Episode 56: Host Eric Hurlock and Mowgli Holmes discuss plant breeding, cannabis genetics, why sustainable agriculture is important not just for hemp production but farming in general, and more. Read the transcript below.

large scale hemp field

Note: To decrease copy and focus on the interview questions, this transcript does not include the conversation from 09:16 - 13:20 and may contain human errors. Please reference the audio recording before quoting in print.

Mowgli Holmes: The plant itself can help to change how agriculture works and kind of serve as a model for how farmers can do better than they have with these other crops. Because if you have a really strange, interesting plant that can do a lot of things, I think this is a crop that will be good for farmers, and I think it can change the math for them.

Eric Hurlock: That's Dr. Mowgli Holmes. He's the co-founder and CEO of Phylos, a plant science company that is trying to revolutionize the hemp industry through data, technology, and expertise. This is the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast. My name is Eric Hurlock, and on today's show we have a fairly lengthy interview with Mowgli Holmes from Phylos about plant breeding, cannabis genetics, why sustainable agriculture is the way to go, and we also get into the controversy that Phylos found itself in earlier this year with old-school West Coast cannabis growers. So all that and a whole lot more.

Mowgli Holmes: How long have you guys been covering hemp?

Eric Hurlock: I've been covering it sort of as a full time beat for about a year and a half. There's been hemp stories in you know in, in farming news, you know, for a while, you know, obviously since the 2014 Farm Bill, you know, set up the research programs, our newspaper has been keeping an eye on it. You know, farmers here have definitely been interested. And then yeah, once the 2018 Farm Bill went through it was game on here in Pennsylvania.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, it's pretty, it's pretty exciting.

Eric Hurlock: It is. Yeah.

Mowgli Holmes: Do you have a sense of like, numerically, how much and how fast people in your region are switching or adding hemp?

Eric Hurlock: Well, last year, there were 35 research permits in the state and this year, there were almost 400 permits granted. It's almost like 1000 grow locations. So it was a pretty quick ramp-up. But it's still really small compared to, you know, the rest of the ag commodity crops here in the state.

Eric Hurlock: All right. Dr. Mowgli Holmes welcome to the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast.

Mowgli Holmes: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Eric Hurlock: Could you give us a little introduction? I'll say first that you are the co-founder and CEO of Phylos Bioscience.

Mowgli Holmes: Yes. So we're, we're a crop science company focused on hemp, really focused on the cannabis plant which takes many forms. And you know, the hemp revolution, as some people are calling it, has really been driven by changes around the regulatory and medical status of the plant as a whole. And there has been such an influx of capital and ideas and new companies into this, into every part of this space. And you know, until the hemp stuff started to get momentum many people didn't know what to make of this, this new industry around this plant and they you heard a lot of conversations where people would say like, it's like a new pharmaceutical industry, it's, it's like alcohol, or it's, it's a new consumer packaged goods industry and people were thinking about sort of the end of the supply chain. And a surprisingly small number of people were thinking of it as being an agricultural crop, which of course is at the base of all the supply chains. And so most of the stuff coming into the industry were companies making products or are there wasn't a lot of capital coming into just cultivation. But no one was really looking at how agriculture and farming works for other crops and how driven agriculture is by science. And in particular science around plant breeding, that lets you develop crops that are optimized for farmers to succeed with. And so people were just using the plant in whatever forms they could find, or sometimes making a cross or two. And nobody was really thinking, you know, this plant hasn't been through the century of scientific plant breeding that every other crop has been and it doesn't work like a developed crop works yet. It's really not suited for large-scale agriculture yet. It is very well suited for artisanal and craft growing in a lot of ways, where you have farmers that can really lavish attention on each plant, but it really had not been, has not been turned into a crop it works really well at scale.

Eric Hurlock: Which is surprisingly because it's a really old plant. Can you talk a little bit about where this plant came from? And you have a background in plant science, right? How old is this plant? And how long has it been around humans?

