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SA Needs to Actively Guard Cannabis Landraces Against Biopiracy

South Africa should be taking active steps to prevent its indigenous cannabis landraces from falling victim to bio-piracy.  Bio-piracy is the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material, especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while failing to pay fair compensation to the community from which it originates.

 

Beware multinationals buying our biological heritage

SA has already believed to have lost the rights to its most internationally renowned cannabis strain Durban Poison to Dutch company Sensiseeds, but Cannabiz Africa has not been able to officially verify this because of the lack of a regulatory framework governing cannabis seeds.

 

“We have to protect our national landraces against bio-piracy” cannabis consultant Ayanda Bam told Cannabiz Africa on 7 July 2021. “We have to be careful we don’t cede control of our cannabis landraces to large multinationals. They have a history of buying up genetic intellectual property and then supressing it in favour of their own products”.

 

Landrace describes strains of marijuana developed naturally in a particular environment over the course of time. Landrace strains have adapted through natural selection and hardiness to thrive in their various distinctive, native locations, free from human interference around the world. Each landrace cannabis strain, whether it be a sativa, indica, or other, has evolved to flourish and thrive in its own geographical area.

Most observers knowledgeable about the SA cannabis industry know that landraces are a hidden genetic treasure in SA’s dagga fields, especially in the deeper foothills of former Transkei.  As Cian McLelland of Druid commented on a Cheeba cannabis webinar earlier this year (25 January 2021): 

“SA’s landrace strains are really where it’s at. We know very little of the cannabinoid profile of our landraces, but there’s a lot to suggest that in terms of medicinal qualities they are off the charts compared to most other strains.

“We must protect our landrace strains at all costs. Government and the cannabis industry should be protecting cannabis growers and our indigenous landraces and ensure they are not cross-contaminated with foreign strains or hemp”

 

NCMP doesn’t even deal with SA’s cannabis landraces

The National Cannabis Master Plan (NCMPv5) doesn’t even reference the importance of South African landraces and has no real conceptual grasp of indigenous knowledge systems. In a rather vague intellectual walk-about, it says this will all fall under the Department of Science and Innovation:

“The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) leads the RDI pillar of the masterplan and is in the process of facilitating several flagship projects on medical cannabis. The Medical Cannabis RDI initiatives are coordinated by the African Medicines Platform of the Indigenous Knowledge-Based Bio-Innovation Programme. The DSI has been funding medical cannabis studies since 2015 and its strategic imperatives together with its partners are limited to facilitating research to ultimately support local industrialisation.  

In order to avoid re-inventing the wheel, a tried and tested value-chain model that supports ‘‘integrated applied research and inclusive innovation’’ is herein proposed. This is currently implemented through a forty-member Indigenous Knowledge-(IK) Based Bio-Innovation Programme, which is constituted by signatories from science councils, universities, partner government departments, traditional health practitioners (THPs) and rural and township small-medium enterprises (co-ops) owned by IK-Holders.  

The pillar is focussed on supporting research and development programmes for the South African cannabis industry. These include breeding programmes and development of new technologies needed across the entire value chain. The Department of Science and Innovation will lead this pillar supported by the DSBD and other relevant sector departments.

 

No system in place to even begin protecting landraces

One problem is that there is no system for high THC landraces to be classified in the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Affairs (DALRRD) within the national seed registry. As the NCMPv5 points out:

“There is currently no formal seed supply system for cannabis due to the fact that it is treated as an illegal commodity. Seed is currently obtained via informal markets and networks. This creates a regulatory challenge in that it is virtually impossible for government to regulate and guarantee the quality of seed that is traded. The farmers are therefore at risk of being sold poor quality seed with low germination percentages. The availability of seed as and when needed is a serious challenge for producers. The other option is to import seed from other countries, thereby incurring additional costs. This increases overall production costs for farmers.”

 

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