Talking with Steve Tan about the world of cannabis genetics and what's on the horizon.
Alex: Stephen, I know you are a world traveler you've been all over the place. Grew up in UK, did some cannabis breeding in Spain, and now you're working on cannabis consulting in Canada with your consulting company For Plant. Tell me how you got into the cannabis world!
Steve: Yeah, in the early 90s I started smoking like everyone does to get involved and I was about 14 years old then. After I did that, I ended up being naturally interested in plants and grew my first plants in my early 20s but for us it was more about the passion of growing. I had a good job and everything else but I really enjoyed growing and looking at different strains
Alex: It's an amazing plant.
Steve: Yeah for me it was the smell, right? It was aroma therapy and when you grew the plant you very quickly you grew better than what you could buy. That became a journey and Amsterdam was a half an hour plane ride away so we went there four or five times a year.
Alex: Yeah and for me it's the the fruity smells I just go crazy for. The fruity smells I know some people call it girls weed and there's some pretty weird smells out there like what other types of terpenes do work with?
Steve: I mean yeah, I like linalool. Linalool is this purple bug in a heart really warming kind of terpene, and the Purple Urkel, which is a very rare slow growing strain has that girl's weed thing and I get called that as well, and I think some people have different tastes or some people like some people have better taste some people have better smell and for me smell was always the thing.
Alex: Me too
Steve: Growing these strange we didn't call them terpenes we didn't even know we didn't have the word terpenes there were just different smells. I was lucky because, like I said, Amsterdam was online so we had all the Dutch hazes, we had the frankincense ones we had the amnesia-based lemon ones, and we went through and smoked all of these and then the indicas. Because Holland was such a melting pot in the world in the 90s, and everyone from the USA used to go there and then a company well-known in Canada now (DNA) came and they brought certain strains. Crockett came with the Tangi and he created all these orange strains.
Alex: We chose orange strains right Java Cake Cookies comes from the UK but that's probably the same family yes of strain
Steve: Yeah well Java Cake Cookies, actually I know the guy that creates these and he's a UK breeder and he used some California Cookie lines and actually the Tangi comes from the old Cali Orange line which was actually the first strain I ever grew. Really it must have been 1996.
Alex: Was the orange off the hook then too?
Steve: No, actually. We messed it up totally. We didn't have a clue about what we were up to. We thought when we grew these plants that when we put them into flower, they would stay the same size but they didn't so they hit the roof and the place got flooded.
Alex: I’ve seen that so many times for my clients it's not even funny. I tell them you need you need a foot-tall plant and then put it into flower.
Steve: No one believes you and they grow these big plants and think that's the time to flower them. For the last 20 years I've been growing and I've made all the mistakes and you learn. Being lucky enough to do the Californian gig, do the outdoor thing, and learn about Dutch high efficiency growing techniques, I feel that I'm really lucky. Coming to Canada where it's the first legal G7 Commonwealth country, I feel that some people here don't realize but you are the first real legal country in the world that has a proper system. We can slate the system left, right and centre, but in fairness you have an opportunity that no other well-run country has. America's tried to get it federally legal for a while and they haven't managed so there are a lot of good things that are coming out of Canada. For me it's selling the seeds here initially, but I'd like to produce seeds here and I'd like people to come and buy clones and, as new growers as we talked about earlier, sometimes they don't get good enough genetics and they feel that it's their growing techniques that let them down. The other problem is the naming issue.
Alex: 10 different strains all carry the same name or started as one thing and we're just watered down to the point where they don't match the original.
Steve: Yeah, the watered-down issue is another interesting thing. So, you get breeders win a cup with a clone, but then they make seeds from that clone. Depending on how good they were or how responsible they were as a breeder, sometimes those seeds would never replicate that clone.
Alex: They're not true breeding, they’re just for that clone only and that's where that name comes from. I get that question from my growing customers a lot. They say, “oh I grew some outside or inside and I found a couple of seeds. Are they any good, are they viable?” and I tell
them well they're probably viable too they'll sprout but they're probably not going to be like their parents, they are going to revert back to some recessive gene. Do you think that's the case with most plants nowadays?