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, so it looks like it was domesticated around 10,000 years ago in Central Asia. You know, around the same time that any plants at all weren't domesticated. And it has followed humans everywhere. we've gone since then all around the globe and diversified into a surprising number of different kinds of plants that serve a surprising number of different roles. And it is true that it has been used in large-scale agriculture for millennia. What it’s missed out on is the last century, where plant breeding suddenly took off, and we learned how to do quantitative genetics and we learned how to figure out which genes are controlling which traits, which lets you make really intelligent decisions about how to do plant breeding. And it lets you do plant breeding much faster. And you know, so the last versions of this plant that were used for large-scale agriculture, were not the kinds of plants we're using now. They were these tall, skinny fiber plants, where the length of the stock was the important thing. You know, those are not the kinds of plants that are being used today for the most part. And even for those plants, you know, people have been working on them in China and in Europe - fiber hemp, but it hasn't received a ton of attention in the last century in terms of plant breeding.

Eric Hurlock: So there's a lot of catching up that this plant has to do.

Mowgli Holmes: That's right. That's absolutely right. But fiber has really been way ahead, you know, there's a number of consortiums in Europe that have been applying modern plant breeding tools to it but the kind of cannabis that is grown for CBD, a very different kind. And that plant has never really been studied or improved.

Eric Hurlock: And that's the stuff that is essentially from like the marijuana world.

Mowgli Holmes: That's right. That's right. And so the interesting thing about hemp today, even though it's called industrial hemp is that, you know, you'll drive around it in the hillside in Kentucky and suddenly come up on a field of, of what looks like hundreds of acres of sticky marijuana. You know, that's the kind of plants they are they're only producing CBD though. Because it turns out you can convince the plant, in just a generation or two, to completely drop production of THC and start producing CBD. It turns out that didn't require a lot of fancy plant breeding but yeah, that that is the hemp that's being grown today is what you know, we would consider a drug cultivar. It's been bred for you know, the one trait that has been improved is massive production of cannabinoids in the trichomes.

Eric Hurlock: Yeah, there's there's parts of Lancaster County that the same sort of thing, you drive around the corner and there's a great big field of CBD plants.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, that's it. And so, you know, it's been very confusing for, for instance, police, they'll stop a van full of plants.

Eric Hurlock: Right.

Mowgli Holmes: And, you know, it just looks and smells like the plant that was used as a drug for many years. But it is not at all that it's, you know, it's totally legal plant but it's sort of hard to tell.

Eric Hurlock: How did you get into cannabis? Like what, what is your, your sort of personal experience? If that's not too personal of a question?

Mowgli Holmes: No, it's fine. So I actually wasn't trained as a plant scientist. I was trained as a geneticist. But genetics are genetics. I had been doing HIV research actually in New York, at Columbia University and The Rockefeller University, and I moved home to Oregon 2014. And this new industry was just exploding all around us. And it just immediately was obvious that something big was happening, but there was no science behind it. So me and a friend with a little early help from a professor at Columbia that I had worked with just started, started an actual crop science company for cannabis and hemp focused on genetics - focused on how we could improve the genetics, how we can understand them and then improve them.

Eric Hurlock: Okay. And that's what led to what's known as the Phylos Galaxy?

Mowgli Holmes: Yes. So that was that was sort of an early research study that we did. Because one of the first things we realized is that there was already a complex supply chain in existence. And it was bizarre and unusual in terms of agriculture, because there were thousands of different varieties. You know, the plant breeding process for industrial crops says, has led to the creation of a smaller number of elite cultivars that are just very high yielding and most farmers use them.

Eric Hurlock: So you're talking about in 2014, there was already a really well established supply chain, but that was like black market, sort of cannabis supply chain.

Mowgli Holmes: So, yeah, well, sort of, but in Oregon and California it wasn't really black market. So there's been a medical market, a legal medical market for almost 15 years at that point.

Eric Hurlock: Okay.

Mowgli Holmes: And so it was legal out here, though sort of highly and poorly regulated at the same time. But yeah, and people are already starting to think about, about hemp a little bit. You know, it is the same plant, you can coax it into doing many different things.

Eric Hurlock: Sure.

Mowgli Holmes: But there were just thousands of different varieties out there and no one had any idea what they actually have. And so it seems like an important first step to us to sort of catalog all that variation and look at what was out there and what the genetic diversity was, and to help people make the supply chain more transparent so they could see what they had. And you know, and we collected DNA from cannabis samples from all around the world. And we also had a lot of hemp in there. A researcher at the Vavilov Institute which had at the time the biggest collection of sort of historical hemp varieties in Russia sent us a bunch of samples, and we were able to sequence all of them and then make this big map where you can see how they cluster, how they're related to each other. And for us, that was really the jumping off point to, you know, once we could see what was out there, and everybody could see it. That was sort of a good first step for us to look at all that and then say, okay, well now, what do we do? How do we?

