The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working toward replenishing the government seed bank for help after it had been destroyed during prohibition. During this process, they issue updated guidelines on identifying, describing, and evaluating different hemp varieties. These were delivered in the latest USDA Hemp Descriptor and Phenotyping Handbook version, released in the summer of 2023. It delves deeply into the various forms and qualities of hemp, including the following traits:

  • morphology
  • yield
  • cannabinoid content
  • oil production
  • seed viability
  • fiber quality
  • pathogen resistance

Other traits are recorded in addition to these, providing a comprehensive understanding of the plant. This information is being recorded to help hemp scientists and breeders understand the range of applications and select the correct type of hemp according to their needs. 

The USDA states, “Robust, reliable, and high-dimensional data generated from these phenotyping efforts will empower conservation of hemp genetic diversity and aid selection of materials with unique trait combinations for breeding programs.”

The USDA also maintains ‘germplasms’ for other crops, but hemp is notably different in its repertoire. Hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, and the USDA has been playing catch up. 

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The information will be available to the public through the USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) as they continue to garner and accumulate research. Some hemp samples have already been posted to the database. 

The USDA’s Plant Genetics Resources Unit (PGRU) coordinates the genetic repository in Geneva, New York. They collect and exchange samples from domestic and foreign sources.

The first USDA hemp phenotyping handbook was published in September 2021. The latest update released last July is being called ‘version 3.0.’ This update focused on expanding on pathology, seed evaluation, and fiber quality. It also implemented new protocols around the feral collection, seed threshing, tissue cultures, gathering pollen, and other vital details. As more innovative methodologies emerge, the handbook will be updated accordingly. 

For example, one new USDA resource added is an instructional video showing hemp farmers how to build and operate a Ghostbusters-like backpack vacuum, which can collect 10 grams of cannabis pollen in less than a minute. 

According to the agency, “These resources will be backed-up at the ARS National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, regenerated, monitored, and maintained with best management practices to distribute high-quality germplasm to researchers and breeders within the hemp community. Vulnerable or threatened genetic resources for hemp wild relatives and cultivars will be safeguarded so that these critical sources of genes for hemp research and breeding are widely available. In addition, new genetic resources for hemp that might be suitable for U.S agricultural systems will be introduced.”

The USDA is making meaningful moves. They’re partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to host educational events focused on cultivating cannabis for a ‘bio-based’ economy. They’re stepping up to help, like in the case of an Indiana-based hemp farm where the USDA offered financial and technical assistance to maximize CBD oil output. They’ve renamed a trade advisory committee to feature hemp among other specialty crops and doubled the number of hemp industry representatives on its federal trade advisory panels. 

They’re primed to handle any market conditions following the economic hit to the sector last year. The downturn was considered to have resulted from a lack of FDA regulations on marketing hemp products like CBD oil. The FDA says that to implement those regulations, it needs the help of Congress.