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Rush or Renaissance? An Interview with Molecular Biologist Ali Bektaş

Rush or Renaissance? An Interview with Molecular Biologist Ali Bektaş

cannabis world news Ali standing between a Sumatran and Oaxacan variety at Jade Nectar Farms which focuses on landraces in Santa Cruz, CA.

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I had the pleasure of speaking with Ali about a very profound article he recently penned that offered his perspective on the state of cannabis in California and beyond.

Vivian McPeak: You wrote a recently published article titled Withering Greenrush, California cannabis breeding at a crossroads, in L.A. Review of Books. It is an 18-minute read, rendering it a very in-depth and extensive report on both the history and current status of California cannabis. I have been involved in the cannabis culture and reform movement for in excess of four decades. In my opinion, your piece is by far one of the best articles on the subject I have ever read. I must admit that when you got into the more technical breeding stuff near the end, there were some paragraphs I had to read twice to fully absorb.

In your piece, you mention that “As a scientist working at the intersection of molecular biology and cannabis for the past eight years, I have had the opportunity to interact with all varieties of cannabis farmers around the world.” Can you very briefly unpack that a bit?

Ali Bektaş: In fact, I see myself as a relative newcomer to working with cannabis. Eight years is not that much when you consider the many people, and I’m fortunate to call some of them mentors who have dedicated their lives to this plant. But my work “at the intersection of molecular biology and agriculture” spans almost 20 years, starting off with corn in Mesoamerica and now with cannabis in different parts of the world.

cannabis world news California bred cannabis varieties growing in the Rif region of Morocco.
California-bred cannabis varieties growing in the Rif region of Morocco.

Let me try to explain what I mean by the intersection of molecular biology and agriculture. The story of how biology ended up to its reductive positioning now starts from Mendel, continues on to Watson and Crick’s (and, of course, Rosalind Franklin, who was erased by male-dominated science and science historians) discovery of DNA, and ends at the sequencing of all of the nucleotides in a human cell. Throughout this journey, molecular biology has always been intertwined with agriculture for obvious reasons of importance to human existence, whether that be to breed new varieties, look at pests and pathogens, or just for a more basic understanding of plant biology.

I did my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, at the laboratory of microbial ecology, where I was working to develop tools for Mexican campesinos to monitor their landrace corn germplasm against encroaching transgenic contamination. This provided me a front seat to observe how biotechnological interventions in agriculture had extremely consequential effects halfway across the world.

After that, I worked for a number of West Coast cannabis nurseries, biotech companies, and breeders. This allowed me to travel quite a bit since, as I mentioned in my article, California cannabis varieties dominate the global market, and farmers everywhere desire California-bred plants.  Being involved in creating cannabis germplasm, it was important to visit the sites where they would ultimately be grown, whether it be fields nestled amongst the mountains of northern Morocco or in greenhouses in Portugal. This is essential for understanding production systems and their particular needs, as well as for conducting field trials at different stages of the project. Additionally, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at international conferences and be part of international trade groups, allowing me to appreciate the dominance of California cannabis on a global scale. 

VM: How did you become involved in the cannabis culture? What was your introduction to cannabis like?

AB: I’m not sure I’m so involved in cannabis culture. My interest is principally from a scientific and political vantage point. But I do have a lot of friends who are deep in the culture, and I have learned a lot from them over the decades.

I’m from Istanbul, Turkey, and growing up there, I suspect that my introduction to cannabis was later in comparison to your readers from the US. I first encountered cannabis in Dutch coffeeshops when I was 16. Eventually, I moved to the US to go to school in upstate New York, and my girlfriend at the time was a small-time dealer. I remember it being pretty sketchy with the Rockefeller drug laws in effect at the time, so it’s a shock, while also making me giddy, to see the “free-for-all” happening in NYC at the moment.

After New York, I moved out to San Francisco, which was where my proper introduction to the culture as well as the plant happened. It was everywhere and provided income to many of my friends who were farmers, smugglers, dealers, and, of course, trimmers. Despite it being all around, I wasn’t involved in working with the plant professionally until I received my Ph.D. shortly before legalization. At that time, working in cannabis biology was a no-brainer for me as I found the burgeoning industry full of energy, hungry for fresh scientific ideas, and well-funded.

cannabis world news Legalized Cannabis in Santa Barbara County
Legalized Cannabis in Santa Barbara County.