Eric Hurlock: So you're just collecting a great big data set to complete the picture, so you get a sense of where you are sort of like a, like a Moneyball version of cannabis. You know how they did that to baseball and statistics. You want to sort of do that to the genetics of cannabis?

Mowgli Holmes: Right. You know, I don't know that it's like Moneyball in the sense that like, if you if you bring a lot of data to it, it can help you make intelligent decisions. I mean, that's the basic idea behind modern plant breeding: if you have a lot of data that helps you make intelligent decisions. But that dataset didn't, couldn't help us with plant breeding, because you know, the way modern plant breeding works is you sequence the DNA of plants, and then you study the plants, the plants themselves in a lot of details. So then you can start to say, all right, every time we have a plant that seems to be resistant to powdery mildew, it seems to have this DNA sequence. And so then that you can use that DNA sequence as a marker in your breeding process. You can make a cross and then collect samples from all the seedlings and sequence them. And then right away, you can say, okay, these are the ones that are going to be powdery mildew resistant, and you get rid of the others. And that just lets you accelerate your breeding process. So the Galaxy that we built didn’t let us do any of that because we didn't have any data on the plants, just to see how they were all related. And so it didn't feed into plant breeding, but what it what it did was, it let people in this crazy, complex industry see what they actually had.

Eric Hurlock: Okay.

Mowgli Holmes: So many people start thinking about plant identity and the importance of individual varieties and importance of knowing what you actually do have.

Eric Hurlock: Because different varieties are helpful for different, you know, medical ailments or you know, different, you want different effects. So you want to be able to stay with sort of the same, not the strain. I've seen videos where you're like, strains don't even come into this.

Mowgli Holmes: Well...

Eric Hurlock: But I am not a scientist, so I'm making it too complex. Sorry.

Mowgli Holmes: Right. I think what we will, you know, we just learned a few basic large lessons from that. So, you know, we learned that nobody knows what they have and that everything is basically people are assuming that everything was the same name is really the same or that things that have different names are really different. And that just creates a lot of confusion. And we realized that there's incredible diversity out there. And what we realized is that there are no stable varieties. So a stable seed line, which is what real agriculture relies on, is something that has not existed in the cannabis and hemp world. So people would talk about strains as if it was a unique variety, but really, they would make a cross and then they'd have a bunch of seeds and you could buy a pack of those seeds. But when you plant them, they're all different because until you've done decades of inbreeding seeds are each unique children of the same parents. And so there was all this diversity. There were no seed lines, there were no clear varieties. There were just all of these sort of thousands of unique individual plants. It was just very complex and let us see, okay, we can tell which plants are more inbred and which aren't. And, you know, we can see. And we made all the data public so everyone could see, like this is where there's a lot of diversity, where there's not. These are the plants that look like they're more inbred. These are the plants that look like they're not. And so, anyone can go on that database and and try to pick varieties that are more inbred to use as parents for a breeding project. They can pick varieties that are more distantly related, which can be very valuable in a breeding project as well. And just a few basic things like that. And then we just got to work building you know, the actual plant breeding program which we had to go out and collect an entirely different set of varieties. We had to collect living tissue this time and start to study them in our own facilities and actually do real plant breeding. And so, to this day, you know, hemp farmers are, they're buying seeds, but there are still really no seed lines. So hemp farmers will buy seeds and they're all different.

Eric Hurlock:  Right. When you when you sort of started focusing on plant breeding, there was a lot of, people freaked out about that. Right? Like there was some controversy. Can you explain that to me?

Mowgli Holmes:  Yeah, absolutely. So what happened was that I think it's a really interesting illustration of the ways that the hemp industry and the old school cannabis industry are interlinked, and the sort of tension between them. So when collected all that data, we were working mainly with old school growers and collectors and we were working very much in this, in the cannabis industry, you know, where people are growing flower, the sort of craft growers, they're growing small farms. And they're, you know, they're high THC varieties. And there's this whole culture around that. And it is very, it is a culture that is very, very different than how large scale agriculture works. And in fact, it's a culture where there's a lot of political animosity towards traditional ag and towards the big agriculture companies.

Eric Hurlock: And why do you think that?

