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A Frank Conversation with Mowgli Holmes, CEO of Phylos Bioscience

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Phylos Bioscience
PHOTO | Supplied
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Earlier this year, Phylos Bioscience announced its plan to launch an in-house breeding program. The news prompted outrage within the community, sparking conversations about intellectual property and genetics research across the cannabis industry.

Many cultivators felt betrayed by the idea that the Portland-based cannabis science company would use data they submitted to the Phylos Galaxy — a comprehensive database that documents the cannabis genome — to steal vital cultivar information and use it against them.

Phylos released a statement assuring growers not to worry, that their fears were unfounded. They insisted they weren’t going to use their submitted data to create super strains to put craft cannabis growers out of business. None of that data can be used for breeding, and the breeding work they do will be primarily for large-scale biomass producers. The varieties they do develop for the craft flower market will be released under open-source licenses and should help to keep craft growers in business.

Now, a couple of months have passed. For the most part, Phylos has kept out of the media spotlight. Cannabis Aficionado spoke to CEO Mowgli Holmes to learn more about their approach to large-scale agriculture, plant patents and IP rights, and the future of cannabis.

Growers submitted their genomic data to you with the understanding that it would not be used to enhance any breeding programs. How did you not foresee this backlash from the industry following the announcement of your breeding program?

We didn’t foresee this reaction because this data isn’t useful for plant breeding. It’s just genetic sequence data, with no information on the plants themselves. The purpose of the galaxy has always been to empower everyone to learn from their plant’s data by comparing it to everything else. We made the galaxy and the raw data publicly available so that everyone could have full access to it.

I don’t think this question has really been about the data. It’s about having a company in the cannabis industry that is working with people from big ag. The science we’re using comes from those companies, and we’re hiring scientists who understand it. We’re also a company that is focused on environmental and social impact, and on moving agriculture toward sustainable practices. Cannabis growers don’t trust big ag and they don’t see how we could be working with people from those companies and still have these progressive goals. But we do.

You claim that your new breeding program will focus on large-scale agriculture. Why then do you think there is such a negative response to your breeding announcement from cannabis growers and craft cultivators?

Phylos concentrates on the global market because that’s where the plant needs the most work. I think that a lot of small growers assume that large-scale ag means lousy cannabis, so they don’t respect it. But it matters how the large growers operate. Phylos believes large-scale cannabis and hemp agriculture can actually operate sustainably and we’re committed to doing our part to move it in that direction. We also want to see the craft flower market thrive. We won’t be doing a lot of work there, but when we do it’s going to have a positive impact. The flower plants we release will be good for growers, and breeders will get to keep working with them.

Your presentation to investors at Benzinga seemed to confirm that you will use the submitted data to breed new strains. Why did you tell that to investors if it isn’t your intention? Why do you think your words were misconstrued?

That is not what I said to investors. But when I said that our testing business was a valuable data collection tool, I meant it. Having a high-throughput molecular genetics lab allowed us to generate lots of valuable data, but all of that work has been independent of the customer data we collected. As I said, the data we collected from customers cannot be used for breeding, period.

The data collected from customers was very limited and was made public via the Phylos Galaxy in order to prevent patent infringement and support greater transparency within the cannabis industry’s supply chain. It’s a tool for the industry, including our competitors, to use in understanding varieties and the evolution of cannabis. It’s not a tool that can help with breeding except in a very general way by letting people see relationships — and it’s available to everyone to use in that way.

Have you kept any of the genetic data so you could replicate any of the submitted material via plant tissue propagation?

No, we wouldn’t do that and it’s not possible. You can’t create a living plant from data and you can’t create a living plant from a dead tissue sample. We are not using any of our customer’s plants in our breeding program. The Galaxy is evidence that our customer’s plants belong to them.

We do have a large collection of living cannabis varieties, which we’ve acquired through fair and generous contracts with breeders, and we’re continuing to in-license new varieties.

Phylos scientists in the lab. PHOTO | Supplied

Was patenting genetics, or your plans to use the data to create your own breeding program, in any fine print that people may have missed?

We’ve never had any plans to use that data for breeding because we always knew it wouldn’t be robust enough to breed with. But we were very openly and publicly building a breeding program meant to support other people’s plant work with our scientific tools. We just weren’t originally intending to do the actual plant work ourselves.

The largest part of a modern plant breeding program is the data infrastructure and we were clear very early on that we were developing genetic markers for breeding. As we’ve said, the customer data had no information on the physical characteristics of the plants themselves and couldn’t be used for breeding. We believed that this simple scientific fact would keep people from making the mistake of thinking we were using it for breeding.