VM:  In the second paragraph, you get right to it, writing: “One of the many signs that these new farms are a far cry from the sometimes idealized, but rapidly collapsing, family cannabis farms nestled in the hills of Northern California, where for decades alternative lifestyles were carved out while producing that dank weed. The consensus among farmers who have grown cannabis well before legalization is clear: legalized cannabis in California has been an epic failure.” Can you touch on that?

AB: Let me qualify this a bit following some of the feedback I received towards the essay. By no means do I want to downplay the significance of the criminal justice reforms that were part of Proposition 64. This aspect of the bill might have even been the tipping point after previous failed attempts, most notably in the heartlands of NorCal cannabis. So clearly, it is a win that records from previous convictions are being expunged, and the consequences of some illegal cannabis activity are less severe in California than before.

The failure I am referring to is in relation to the farmers and breeders who have been at it for decades while risking practically everything. They have been left to fend for themselves in the face of the abrupt influx of monopoly capital into the industry. Economies of scale, consolidation, and a race to the bottom were the predictable outcomes of Prop. 64. So when I stand facing an 80-acre operation running on precarious migrant labor in Santa Barbara county, ironically claiming to be a family farm, on one side and collapsing multi-generational small-acre cannabis farms in Northern California on the other, it’s obvious that something got botched. The state of California should have put proper protections in place in order to ensure that those who made cannabis the state’s most famous agricultural commodity would benefit from legalization.

VM: You, in your piece, extensively outline the history of the California legacy market and its counter-culture roots, up to the commoditization that many refer to as the legalization in 2015, and how the rabid Green Rush of investment capital has bottomed out. Can you summarize how the California legalization model had failure somewhat built into it?

AB: There are various measures that facilitated this, such as the ability to stack cultivation licenses, a ruthless taxation regime, an arduous permitting and track and trace system, and so on. Legal and compliance experts will know more about this. But we can look at some of the economic moments for clarity on what happened. Immediately following legalization, we saw an influx of venture capitalist-driven investment, many of which rub shoulders with Silicon Valley-anchored tech investment capital.

This type of speculative investment is notoriously fickle and can leave their recipients high and dry when times are rough. This is what happened right before the pandemic, and the effect trickled down. This might not be as dramatic when it involves 20-something-year-olds with an app-driven startup, but it’s tragic when it involves legacy cannabis farmers. When you look at the price data, we see that the pandemic put the impending free-fall on hold. This was a momentary respite, but many in the industry were not able to interpret the data and felt a false sense of confidence, only to be pummeled in the past two years.

So here we are today, hoping for lifelines to keep businesses afloat, such as appellations, inter-state commerce, or rescheduling. I think the implication is that we are waiting until full federal legalization. That will help in some respects, but I would still encourage all of us to think of what kind of new challenges that might also bring.

cannabis world news Price fall “$/pound data from Cannabis Benchmarks graphic
Price fall “$/pound data from Cannabis Benchmarks.

VM: I feel guilty asking you to nutshell topics that could, on their own, easily burn up this entire interview, but can you talk about what you refer to as the biological paradigm and the emerging breeding revolution and how the industry is in your words at odds with the rebel cannabis culture that persisted for decades?

AB: The biological paradigm that I am referring to here is what we are exposed to in school early on, and which I tried to explain a bit in response to your first question. It is one that assumes that DNA and its nucleotides constitute some kind of code that is run by the organism-machine. Other similar metaphors of instruction have been employed at the service of this paradigm, with the most notorious being that of “the Book of Life.”

I see around me that many practicing molecular biologists are finding themselves at an uncomfortable juncture where this kind of thinking is failing to deliver time and time again both in carefully controlled lab experiments and much more dramatically in real-world situations. The ultimate expression of this perspective, the sci-fi promises of  “genetic engineering,” is a far cry from what has been achieved. Some of the milestones to date are the production of proteins in a bioreactor (insulin – early 80s), in a plant (GMOs –  early 90s), or in a human cell (mRNA vaccines – 2020s). Forty years, and we are still producing simple proteins, not super, novel organisms, despite the unknown billions of dollars sunk into this effort. So, I believe that it’s time to deepen our understanding of hereditary mechanisms, which not only include DNA but many other types of information between generations.

There are rebel biologists who are working in this direction, many of them in the fields of developmental biology and epigenetics, some of them subscribing to what they term the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. Cannabis-centered communities also have many rebels in their ranks. What does it take to bring these rebel worlds together for not only a conversation but also a biological practice?

cannabis world news Migrant farmworkers trimming cannabis in Santa Barbara County in giant covered structure
Migrant farmworkers trimming cannabis in Santa Barbara County.