Mowgli Holmes: Legalization. Well, it's not a mystery. I mean, those companies are very widely disliked. For a few reasons. And one is that they seem to have encouraged, over encouraged the intensive use of chemicals. Another because they've made genetically modified plants and resisted having those being regulated. And a third is that they just kind of said a kind of consolidation in the agriculture industry that has made it very hard for small farms to survive. So all of those things have created a lot of political opposition to those companies. And and when you talk to small farmers, you know, they often share those beliefs and when you talk to small cannabis farmers, they see big ag as the as the huge forces that are arrayed against them that are going to come and wipe them out. And when legalization happened, right away, all of those people who have built this industry found themselves fighting for their lives. I mean, they were being wiped out right away. Big capital is coming in huge farms. It was becoming very hard for them to compete. And until they sort of saw, like, wow, the forces that be inside of large scale agriculture coming to destroy us. And I don't think it's crazy for them to look at it like that. When agriculture gets consolidated, it is really hard for small farms to survive. And these guys are all growing organically and when large scale agriculture happens, you know, lots of people don't grow organic. So they had lots of reasons to be scared of those companies and of those forces, and I think they are fighting for their lives. You know, it's, it's hard to have an agricultural niche where we're going to have lots and lots of small farms, doing artisanal growing and have them be able to survive now that this is scaling up to massive farms. And I think it's important that they do survive, actually for various reasons. But they're scared, and it's hard for them to compete. And, anyway, so what happened is that we announced that we were doing plant breeding, but at the same time, it became clear to everybody that we were hiring people from those companies.

Eric Hurlock: From the big ag companies.

Mowgli Holmes: So they got... That's right. Because we're a plant sciences company and that's where you get plant scientists from, I mean, 95% of all the great plant scientists in the world work at those companies. And, you know, it's always been our job to bring the science from that world and apply it to this plant. And then we had one foot in this one community and one foot in the big science, big ag world. And those two worlds are really at odds with each other. So the sort of negative reaction that all those small growers had, it's kind of inevitable in a way. It's very hard for them to accept that there could be a good company that's working with people from Monsanto. It's just very hard to accept. So it got them very upset. They started saying you've been stealing our plants. You've been stealing all of our data and information. And you're gonna you're working with big ag to come and wipe us out. That was their reaction.

Eric Hurlock: Did that catch you by surprise? That reaction?

Mowgli Holmes: Well, it did to be honest. And I guess it shouldn't have. I mean, I think you can see listening to me talk about it that I see it as sort of inevitable now. But yeah, at the time, it really did catch us by surprise. And I'll tell you why. I mean, one reason why is that you can't steal people's plants because you have some data on them. And you can't steal people's data if you're making it all public. And you know, we had been a company with a real open-source ethos and we made all of the data public. So we never thought we'd be accused of taking things from farmers. And we also never thought we'd be accused of working with big ag to come and wipe them out. Because we had been part of conversations for years about how to help the craft flower industry survive. And we are very progressive company. We, our politics are, you know, pretty aligned with a lot of those growers. And there's a lot of things about how traditional agriculture is works that we don't like. And we...

Eric Hurlock: Like what and how would you change it?

Mowgli Holmes: So I think the climate crisis has focused a lot of people's attention on this, on the way that that big companies that are operating with only profit in mind, have really done a lot of things that are really bad for the environment, bad for the climate. And so we now know that agriculture globally is responsible for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. We also know that it's responsible for a huge amount of pollution. And, you know, overuse of pesticides and herbicides and runoff from excessive use of nitrogen. All of those environmental practices have had a lot of negative effects that, you know, it's easy to see how we got into them. It's easy to see why large-scale farmers depend on them. But they have had negative consequences. And so we really think that agriculture has to move towards a more regenerative mode. And people need to be thinking about sustainability when they farm and people need to be doing everything they can to keep soil healthy, and to minimize the use of expensive chemical inputs. I mean, we're a crop company, right? So our job is to work with farmers and help them do whatever they have to do to be successful. But our hope is that large-scale ag can move towards more sustainable cultivation methods.

Eric Hurlock: So you're committed to bringing those changes?

