Casey Whelan, Occo Innovation:

“We are close to powdery mildew resistant cannabis cultivars”

“When it comes to breeding new cultivars, THC potency still rules the day among growers. However, soon the most significant way we will be able to improve a grower’s life is with disease resistance,” says Casey Whelan, VP Genetics Business Development at Occo Innovation. Occo is the breeding and genetics division of Aurora Cannabis Enterprises Inc in Canada. They pride themselves on being the first to apply a genomic-level understanding of the cannabis plant to breeding. “Because of this, we have a thorough understanding of which parts of the genome are responsible for the traits we are looking for. Moreover, with our breeding program, we can sustain a constantly improving pipeline of new genetics, enabling producers to differentiate.”

Casey Whelan

Benefits of the genomic approach

Whelan explains that Occo was the first company to have a genomic approach to cannabis breeding. “To anybody who has been in agriculture, there is nothing too revolutionary about what we are doing. However, we were the first to apply this approach to cannabis, as the plant has been prohibited for so long. As a result, we have an understanding of which parts of the genome are responsible for certain traits.” According to Whelan, selecting at this level provides benefits compared to the traditional approach of pheno-hunting. “We are able to process way more seeds than a typical pheno-hunter can. On an annual basis, over 10,000 seeds get planted, which get selected over the course of our breeding cycles. We are left with 40-50 cultivars by the time we are done. Moreover, we can access specific traits quite quickly. It’s not a matter of waiting until the plants actually grow up, and we can look at them after harvesting. We can know just by looking at a small tissue sample whether or not we are getting the traits we are looking for.”

Disease resistance and differentiation
According to Whelan, THC potency is still the number one trait growers are asking for when it comes to new cultivars. However, Whelan is expecting that THC will tail off pretty soon. “We are currently hitting the low thirties in THC potency. Our team thinks we are close to not seeing further gains in terms of THC, as the plant won’t be able to sustain higher levels of potency. We are already noticing a shift in demand for terpenes. Therefore, we are constantly discovering new terpenes and figuring out which ones are responsible for a certain sensory experience.”

Another important aspect Occo is working on is disease resistance. “Disease resistant cultivars will soon be the most significant way that we will be able to improve production for growers. We are close to mapping the genes responsible for powdery mildew resistance, which we will then be able to incorporate into all commercial cultivars going forward. Cannabis growers have been dealing with powdery mildew issues for generations, which can have devastating and costly consequences for one’s production. Therefore, with our resistant varieties, we will really be improving the production economics for growers.”

While the company has both medical and adult-use growers in mind as they breed, the adult-use market is where they get the most demand from. “The medical market tends to be a bit ‘stickier,’ as we call it. Users have certain products that work well for them, and they tend to stick with those. The adult-use market, on the other hand, is much more fickle. It seems like people are looking for something new on the shelves every week. We hear from adult-use LPs that most of their products have a life span of about 6-12 months, after which they have to move on to something else. That is also why a breeding program like ours is very beneficial for growers. Every six months, we have around 20-30 brand new commercial cultivars, helping producers create differentiation.”

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