On April 16, 2019, Phylos Bioscience announced their intention to start a plant breeding company. The announcement was greeted with outrage and indignation on social media and throughout the broader cannabis community.  Three primary criticisms emerged, there were people who felt deceived by Phylos who many thought was a Genomic Laboratory not a Plant Breeding competitor; people also expressed concern that Phylos had received or could possibly revive plant tissue to create viable plant stock from the samples people had submitted. This gave rise to the “Phylos Stole Meh Genetics” meme; and finally there were concerns regarding the data Phylos had accumulated and whether or not this data was going to be used as part of Phylos’ breeding programs.  

Then the video of Phylos CEO Mowgli Holmes’ pitch to investors surfaced as well as investor decks and a list of attendees at the conference. From these documents and this video it is clear that Phylos has positioned themselves as the Big Ag biotech company of the Cannabis Space.  Here is the synopsis of what Phylos said to investors:

All cannabis here to date sucks, and will be replaced in the next couple of years by optimized varietals. According to Mowgli, Phylos will create these varietals, and what’s more, they have a number of competitive advantages that preclude anyone else from entering the space – specifically the genomic data derived from their testing business and the tissue culture operation which will allow them to scale and gain market share more rapidly. Phylos’ competitive advantage will be so great in fact Mowgli told potential investors that growing their plants “WONT BE OPTIONAL.” All of this is being done with the intent and end game for Phylos to position themselves to be an attractive acquisition for one of the Big 4 ag Companies or attract investors to scale up to become the 5th Big ag company. Mowgli specifically names members of the advisory board with links to Big Ag as well as executives w/ experience in corporate exits. 

Taking Mowgli’s statements at face value, Phylos has adopted the Big Ag Biotech approach to plant breeding. Their business model is to replace all existing plant breeders, cultivar and varietals from the commercial market in the coming years. 

You might say that all of this is inevitable and that this is just a function of legalization and capitalism, so what’s the big deal? 

The Big deal is that we know what their model does to crop biodiversity. We know the impact on the genetic resources of crop species, we’ve seen the elimination of unique traits and the creation of genetic bottlenecks, the loss of adaptive regional differences, consumer choices, and innumerable heirloom varietals threatening long term crop viability. We also know how this model has impacted farmers access to genetic resources with the consolidation of corporate ownership of seeds and plant stock globally limiting farmers access to and increasing cost of plant/seed stock. We have also seen how this in turn drives the consolidation of farm acreage in the hands of large capitalized canopy management operations and results in the death of the small family farm. We know what their vision for the future of cannabis looks like. The Big Ag model pitched by Phylos to potential investors is diametrically opposed to, and mutually exclusive of the continuation of our Cannabis Culture and Traditions. It is a vision of the future that does not include those of us who have built our community around this plant and which would seek to destroy everything we have struggled to keep alive all these years. 

It is moments like this that we need to rely on our culture and traditions and cultivate the resilience necessary to confront these new conditions. We need to go back to our roots and remember that we have always been creative and adaptive, we need to remember that it was always about overgrowing the system – we all have to take responsibility and leadership for preserving and adapting our Culture and Traditions to the current context. This is our Culture and these are our Traditions that have brought us together. If we all take leadership and accountability for and to this culture we will create the resilience we need right now to survive. We can’t let this new paradigm let us forget who we are and how we got here. We need to stay focused, get organized, and build viable alternatives to the Big Ag model. We have the unique opportunity to understand the stakes and create viable alternatives that will shape the future of cannabis. We are the past, the present and the future of heirloom cannabis.