Mowgli Holmes: We are. Our hope is that as we work with farmers who are switching to this new crop, and this is the crop that should really be grown organically, for a number of reasons. What our hope is, is that, you know, we have a whole agricultural tech development team that's working with farmers to help them figure out how to grow this new crop. And they need techniques that you know, it's a new crop and they need to know what it needs and how to grow it and we are a sustainable agriculture company. So we see it as our job to take that moment to try to introduce farmers who haven't adopted it, or haven't adopted it that much, to sustainable ag cultivation methods. And you know, that's a delicate dance, you know, farmers need to be successful. And as we talked about earlier, they are risk averse, and they don't want to go all in on something brand new right away. But there's a sense among farmers that switching to organic growing leads to lower yields. And that it's not economically sustainable. And so our hope is that as a science company, we can bring the science to those kinds of growing methods that make them actually work very well because when you really dial in no-till and cover crops and organic methods that really keep soil very healthy, you can get incredible yield. But there's been sort of a divide between science based-methods and organic methods and we see that as a false distinction. We think that agriculture really has to move towards those methods. We don't know how quick it'll be that it has to.

Eric Hurlock: For our survival as a species, you mean?

Mowgli Holmes: For us to survive as a species? Yeah. It seems very clear to us that we can't keep doing things the way we've been doing them. And it also seems clear to us that we can't just keep arguing, you know, like the chemistry people on one side and the organic people on the other side. If you really bring science to studying how microbes work in the soil, and how organic forms of nutrients can be made available to plants, you can turn organic growing into a very, very powerful tool. But it needs science behind it.

Eric Hurlock: Right. So farmers can save the world but we need to stop arguing about this stuff so we can actually get on to saving the world.

Mowgli Holmes: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I don't, I'm nervous about overstating it, but farming is actually contributing to global warming. And, you know, the plants are the biggest carbon sink in the world. So many people are starting to think now that agriculture is this, is having a large negative effect on the climate and the environment.

Eric Hurlock: It’s those practices. It's not agriculture itself.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, Right.

Eric Hurlock: Just the way we're doing it now.

Mowgli Holmes: The way we're doing it. It's not the inherent nature of agriculture. So the feeling is that it's been having all these negative effects, but that it actually could be having a really positive effects.

Eric Hurlock: Yeah.

Mowgli Holmes: That means. Not only can we stop admitting the greenhouse gases and pollutants associated with ag, but that we can turn ag into a net-carbon sink where we're sequestering carbon in the soil. Yes.

Eric Hurlock: And we make everything out of plants and we lock up all that carbon we become carbon negative. Right? It's doable.

Mowgli Holmes: Absolutely.

Eric Hurlock: It is doable.

Mowgli Holmes: That's right. And hemp is sort of the poster child for this kind of thing, because not only does it fix carbon really rapidly, it's good at sequestering carbon in the soil, but you can use the biomass for hempcrete [inaudible 41:36] and for bioplastics and for all of these things that keep the carbon locked up.

Eric Hurlock: Yeah,

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, exactly.

Eric Hurlock: So how do we get that shift to happen? Is that like a consumer demand shift? Or what? How do we how do we do that?

Mowgli Holmes: As we've seen, consumer demand has driven organic, right? But and I think that there's already some of that. So you already see with a lot of people who are growing CBD, there's a big demand for organically grown hemp and organically derived CBD. And so that's a consumer driven thing and you know if you can get a price differential that supports doing that, that's great. But I actually don't think that's the biggest way. I think that, you know, when we think about improving this plant, we care about the consumer traits, and we definitely care about breeding for the interesting cannabinoids that are going to be really important medically. But the main thing that this plant needs is improved agronomic traits that work better for farmers. And my sense is that if we want agriculture to stay to change on a large scale, consumer demand isn't enough. It has to work for farmers. It has to be a way of growing that is better for farmers. And so what that means is that, you know, you're not saying like grow in this different way that's difficult and expensive because you should, or because consumers want this, and you can charge a little more for it. I think until we can say, let's grow in this different way because it is better for the soil, and your farm is going to be healthier. And when we get it dialed in, you're going to spend way less on inputs, you're going to have way less water runoff, you're going to have way less soil erosion, and as we get your soil more and more healthy, you're going to start to have incredible yields. And I think until it is economically sustainable for farmers it's not the kind of thing that can make a worldwide difference. It has it has to work for farmers.