As far as patenting goes, our position has always been that plant patents are fine, as long as they’re responsibly narrow and don’t cover entire categories of plants. Overly broad patents are bad for innovation and bad for the cannabis industry.

The Open Cannabis Project (OCP) closed at the end of May in response to your announcement, citing “deception” as the one reason. What are your thoughts on this situation?

We helped start the OCP to create a transparent and open-source repository of cannabis data that could enlarge the public domain and help to preserve genetic diversity in cannabis. I resigned from the board in order to ensure there was no connection between OCP and Phylos, but the board was already planning to dissolve the organization in December 2018 based on difficulty fundraising.

The OCP knew we were doing breeding work, they knew the science we were using was from big ag and they knew we were going to be willing to apply for limited patents. The OCP themselves have always supported limited patents. They also know how strong my personal commitment is to doing things differently than they’re done in traditional agriculture.

Nothing illustrates the intense emotion around this issue better than this does. Despite knowing all of that, I think they were genuinely shocked to see that we’re working with and hiring people from big ag companies. Progressives see those companies as truly evil, and they don’t have a framework for understanding how good people could possibly be working with them.

Unfortunately, nobody on the OCP board contacted us before they issued their statement. The idea that you could have one foot in both worlds and still be committed to being an ethical company — that’s impossible for many people to accept. But that stance is a decision to leave all of this scientific power in the hands of people you don’t trust.

How can growers trust you when you say you are not using their genomics and data to advance your own breeding program?

Anyone who looks at the science comes to see that you can’t use this data for breeding new plants.

But we are seeing that trust doesn’t come from scientific facts alone. We’re a mission-driven company and eventually people will see the benefits of the work we’re doing. The dust will clear and we’ll be working away, and then people will see.

Why do you think people were so quick to jump to the conclusion that you are using your position and power to harm the very people that you have spent so many years trying to protect?

This is the part that’s hard for me. Phylos has always been clear in our mission to bring science to cannabis and new approaches to agriculture, to preserve genetic diversity, and to help small farmers. It’s pretty crazy to find out that people can overnight decide you don’t mean the things you say. But again, I think the assumption is that if we had good intentions we wouldn’t be hiring scientists and advisors from the major ag companies. We need these people because they understand the complexities of the large-scale agricultural system better than anyone and they are uniquely positioned to help us change it for the better. The team of scientists that have joined Phylos is building an agricultural model that is profitable and sustainable for farmers. We always meant it when we said we cared about the craft flower community. But we also care about agriculture as a whole.

What is your desired achievement with your breeding program?

I got a lot of shit for saying this, but I’m just going to say it again: Phylos is going to create outrageous new plants. They’re going to work better for farmers and for consumers and they’re going to be constantly evolving.

We also believe that it’s important for us and the industry to give both fair credit and fair compensation to the breeders who have created amazing plants already and those that continue to do so. We are already signing agreements to make sure those breeders get paid as they should, and we hope it becomes the standard way of acquiring plants in the industry.

Phylos has built its mission around preserving the genetic diversity we’ve inherited. At the same time, we’re going to drive forward into the future of what this plant can do, which really will be incredible. We need to do both of those things.

We’re combining advanced science with sustainability principles. We’re using traditional breeding driven by genomic knowledge. We’re studying methods that let farmers minimize inputs costs at the same time as they’re building healthier soil. We’re going to help farmers profit from sustainability — and we’re going to make sustainability work better because it’s driven by hard data.

Where does Phylos Bioscience go from here?

We have to accept that some people see big ag companies as the enemy and they don’t trust anyone who’s working with them. But we need to have companies who can use the science from big ag in ways that are driven by a sense of social responsibility. We need to have companies who can figure out how to support environmentally sustainable approaches as they use this science. We need to have companies that are a bridge between these two worlds.

Phylos has one foot in the cannabis world and one foot in the world of large-scale agriculture. The role of our company is to be a bridge between these two worlds that don’t trust each other. To make it work, we’re going to have to be really committed to maintaining our values and measuring our success based on them. We’re going to have to be a little bit like Switzerland and work with everyone.  We have to accept that we’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re going to make damn sure the farms that work with us are successful.

To us, that means that they’re sustainably successful in ways that work long-term for them, and their workers, and the environment. For most of these larger farms the first step is simple: start growing hemp.

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The Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative to Provide Support for NorCal Cultivators

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Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative

Our community of heritage, small-batch craft cannabis cultivators in Northern California is facing an existential crisis resulting from a combination of taxation, licensing, and market conditions. Many of the small farms that built and fueled the cannabis industry are currently facing extinction by the current cannabis pricing collapse compounded by overbearing regulations. To support those in crisis, Tim Blake and the Emerald Cup organizers have created a dedicated Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative, offering a rally and much-needed support through upcoming events at the Emerald Cup Harvest Ball and the 18th Annual Emerald Cup Awards.

