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IRTA granted official permission to grow cannabis plants for research

Researcher Jason Argyris at the Cannabis sativa plantation
Researcher Jason Argyris at the Cannabis sativa plantation

Since 2019, IRTA and CRAG have been working on a research project for the genetic improvement of cannabis plants for US Cannabis Seed Biotechnology company Front Range Biosciences

The aim of the project is to develop new tools allowing for the creation of new varieties of cannabis adapted to the needs of diverse industries

The plant has many interesting industrial applications, including the extraction of molecules for therapeutic use and production of biomaterials or food supplements

The Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices (AEMPS) has granted IRTA a permit to grow cannabis plants for scientific research. This plant is of great interest and value for various industries, as its products have many applications: bioplastics, building materials, high protein food and drink, food supplements, textile materials, paper products and biofuels, among others. Since 2019, IRTA and the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG) have been developing tools for the genetic improvement of cannabis plants in collaboration with US company Front Range Biosciences (FRB).

Led by researcher Jason Argyris at CRAG, the research and development work with FRB consists of using molecular marker technology for variety improvement, and is being carried out in a high-security greenhouse at the IRTA facilities and in the CRAG laboratories. The project includes field trials, selective breeding, and applied genomics research leveraging FRB’s proprietary cannabis breeding platform and diverse library of cannabis germplasm.

The goal of the project is to develop cannabis plants adapted to different production environments expressing the diverse cannabinoid profiles required by the pharmaceutical industry, and with improved resistance to pests and diseases. “The authorization by AEMPS provides an enormous boost to this line of research, and, with all the security guarantees, will allow us to further develop the CRAG-IRTA-FRB project, which is very ambitious,” states Amparo Monfort, head of IRTA’s Genomics and biotechnology program at CRAG.

“IRTA and CRAG are a world class plant research centers and we are very pleased with the progress we have made in our breeding program in our collaboration over the last 1.5 years. The authorization granted by AEMPS is an exciting milestone for FRB’s continued expansion in Europe”, according to Dr. Jonathan Vaught, CEO of Front Range Biosciences. “The continued growth of the medical cannabis industry throughout Europe represents a great opportunity for commercialization of new cannabis varieties and high performance seed for the efficient production of medically relevant cannabinoid ingredients.” 

According to IRTA’s manager of international relations, Eliecer López, “This is a prime example of the advantages of public-private collaboration systems. The joint effort of two public institutions, IRTA and CRAG, with a seed biotechnology company, FRB, will result in varietal innovations from which products with high added value applications will be obtained”. Although this a burgeoning industry, the legal restrictions of a crop of this nature have curtailed the advance in its research at the same pace as other types of plants of economic interest. Therefore, emphasises López, “there is a long way to go to develop the innovations that the industry needs, and it is the industry itself that is asking for them”. However, in the last three years, more than 200 varieties have been registered in the European Plant Variety Office, a fact that “shows the interest in cannabis cultivation as legal and regulatory aspects is progressing around the world,” says Monfort.

Plantació de plantes de cànnabis

IRTA is very aware of the potential of obtaining new varieties of cannabis through the use of cutting-edge genomic tools, which we use to work with other species such as melon, fruit trees or vegetables. That is why, according to López, “in our research center we have all the capabilities to respond to the growing needs of the sector, combining these tools with biosystem engineering, agronomy, integrated pest control or post-harvest.

An emerging market in Europe

The flower of the Cannabis sativa plant is legally known as cannabis and is included in Schedule I of the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In Spain, its production, manufacture, export, import, distribution, trade, use and possession must be limited to medical and scientific purposes.

Cannabis plant cultivation is emerging especially fast in European agricultural and industrial markets, and in most EU member countries there is an active market for hemp, which is the name given to cannabis plants that are used for industrial purposes such as fibre and seeds.

Many EU countries lifted their bans on hemp production in the 1990s, and subsidised flax and hemp production to produce fibre under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Since then, the sector has grown exponentially. Half of European hemp production is concentrated in France, with the Netherlands, Lithuania and Romania also being important producers. Most of the production is marketed in the form of pellets, seeds or fibres, and there is growing interest worldwide in extracts of molecules for various therapeutic uses.

The cultivation of cannabis plants to obtain extracts with a high added value is a clear example of an alternative to conventional agricultural systems. Due to its characteristics, it can contribute to preventing depopulation of rural territories through a circular bio-economy cultivation that generates extracts and derived products with a high economic value in a standardized and completely legal market. Thus, it can be a good ally for social, environmental and economic sustainability, which are the three pillars of the CAP to achieve a sustainable agricultural system.