Eric Hurlock: Yeah. So that's what you're trying to do at Phylos.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, and we're not the only people. I think there's a lot of people working on it, you know, if you look at the numbers so the USDA came out with a report not that long ago and the USDA, surprisingly, as well as the UN and the World Bank, they've all been really pushing for sustainable agriculture. You know, because of the global effect and because they're seeing so many farmers in third world countries have a problem with the eroded soil. But so there's a lot of people pushing for it. But anyway, the USDA came out with this report not that long ago that really quantified how many farmers in the US are using no-till. And I don't, let me ask you, what's your guess? Like, how many, what percentage of the acreage for the main crops in the US would you say is no till?

Eric Hurlock: I'm gonna think it's small, under 10%?

Mowgli Holmes: It's 30%.

Eric Hurlock: Wow, okay.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah.

Eric Hurlock: That's surprising.

Mowgli Holmes: I think that's incredible. It's very surprising. But they're not doing it because someone told them it would be good for the environment. I mean, farmers want to make the environment on their own farm healthy.

Eric Hurlock: Right. Farmers are often stewards of the land. Absolutely.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, that's right. And so they're doing it because it's making their own farms healthier. And because it's working for them. And you know, I think we had this sort of idea for you know, that this idea was that to feed the world, we had to pull all this nitrogen out of the air and then pump all this nitrogen in the soil and till it up every time and which knocks out all the organic matter and then the soil would be kind of dead and in danger of erosion, but that's fine because we can just pump more nitrogen in. And it worked. Right. We got incredible yield. But at the end of the day you have soil erosion.

Eric Hurlock: Yeah, you’re just killing the soil. Yeah.

Mowgli Holmes: And that's the definition of sustainability is just having methods that will work and continue to work.

Eric Hurlock: Let me ask you a question that I ask guests pretty frequently. How can farmers avoid getting the short end of the stick in hemp?

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah. That's a very good question. I mean, you know, I was talking about how in the, in the cannabis industry initially, most of the capital, a lot of the capital is just cultivation. And then, you saw this move recently where, you know, prices started falling and the people with money started realizing, wait, cultivation is not the high returns part of the supply chain. And, you know, they started putting money in other places, and in general, you know, this is a crop that has had incredibly high margins and even right now for hemp it has very high margins. But that's not how things generally work for farmers. And as it becomes more and more commoditized, you know, prices are going to fall and farmers are going to find that it's, it's a, it's a lower margin crop. And things are going to be tough. And then you know, and the only way farmers can survive that is have to scale up really big and then the smaller farms that can't do that, are in trouble. So all of those sort of basic dynamics that work in agriculture, are getting ready to come into play with this new crop and it's hard to be a farmer and not get the short end of the stick. So I think that with this crop in particular, I think that, well so to go back to what you said about consumer demand. I don't think that we can, we can change the world by consumer demand for products that are farmed in a certain way. I think farming in better ways has to be something that works for farmers. But the truth is, consumer demand is something that lets farmers differentiate themselves. So once hemp becomes absolutely a commodity crop, then it's very hard to not get the short end of the stick if you're not able to differentiate yourself somehow. And I think that, I actually think that sustainable cultivation methods are one way for farmers in general on a broad scale to not get the short end of the stick. I think that instead of always facing short term, maximum profits, lets farmers sit back and think about the lifetime of their farm and build their farm in a way that's environmentally and economically sustainable. I think it's a model for farming where farmers don't get the short end of the stick nearly as much because their main asset, their land, isn't being sacrificed for their yields every harvest. And so I think that's one important thing, but in the hemp industry in the cannabis system, farmers can avoid getting the short end of the stick by differentiating themselves. You know, I see every farmer fighting against it just becoming a commodity. You know, so right now, and I don't know how this will play out, but right now farms that are growing organic CBD, and they're able to get that certified by one method or another, and vertically integrate with the products companies, there is a really big demand for farms that are doing things really in special ways. And then even at the products end in the supply chain, you see people trying to give visibility to consumers back to the farmer. You know, they're saying we buy him from this farm that is organic and sustainable. And sometimes in their marketing they bring through images of the farmer. So there's a way for farmers to do things in a great way and then be part of the supply chain in a way that matters to consumers and really get paid appropriately for doing things in a great way.

Eric Hurlock: And that sort of seems like that would work best on a more local scale. Right? Like that sort of like know your farmer, tell the farmer story and the supply chain it seems. I don't know I've been talking to a few people in the hemp space and they do talk about the local supply chains like the processing needs to be a certain distance from where the hemp is grown, etc., etc.

