Southern Cross University has received funding for “The New Crop in the Mass: Genetic Control of Hemp Seed Nutrition Quality” from the Australian Research Council.
The project will be led by Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar, a world expert in plant breeding and genetics. His team will work in conjunction with industry partner Kavasil Pty Ltd, a regional cannabis research and development (R&D) and consulting firm based in Nimbin in NSW Northern Rivers.
While hemp seeds, rich in polyunsaturated oils and high-quality protein, are emerging as a functional food crop globally, very little is known about the genetic control of oil and protein contents and composition, which are important characteristics for improving the yield and quality of hemp seeds for the Australian industry.
“The project will include characterization of cannabis germplasm for seed quality traits, including seed size and nutritional composition,” Associate Professor Kretzschmar said.
“Importantly, we will correlate genotypes (genetic makeup) with phenotypes (visible or chemical characteristics/traits) through quantitative genetic methods. This will help improve cannabis seed varieties for future Australian requirements.”
A unique genetic resource of 120 cannabis diverse inputs (varieties), consisting of globally sourced genetic assets and inputs provided by Kavasil, will be used to identify the genes underlying nutritional variance and genotype-related interactions by environment.
This fundamental knowledge will lay the foundation for targeted breeding and management best practices for the benefit of growers, the cannabis industry and health-conscious consumers.
The project will be implemented at Southern Cross Plant Science laboratories and field sites on the University of Lismore campus.
Despite years of over-regulation and stigmatization, Associate Professor Kretzschmar said hemp was an ideal crop for Australia.
“Hemp has tremendous potential as a food and medicinal crop. The seeds are a rich source of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids with similar health benefits to fish oil, except that they are vegan and come without the odor issues and ethical concerns associated with animal-sourced products,”He said.
Hemp seeds also contain high amounts of essential amino acids, which are important for a balanced diet. Like soy, hemp can be used as a protein crop. Like canola, it can be used as an oil crop. In addition, its flowers are rich in nutritional and medicinal compounds.
“The versatility of hemp means that it is the crop knife of the Swiss Army.”
Kavasil Pty Ltd focuses on increasing the value of hemp products by marketing high-value hemp seeds as functional food; Advise and change policy regarding hemp foods for human consumption (through Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ)); Supporting research and development in cannabis cultivation and improving hemp diversity, hemp nutritional value, and hemp seed processing.
Southern Cross University now houses, maintains and works with the Kavasil cannabis germplasm collection that is critical to this project.
Andrew Kavasilas is the founder and CEO of Kavasil Pty Ltd. During his 20 years working in the cannabis industry, he has collaborated with Southern Cross University on several hemp and cannabis research projects and has been pivotal in shaping the regulatory landscape and driving the demand approval and subsequent introduction of hemp seed foods for human consumption in Australia.
He said: “One of my main goals is to develop markets and supply chains for ‘functional hemp foods’ with nutritional and health benefits.
This can be achieved by increasing local production of premium “clean and green” products. One of the keys to obtaining, processing and marketing hemp products grown in Australia is the development of locally adapted cannabis plant varieties that produce large seeds and high concentrations of “functional” components, for example fatty acids, proteins and other complex compounds.”
“Resolving the genetic contribution as well as environment interactions in genotype x of these key functional components in the cannabis plant will be critical to our future breeding programs and expansion plans,” he added.
“This is clearly in line with our strategic goal of developing appropriate genetics, sourcing, processing and marketing an increasing volume of high-value Australian cannabis products.”