For over 17 years, the Emerald Cup has stood as a celebration of excellence. Founder Tim Blake has come to be recognized as a guardian of the ever-changing cannabis industry. At the upcoming Emerald Cup Harvest Ball on December 11-12 Blake has pledged support to the heart of their community, providing twenty-seven qualified small farm exhibitors with a pro-bono presence at the Harvest Ball.

“Burdensome and complicated regulations, over-taxation, and lack of access to market are destroying the small farmers who have pioneered and led the industry with innovation and quality,“ said Blake. “Small growers face challenges like prohibitively expensive permitting, legal fees, and rising taxes encouraging many of them to remain on the unregulated or “Traditional” market. Perhaps worst of all, most of these small growers are also located in the legendary Emerald Triangle region of Northern California, an area continually devastated by ongoing wildfires.”

Selected applicants will have the ability to present their products to attendees with premium placement on the market floor, a reduced concession arrangement, and heightened promotion to drive attendees to seek and support these small farms during the event and beyond. With the vision of lifting up and amplifying these small farms in the global marketplace, The Emerald Cup envisions this program as the first immediate step to support the community of the Emerald Triangle to prevent its disappearance.  

The Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative will be led by a council of community leaders, including Michael Katz of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, Genine Coleman of Origins Council, Chris Anderson of Redwood Roots Distribution, Nicholas Smilgys of Mendocino Cannabis Distribution, and Traci Pellar of the Mendocino Producers Guild, will launch at the Harvest Ball Craft Cannabis Marketplace and will continue at the Spring 2022 event in Southern California.

As with any important initiative, the first challenge facing the Emerald Cup organization is determining selection criteria. With literally thousands of small farms and businesses struggling in the California cannabis market, and the organization’s sincere desire to help each and every one, this is an incredibly difficult task. To structure this effort, Emerald Cup evaluated license distribution among Northern California’s heritage cannabis-producing counties with active ordinances. An independent body, the Council has allocated a proportional number of possible participants to each county.

This first event of the Harvest Ball will support four operators each from Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties, three each from Nevada and Sonoma Counties, and two each from Lake, Calaveras and Santa Cruz counties. An additional three slots will be made available for approved Social Equity Operators as defined by the requirements of these areas.

Participants that meet the criteria will be selected at random by lottery from all approved applicants from a given county. All applications are due by Saturday, November 13, 2021. Participants will be notified and announced on November 15, 2021. Each selected applicant will be able to offer up to three product SKUs for sale at the specially created Harvest Ball Craft Cannabis Marketplace during the event.

“Proposition 64 promised that no farms larger than one acre would be permitted to open until 2023, allowing smaller farms time to get organized. In 2017, Governor Brown opened up large-scale farming, and smaller farmers didn’t have time to react,” said Blake.

“Our goal is to do what we can to assist these remaining farmers who poured their love — not to mention finances — into their product, only to have the market landscape suddenly change. We support the Origins Council and other community organizations working to advocate for sensible policy change. We recognize that getting rid of cultivation taxes and streamlining the regulatory process at the county, state, and even national level is imperative to the survival of our small growers. We’d also like to see the retail component augmented, growing from 1,500 certified dispensaries to the 10,000 or so that are needed to provide an accessible, legal market.”

An industry rally and press conference will be held on Saturday, December 11, 2021, at the Emerald Cup Harvest Ball to raise industry, government, community, and media awareness of the crisis. Smaller sessions on the topic will happen during both the Harvest Ball and the ECAs. The sessions will include an open, solution-focused discussion on the issues affecting the market, with a focus on best practices and regulatory limitations.

 On an individual level, qualified small farms and growers selected for the Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative will be offered premium vending locations at the Harvest Ball. The Initiative will also run for new participants at the Springtime Emerald Cup Awards in Los Angeles. All participants will enjoy a reduced concession rate at both events. 

“With the tremendous support of the Council of the Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative, we are offering small farmers an exclusive vending program and platform so they can make more money at the show,” says Emerald Cup associate producer Taylor Blake.

“We know that we can’t solve all of our community’s problems with one initiative, but we are committed to putting our resources into evolving this program and working to improve access to the market for all small cannabis farmers.” 

Growers must meet several criteria to qualify for the program:

  • Hold a current and valid cannabis cultivation license for the state of California
  • Have a maximum farm size of 10,000 square feet
  • Practice sustainable farming
  • Participate in third-party certification programs such as OCal, Sun + Earth Certification, Clean Green Certification, Regennabis, Envirocann, etc. 