Mowgli Holmes: That's right. That's right. All of this works better. Yeah, so having coherent local supply chains that work, it lets you do what I'm talking about more, you know, lets you be more visible to the end of the supply chain. But also when sort of local communities form around this stuff, I think you get farms that are way more sustainable, economically, for that reason, and for a bunch of other reasons too. You know, they're more integrated with the whole supply chain. And often I think that means like, they have a stake in the processes. They have, you know, they know the people are doing the mechanization and extraction, and they're working with them and it becomes a local ecosystem where there are a number of ways that farmers can get value. And they can, they can sometimes invest in other parts of the supply chain is in a limited way. And because this is when you get large-scale sort of global commoditization, and you're just producing biomass, and God knows where it goes, it's very hard to, I mean, look, this is what happens, it's very hard to be valuable to have control of your own destiny. And hemp is interesting. Right? Because we need processing capacity right now. We don't have it. And it is sort of a chance to create these local markets that are more self-sustaining communities that we've seen before. Does that makes sense to you? Are you are you seeing that start to happen in Pennsylvania?

Eric Hurlock: I feel like there, yeah, there's strong movement for local supply chains. Like that's what a lot of the farmers want to see. Do you think there is room in, like Phylos grows, is there room in the sort of value system or, you know, business model to, you know, leave room for that local supply chain and those small farmers? Like is that going to be an important part of maybe your company's philosophy or how do you see working with small farms?

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, absolutely. So again, there's a conversation that's hard to have without blurring the lines between hemp and cannabis. Right? Like the smallest farms out there are cannabis farms not hemp farms. But we're starting to see him farms where it looks kind of the same, you know, instead of making biomass for extraction, there has, I don't know if you follow this, but there's recently been in the sort of explosion market for smokable hemp flower.

Eric Hurlock: That's the talk here in Pennsylvania. That's what the Amish are growing.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah. And, you know, you can get much better prices for it. And what that means is that suddenly you're getting into a crop that can be grown artisanally. Yeah, and flower quality really, really matters. And, it's a, it's a whole different thing and, for farmers to, for small farmers to survive, they need to be able to leverage the fact that they're small, to grow plants that are unique. And that means growing them with, you know, more individual love and attention and creating really, really high quality. But it also means growing interesting plants that have unique flavor and smell profiles and having access to those. And so the biggest, the biggest sort of moral tension that we see in being a plant breeding company, is that plant breeding has been part of the problem like it's not just neutral science. When you invest millions of dollars, developing new improved cultivars then you have to protect those plants, you have to patent them, you have to make sure you are making plenty of money from them and that people aren't stealing them from you. And that's how it works on the commodities market, the large scale commodities market. And I don't know how to change that. But the result of that has been the ownership of all the important plant genetics has been consolidated in the hands of a few very large companies that put in all that investment to making new varieties. But our beliefs, and I mean, I think this is, you know, I don't, I don't know how the large scale farmers feel about this yet. But our belief is that there should be room for a vibrant community of open source genetics, alongside the global market, where there's a few varieties that take over because than half a percent increase in improved yield. That there should be a market for diverse and interesting stuff that is not owned by big companies and you see a push for this in groups like the Open Source Seeds Initiative. Do you know about them?

Eric Hurlock: I have heard about them? Yeah.

Mowgli Holmes: They are really interesting. And they have a lot of sort of old school University-based breeders involved and what they want is a world where lots of people can do breeding and lots of small farmers can differentiate themselves because they have really interesting unique stuff. And where those varieties aren’t owned by a couple of big companies, where they're sort of owned by the community the way the seeds used to be. And we see that as a really important vision for how the future should be. At the same time, we don't see how that works for the global commodity part of the agricultural supply chain. And so until things like that that are inherently intention, and our approach is that it's better to acknowledge those tensions and pay attention to them. And the way we're going to handle that is that, when we develop varieties that are for the flower market, a market that thrives on uniqueness and diversity, and isn't about like, this is the best new variety and it's slightly higher yield, everyone's got to use it now. It's more about a new entry in a unique ecosystem. When we develop varieties like that, we're going to release them under open source licenses. So that everybody can breed with them. Everybody can use them. There's no licensing fees. And that all of the breeders and there's a ton in this industry can take whatever we've made and freely build on it. And in our minds, that is the biggest thing we can do to help small farmers. I mean, the other big thing at helping them get into collectives where they increase their buying power. But from our point of view, the biggest thing we can do is make sure that a few improved varieties don't wipe out all the stuff that's out there, that there is sort of a side-by-side world of lots of interesting stuff that is essentially open source. And so we, we’re committed to supporting that too, and releasing flower varieties for everyone to work with.