Steve: Yeah, I think if you find it in bud that you've obtained then the chances are they’re from a hermaphrodite plant within that room. You can tell because if you germinate all those seeds, they will all come out female but the chances are that there will be some male parts which will pollinate that female part. That’s what a hermaphrodite is.
Alex: That’s where feminized seed comes from all the time, right?
Steve: Yes, and they're called S-1s (self ones). When they feminize themselves naturally through stress. All cannabis has been designed, you can say, to hermaphrodite in nature and most landrace strains have higher hermaphroditic properties. That's to allow them to survive in nature. What we do, as breeders specifically, is we remove that through breeding.
Alex: So we try to make the plant do more separate male and female through our breeding?
Steve: Yes, in fact the diesel strains and some of the hay strains you have to selectively breed out some of the hermaphroditic traits. Now in the Californian strains the cookie line is also known to hermaphrodite under stress. So, some strains will do it under stress and some strains will do naturally. It really is dependent on the class of strain and other conditions. Equatorial strains hermaphrodite more because they have a 12-12 light cycle and they tend to be around all the time.
Alex: They're living longer so they can sort of pass those genes on. So, if we get to that second generation of S-2, my plants hermied and now have seeds. What is the likely genetic outcome of that next generation?
Steve: With a lot of those seeds you can get the same bud, possibly because they are inbred. So genetically, they are the same as the parents. That's a genotypic expression, but as a phenotypic expression, you'll get plants which are usually weaker. To breed good seeds we have to use good vigorous plants.
Alex: So, losing their vigor, what does that look like? Are they more susceptible to powdery mildews? Are they growing slower?
Steve: Yes, yes - all those. They can be less loud. A weaker genetic expression tends to come out with some of the S-1s. Sometimes you can get something that's very similar to its parents, but generally we find that every weak clone in the world came from a clone. To take it the other way, you can find most good genetics from seeds - you just have to understand that sometimes you have to germinate more than 10 or 20. You actually have to do a thousand.
Alex: To get something on par with what your expectation was that Cup winner?
Steve: Exactly and I know guys in California who grow out a thousand seeds and they'll find seven plants which are unique. One might have a very high terpene profile, one might have a very high yield, one might be the fastest grower. A good breeder would then take these seven plants and breed them with each other and lock down good genetic properties.
Alex: So, you had this batch of seeds there's maybe a thousand different individuals. When I buy a seed, why would I expect all my seeds to look the same? Can I never have that expectation?
Steve: That again is dependent on what the class of the seeds are for. I like to buy seeds that have a different expression through them because I want to see things that are like the mum and like the dad and everything in between. I like seeds where I can see a nice phenotypic expression because as a breeder, and as someone that wants to find something new, that's what comes up.
Alex: You want a range, right? Not some homogeneity or something that's maybe more true breeding?
Steve: No, I actually want that range. I want to see let's say the mum is an orange strain and that is a diesel. I want to see things that taste just orange and just fuel and gas and I want to have the orange feeling gas in the middle as well. I want that phenotypic expression just like, for example, if I'm making a rose a I want the white wine and the red wine and I want to see all the different combinations in between. However, if I'm an outdoor grower and I'm growing a specific amount and I need it for medicine, or I need homogeneity in my life, or I'm making edibles and I want a very specific profile, then I want to buy true breeding seeds. Now, those types of seeds don't really exist. There are a few strains but the main reason is because the seeds that exist in the agricultural world (ie. tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) have had a hundred years of breeding to make these seeds.
Alex: And they're always looking for the same thing, where with cannabis we're always looking for something different. We're looking for a new strain with new colours, new flavors. It tends to create in the market, in the industry, more variety.