VM: Could analogies be made between ancient farming techniques and the scorched earth, Big-Agro industrialized mono-crop food production model that exists across the lands today, and the direction that commercial cannabis is going today?

AB: I’m not so much of a romantic traditionalist and actually believe that we can do better than our ancestors by learning from modern science (in addition to unlearning some of that science!). This is not to discount the great wisdom to be found in indigenous cultures created by those who have a deep connection to the earth. For example, I end my essay by sketching out the “three sisters” cultivation technique in Mesoamerica, an agroecological and regenerative practice par excellence.

The choice seems pretty clear, not only for cannabis but for agriculture in general. Will we continue with what we have now: soil killing, greenhouse gas emitting, rapacious capitalist agriculture, or a more agroecological, regenerative, and just system of nourishing humans?

VM: How bleak is the picture? Is there hope that the values and ideals of the legacy cannabis culture can be honored, and if so, what can we do to influence such an outcome?

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AB: It feels pretty bleak from where I stand. Your readers might have firsthand experience with the present economic hardships faced by legacy and smaller cannabis farmers in California and beyond. But even for me personally, the nosedive of the price per pound led the Oakland nursery, which I was CSO of for the past four years, to shut down its scientific research and development program and left me unemployed. There seem to be signs of a slight rebound happening, and I am in the process of jumpstarting that research again.

On the other hand, being an eternal optimist (perhaps to a fault) and taking a longer view, I am actually incredibly optimistic. California has many legacies; cannabis is clearly one, but another is the tenacity of its social movements. Of course, the two have often come together, and we shouldn’t forget the trailblazers of legalization, the incredible activists of the 80s and 90s. Most likely, they were dreaming of a different kind of future for the industry than where it has ended up today. So maybe we will see another version of the cannabis legalization movement spring up, one that learns lessons from the farmer movements of the global south as well as launching a critique of the dominant agricultural system.

cannabis world news Making selections in the field.
Making selections in the field.

VM: As a molecular biologist. What aspects of modern breeding technology excite you and, in your opinion, offer promise?

AB: The majority of what I observe happening to cannabis under the guise of modern biotechnology, the regurgitation of all that was done to other broad-acre crops in the past half-century, is not the direction I would like the research to go in. The legacy we have of modern biotechnology being applied to agriculture is earth-killing high inputs of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

Toward the end of my essay, I try to lay out what could be considered the prototype of a research agenda. If I were to pull out one of the threads from there, it would be a closer, more focused look at microbes and their exquisite interaction with cannabis and with plants in general. In agricultural science, there has been a good amount of research looking at microbial life, primarily nitrogen-fixing bacteria, that is found in the rhizosphere. I’d like this kind of research to continue, but take it even further and look at endophytes, microbes, and fungi that live inside of the plant, often in symbiosis with it.

I find inspiration in the concept of a holobiont life conceptualized across boundaries that are often dynamic and which necessarily include the multitude of microbial life. In a reductionist sense, we can also identify hologenomes, which, although reductive to nucleic acids, are much more holistic than what passes for genetics today. An understanding of the cannabis plant as a holobiont that is informed by modern tools such as metagenomics presents the opportunity for a new kind of breeding program, one where plants and microbes are bred concurrently. As a microbial ecologist, this excites me immensely.

VM: How can our readers follow your work?

For better or worse, I am not really on social media. I do try to publish both in scientific publications as well in more popular outlets. Currently, I am working on some exciting breeding collaborations and providing nurseries with solutions for on-site pathogen detection. There is also a book project to expand upon my essay in the works. But I’m always open to new ideas to explore, and people can reach me at ali@onsightdx.com.

Ali Bektaş is a molecular biologist working on plants, microbes, and agriculture and is developing distributed, affordable, and easy-to-use systems for detecting informative nucleic acids in agricultural environments.  He holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and, for the past eight years, has worked at various Cannabis nurseries and biotech companies, acting as a consultant, staff scientist, and Chief Science Officer.  Among other contributions in the field of cannabis science, he is also the first scientist to publicly identify Hop Latent Viroid in Cannabis populations.

Feature photo: Ali is standing between a Sumatran and Oaxacan variety at Jade Nectar Farms, which focuses on landraces in Santa Cruz, CA. Photo by Mojave Richmond

All other photos credit: Ali Bektaş (do not use without permission)

 

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