivingly, conflates these activities so that certain plants may be proscribed as if they were the equivalent of synthesized substances. Yet, in all cases, it is clear that the negative social impacts are derived not from the natural product but from the extracted, concentrated and chemically altered products made by man; substances designed for the convenience of the black market. The drug laws are the cause of these substances.

The poet, ee cummings, put it best when he wrote, "a world of made is not a world of born." Let that be our mantra. To grow a plant is not to manufacture, and to possess seed is not criminal. The hubris of that usurpation of our Natural Right to Seed must be faced down. For it is a Natural Right.

For a time, not long ago, there was an effort calling itself "The First Human Right Organization." I saw their ad in Rolling Stone and sent for their pamphlet. They were making the same argument. I was heartened to see someone had seized the gauntlet. Too bad they seem to have disappeared. I'd like to get another copy of their pamphlet. I gave mine to Alex White Plume.

Ecce granum!

"Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect great wonders."
1H.D. Thoreau. 1993. Faith in a Seed. Island Press.