Steve: Yeah and Arjun, a very famous guy from Greenhouse who ran a very good seed company and also is one of the real political advocates in Holland to hold the coffee shop industry together. A lot of people have different views, but at the end of the day he did he did a good thing and he's continued to keep that movement going. He said in a seminar there are over thirty thousand varieties of wine. Today there's probably double that in cannabis strains, so you're looking at over 60,000 cannabis varieties. Now yes, there's probably fifty or a hundred that are very unique and just like the wines of the world will become the most popular.
Alex: You said there's probably only ten main families
Steve: Yes, right. So, when you start to look at the families, you just look at the terpene profile. Terpenes give you highs and specific attributes and then you can have an orange profile or a lemon profile on it. It’s almost like we're now in a cocktail bar. So, I've got my ten spirits, including gin, vodka, whiskey. What do you want me to make you? Do you want me to make you a mojito? I mean there’s a strain called mojito there's now this cafe line terpene that we're working with which is tremendous and I'm a big fan of it. It comes from the black line, so there's a lot of cool stuff going on. There's a lot of flavors and you should be able to get nearly every fruit flavor in cannabis because cannabis has one of the most diverse genetic DNA so it allows much more movement.
Alex: One other thing I'm really curious about is CBD genetics. I get so much interest in this because people are looking more for the medicinal side, which means getting less of a psychoactive effect - maybe a small psychoactive effect. I know 15-20 years ago you couldn't really access CBD genetics. What is the state of CBD genetics now, and what is the future?
Steve: First of all, when we smoked imported weed in the early days that weed had a higher CBD content. So, thirty years ago it was bred out for high THC and now we're looking at CBD. I think CBD is a big part, I know we do one-to-one strains, and when I get the time and space I would love to dedicate more time to build strains with specific CBD and cannabinoid profiles for specific illnesses. For example, a strain that would be used in lotions for skin inflammation and skin cancers would have terpene profiles like Mersin which is heavily antifungal and high CBD. Other things include high THC-V which is becoming a new dietary thing and it's a whole CBG issue. As breeders, we want to selectively breed strains that perform these tasks for us as humans. We feel that's the natural plant way to do it. There are other people that feel taking the plant apart and putting it back together in the forms of distillate, crystalline and heat processing and everything else, they feel that there might be the better way.
Alex: Or even genetic manipulation to try and CRISPR genes on and off and do this more sort of laboratory work to create a stream.
Steve: Yeah, people ask me what I think of that and I don't take a complete “no” to that. I think manipulating plants so you have to use less pesticide is a good thing in theory. I understand what the GMO arguments are, and it's that's another topic, but you should look at everything and you should make those decisions at the time. There's nothing wrong with trying and seeing what happens if you manipulate plants in certain ways - it's about managing those things. I think the problem is when corporations have it, their final views are not for society's benefit. That’s the key with these things, it's not using the tools, it's that the tools get used not for our benefit.
Alex: That's right, you can't blame the tool, it’s how it was used. So, how do we as a society figure that out? Do we just need better regulation to tell corporations how they need to deal with these technologies? Is regulation even able to keep up with the technology?
Steve: No. To be honest with you, I think a lot of these things happen because of lobbying and there's a lot of more corporate control and everything else. I think from the plants’ perspective, because all the old breeders have everything, I think it works really well for them and the plant will prevail in that way.
Alex: Yeah for sure. Well that's all really great information. I think at the end of the day, we have to allow the people access to genetics. Let the home grower or the co-operative grower access all that variety and make sure that those heirloom strains aren't lost and that we can preserve that and amplify the differences in the plants. So really, thank you Steve for coming down and talking to us today. That's really informative. You're kind of blowing my mind today!
Steve: Thanks Alex, and yeah thanks for having me. It's a pleasure thank you.
Alex: Excellent, well, we'll send links to some of Steve's channels the for plant and the different strains that they're that they're on. If you'd like to get more information and connect with some of the best cannabis experts in the world, watch more episodes of “A Taste of Life” podcast on Youtube.