Cannabis insiders have been reeling in response to recent news about Phylos Bioscience, a Portland-based cannabis science company that has been cultivating a comprehensive genetic database for our favorite plant. Phylos has historically relied on growers to freely submit their crops for DNA testing, so that each can be analyzed and added to their genetic library, with the aim of mapping different strains. But in April, Phylos made the surprising announcement that they would be entering the cannabis breeding business.
The news might seem innocuous to those outside the industry, but many of those inside considered it to be a betrayal. So far, it’s led to severed business partnerships and calls for boycotts—not to mention thousands of enraged Instagram comments.
It began with the Open Cannabis Project, which, as director Beth Schechter explained, “started as a project of Phylos to ‘protect’ heirloom varieties from overbroad patents as cannabis transitions into a legal market.” As a result of Phylos’ announcement, the Open Cannabis Project said they will be shutting down at the end of May. “We also feel we have been deceived,” Schechter wrote.
The chorus of outrage and accusations led Phylos to be booted from their highly visible role as a partner in the Cultivation Classic, a cannabis growers’ competition held each year in Portland since 2016. The event’s organizers announced they were cutting all ties to Phylos immediately. Days later, the growers at East Fork Cultivars said they were also ending all work with Phylos, including a planned hemp-breeding project.
Phylos released its own lengthy statement explaining their new endeavor, and to apologize for the manner in which the news was broken, which led to so many craft cannabis growers feel as though they had been lied to.
On May 10, I sat down with Phylos CEO Mowgli Holmes for an hour-long interview, a conversation that far exceeds the space limitations of this column. It’s been posted in full-length form online, but I’ll touch upon some of the points of our dialogue here.
I asked Holmes if Phylos was stealing the plants of the growers who submitted samples of their cannabis plants for inclusion into their database.
Holmes replied, “We didn’t steal their plants. We don’t have proprietary access to their data, and we also didn’t use that data for our breeding program, because it’s actually not the right data to help you with plant breeding. So the whole commercial tests that we offered to customers—the Phylos genotype test—produced this dataset that was very small and limited and public, and it was not something that could help with a breeding program.”
I also asked about the angry reactions to Phylos’ announcement that they were entering the breeding business. “The hardest part about this has been that intensity of the anger out there... based on the fact that people feel threatened,” Holmes said. “When the dust clears, people will find out that we are really, really dedicated to that community, and we’re not going to let ourselves be a negative force. We’re going to make sure that we are a positive force.”
I described how some were caught off-guard by the news. “We’ve had on [Phylos’] website since 2016 that we were doing breeding with customers,” Holmes said. “We’ve been breeding—not ourselves, not our own plants, but with customers since 2016. We announced to many of our customers in December or January that we were thinking about going down this path, and that we are moving towards that direction. But we announced in April to the general public that we were opening a breeding facility.
“We didn’t take their data [and] we’re not going to be competing with [growers] in the way that they think,” Holmes continued. “But we did use the testing business to develop all the infrastructure for doing plant breeding. And that’s absolutely true.
“The thing about it that doesn’t fit with the perception out there is that we were totally open about that,” Holmes said. “We just went through this transition as a company. We were a testing business, but for three years we’ve been building a plant breeding business and we’ve been doing it openly.... If we had made it clearer, I think a lot of this wouldn’t have happened.”
The full interview dives much deeper into the matter, and our conversation touched on market trends and other issues. I think it’s required reading to inform your position on the Phylos flare-up, whatever it may be. Read it here.