Precision-fermented cannabinoids are likely to disrupt Europe’s emerging medicinal and recreational cannabis-farming industry over the next few years – and that’s a very good thing, says Jim Plamondon.
Europe’s temperate climate is great for growing hemp fibre. Europe’s long summer days help hemp stalks grow tall before its rapidly-shortening autumn days produce small terminal flowers at the top of each stalk.
These small flowers divert very little energy away from the hemp plant’s production of long, strong fibres. However, medicinal and recreational cannabis are made primarily from flowers, and these flowers need a long period of equal-length days to reach their full potential.
Ideal flower-growing conditions are found naturally in the tropics. Growers in Europe (which is temperate, not tropical) can simulate the tropics with electric lights, at great expense to both the consumer and the environment.
Importing medicinal and/or recreational cannabis from the tropics would cost less, be more sustainable, and be fairer to the indigenous cultures that developed the landrace strains on which all modern medicinal and recreational cannabis strains are based.
However, there’s another option: fermenting microbes that emit cannabinoids in a manner very similar to brewing beer, fermenting wine, or fermenting sauerkraut.
Fermenting microbes whose genes have been edited to produce a desired product is called ‘Precision Fermentation’ (PF), and the cannabinoids produced by precision fermentation are called ‘Precision Fermented Cannabinoids’ (PFCs).
The USA is currently the leader in designing cannabinoid-emitting microbes, while Europe is emerging as a global leader in fermenting PFCs from those microbes.
This year, a half-dozen companies are bringing their first PFCs to market in commercial quantities. They are all offering CBG/A, because CBG/A is the ‘mother cannabinoid’ from which all other cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, are derived.
The PFC companies had to edit their microbes to emit CBG/A before they could edit them to emit any other cannabinoids.
PFCs vs Isolates
CBG/A is rare in cannabis plants, so it is expensive: approximately €2,500 per kilogram at wholesale. The PFC companies can already offer it profitably at €1,000, per kilogram and expect to get the price down below €500 per kilogram within the next year or two.
That’s one-fifth the price of farmed CBG/A, and further constant-percentage reductions of the price of CBG/A, made by PF, can be expected to continue for many years. Eventually, even CBD and THC—the most common and therefore cheapest cannabinoids when isolated from plants—will be cheaper when made by PF.
Consider the ingredients on a can of Coca-Cola. You won’t find ‘extract of cola nut’ on that label. Instead, you’ll find ‘natural flavors’ and ‘caffeine’.
Coca-Cola is a blend of pure chemicals so that its consumers enjoy a consistent experience every time, everywhere. Its caffeine is synthetic because synthetic is cheaper.
You might think that European consumers would reject a product with synthetic ingredients, but you would be wrong: Coca-Cola is Europe’s most popular soda and caffeinated soda outsells coffee and tea in European nations such as Italy and Switzerland.
Similarly, makers of packaged goods are likely to prefer to use PFCs as ingredients because they are likely to be cheaper than cannabinoids isolated from farmed cannabis. Furthermore, for many uses, PFCs can be labeled as “natural” under EU law.
PFC Blends vs Extracts
These individual PFCs can be blended—a little CBG, some CBD, some THC, some terpenes, etc.—to produce a blend that can deliver whatever Entourage Effect the manufacturer desires (appetite enhancement or suppression; drowsiness or alertness; calmness or energy; etc.).
Any effect that is caused by the medicinal and/or recreational use of the cannabis plant could be delivered by a tailored blend, using perhaps one or two dozen pure PFCs and terpenes.
Convincing imitations of extracts of popular flower strains such as Gelato or Skunk are likely to be possible with only three or four dozen pure chemicals.
These blends are likely to be cheaper, but also less contaminated, more consistent, more responsive to markets, more sustainable, higher in THC (or completely without even trace amounts of THC), as award-winning, as ‘natural’, as ‘organic’, and more-easily produced in compliance with regulations. These metrics of quality are likely to be compelling in many markets.
In the USA, 75% of cannabis pre-rolls are ‘infused’ with cannabis resin, rosin, kief, hash, distillates, extracts, or a combination thereof. A manufacturer could start with a cheap shredded hemp flower, and infuse it with a blend of PFCs and terpenes that would mimic the flavour and effects of any given popular cannabis strain, at a compelling retail price.
Note that, under my understanding of EU law (and I am not a lawyer), the hemp+PFCs pre-roll could legally be labelled as being ‘100% natural cannabis’.
The low retail price, consistent flavour, and high potency of PFC-infused hemp pre-rolls would tend to shift demand away from loose cannabis flower.
Deplorables vs Connoisseurs
Frequent, cost-conscious users consume most of the cannabis sold (by weight), with a much smaller percentage of users consuming the rest (often at much higher prices).
I call these two groups the Deplorables and the Connoisseurs, respectively. In the cannabis market, the Deplorables consume around 75% of the cannabis sold at retail, with the Connoisseurs consuming the rest.
If Europe’s Deplorables shift their cannabinoid purchases from farmed cannabis to PFC isolates, PFC blends, and PFC-infused hemp, then Europe’s cannabis farmers will lose 75% or more of their demand (by volume). Some demand will remain, serving Europe’s cannabis Connoisseurs.
However, Connoisseurs are fickle and are likely to be seduced by imported ‘medicinal’ Thai Stick, Colombian Gold, Panama Red, and their modern descendants and hybrids, grown sustainably and at very low cost in their traditional ‘appellations’ far away from Europe (but still to international standards).
Europe’s cannabis-farming industry faces an existential threat of substitution, with:
@Individual PFCs substituting for cannabinoids isolated from farmed cannabis;
@Blends of PFCs, terpenes, and flavonoids substituting for extracts of farmed cannabis; and
@PFC-infused hemp flower pre-rolls substituting for cured cannabis flowers and pre-rolls made thereof.
In response to this threat, Europe should consider changing its policy to avoid developing yet another subsidy-sucking agricultural crop and instead focus on extending its lead in the emerging industry of precision fermentation.
Jim Plamondon is Vice President of Marketing at the Thai Cannabis Corporation.
This is a 1000-word summary of an 8,000-word series of three articles, of which the first has been published by the Cannabis Law Journal here. Please see that series for the evidence and expert opinion that supports the claims made in this summary.