Any parties interested in applying or finding out more about the Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative should visit: www.FORMofURL.com  

For additional information on the Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative and the Harvest Ball Craft Cannabis Marketplace, please email: Michael Katz at michael@mendocannabis.com.

The Emerald Cup Small Farms Initiative application will open Monday, November 8, 2021. The submission process will close for all farms on Saturday, November 13, 2021, at 11:59 PM PDT. All participants of the 2021 Harvest Ball Small Farms Initiative will be selected by lottery and alerted by Monday, November 15, 2021.

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Culture

Cannabis Edibles Expo: A Targeted Moonshot Opportunity

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Cannabis Edibles Expo

The stage is set. This year’s Cannabis Edibles Expo is ready for their esteemed guests. 

Cannabis professionals and industry experts will be gathering under one roof, for one purpose at this year’s B2B global Canna-Edibles Expo, taking place Nov. 12 in San Francisco and Nov. 16 in Chicago. They will be there to share industry secrets, expand horizons, and learn the secrets to success. 

A professional trade event, the Cannabis Edibles Expo exists purely to enlighten you about everything you have ever wanted to know about cannabis edibles. This sector of the cannabis industry is blasting through the atmosphere like a rocket. It’s time to find out what this could mean for your career and your future. When you leave this show, knowledge will be your prized jewel. You will have the professional connections and the highway maps to develop partnerships, too.

At the conference, you will gain all the information needed to formulate your own edibles brand, as well as the necessary skills for bringing a superb product to market. Cannabis edibles are one of the fastest-growing segments of the cannabis industry. Edibles range from scrumptious confections to complex, whole-infused meals, with so much pure indulgence sandwiched in between. 

Today’s cannabis consumers are eager to try health-conscious offerings. They crave educational information and want to understand what they are putting in their bodies. They expect excellence in flavor, safety, quality and ease of availability. At the Cannabis Edibles Expo, you can expect to interact with leaders from top cannabis edibles brands who will demonstrate methods and strategies for achieving each of these goals.

Where would you like to be in five years? Do you see yourself as a businessperson on the cutting edge of cannabis technology? Will you be a C- level cannabis executive? Or are you a cannabis advocate, educator, analyst or chef seeking more educational and networking opportunities? All the info you need to grow your business or start a brand new one can be found at the Cannabis Edibles Expo 2021, just one day after the Cannabis Drinks Expo. Consider making it a 2-day event for a well-rounded chance to learn about the two largest and fastest growing segments of cannabis.

Start your journey. Ride the upper atmosphere of entrepreneurship. Surf through the possibilities. Merge your ideas with like-minded professionals and shoot for the moon! There is no better place to be. Make the pilgrimage to the cannabis edibles mecca this November. Devote yourself to making your cannabis career on a path out of this universe.

Act now to reserve your entrance passport into the incredible Cannabis Edibles Expo 2021 and expand on your story. 

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Culture

Ricky Williams Flips the Script with new Highsman Brand

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PHOTO | HIGHSMAN

Once scrutinized by sports pundits and fans alike for using cannabis, Ricky Williams, is flipping the script with Highsman — his new cannabis lifestyle brand line of personally curated products.

Created to empower professional and everyday athletes as well as sports enthusiasts alike, Highsman offers premium quality cannabis as well as a collection of apparel and accessories designed to compliment an active lifestyle on and off the field. 

“It is time we change the way we talk about cannabis,” says Williams. “Highsman is about an appreciation for greatness. There is a passionate and dedicated team behind the brand, and together we want to help all people inspire greatness in themselves.” 

Initially offered as pre-packaged eighths, three cultivars have been curated by Williams to compliment moments in the day. Pre-Game is a sativa for an energized boost; Half-Time is a hybrid for focused awareness; and the Post-Game Indica offers a relaxed mood. A line of pre-rolls is currently in development.

Williams brings a deep knowledge of herbs, sports and wellness to the brand. He studied the origins of cannabis in the foothills of the Himalayas and spent years learning about the healing properties of the plant. He credits smoking cannabis as a way of overcoming the challenges associated with being a professional athlete, from social anxiety to physical injuries. 

“Highsman is at the intersection of sports and cannabis and was created for fans and aficionados of both.” says Eric Hammond, CEO. “Years in the making, Highsman launches at a tipping point where sports and cannabis collide, and we are excited to continue to break boundaries between the two.” 

A supporting collection of sports-inspired streetwear varsity jackets and baseball tees and must-have smoking accoutrements — rolling trays, pelican cases, water bottles — are also available. that compliments the Highsman lifestyle.

Highsman cannabis is available at select retailers in California and Oregon and online

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