Eric Hurlock: Okay.

Mowgli Holmes: You know, I don't know if that does enough. But that's what we see as what we can do.

Eric Hurlock: Let me completely change the subject. If you don't mind. Maybe it's not completely changing the subject - still within the realm of cannabis. Should the cannabis industry in general, or Phylos in particular, would you be addressing any of the shameful past in cannabis prohibition? And I'm talking, you know specifically about that now there's a whole lot of rich white guys making more money from this plant that put a lot of people of color, you know, in jail and have, you know, destroyed families and you know, all sorts of things. Is there a responsibility? And how would you speak to that?

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, I think there's a growing sense in the cannabis industry that there is a responsibility. I will also say that I have not heard a compelling idea for how to address it so far. So it is very clear that we had this set of laws that led to total decimation of inner city populations of people of color, where sometimes like a third of all men under 35 are in prison.

Eric Hurlock: Right. It's astounding.

Mowgli Holmes: Yeah, just a set of laws that have been really really destructive and have served to sort of lock in the racist economic infrastructure in this country. And then those laws go away. And all these, like already rich white guys descend and are making all the money. And it is something that is sort of inherently wrong about that. And, you know, what we've seen so far is we've seen some local attempts to bring equity into the regulatory structure. So Oakland, for instance, determined that, you know, some percentage of their licenses were going to go to the actual precincts that were most hardest hit by the war on drugs. And that was a regulatory mess, unfortunately. It was so complex to implement that many people didn't feel like it accomplished much. There's some other regulatory jurisdictions or they trying to do similar things. They're trying to do something like that in Massachusetts. And I think that states should be trying to do that. But it's hard. It's hard to make a big impact like that, I think. And then there's groups like in again, in Oakland, there's this group called the Hood Incubator, where they said, all right, there's an opportunity for people of color who are in these areas that were hit by the war on drugs to get into the cannabis industry and make money. And but it turns out that when you take legal steps to keep entire regions impoverished, they're not well positioned to step up and make a lot of money in a system that they haven't been allowed to be part of. So this incubator, you know, was helping people of color become entrepreneurs and helping them with the licensing process and all of that and that's what group that we've donated to and supported financially. So we do see it as our job to support efforts like that. But there just has to be a bigger plan. And you know, these little projects aren't going to make a huge impact. And so some of the more progressive companies in the industry have been talking for a couple years about what a reparations project would look like. Some way to take a lot of the money that's being generated in this industry, and funnel it back to those neighborhoods or those communities in a way that actually works. It is a hard problem to solve. It really is. But we have to and we are talking to people more and more often these days about how to do it, but the industry sort of needs to come together and build something big.

Eric Hurlock: Yeah, needs to be talked about more often. Is there anything else you'd want to tell me either about your business or cannabis or your personal life anything at all sort of to close on? No pressure.

Mowgli Holmes: I guess the only thing I would say is that people have a lot riding on CBD being this incredible substance that can fix everything. And it is a pretty extraordinary molecule and it has this incredible safety profile and it's very hard to take too much of it really does help with a bunch of things. But I think people need to sort of refocus and think about the revolution not being about CBD but it being about hemp. Because, you look at the plant as a whole. There really are an extraordinary amount of things that the plant can do. And you know, there are all these other cannabinoids that it is going to be able to make and all of these other products that we talked about, like bioplastics and Hempcrete and fiber. And at the end of the day, I think because it's such an unusual plant. I think if we're focused on the plan itself, we can be focused on how the plant itself can help to change how agriculture works, and kind of serve as a model for how farmers can do better than they have with these other crops. Because if you have a really strange, interesting plant that could do a lot of things, farmers have a lot of potential to differentiate themselves and to avoid commoditization. And I think this is a crop that will be good for farmers. And I think it can change the math for them.

Eric Hurlock: Dr. Mowgli homes from Phylos Bioscience. Thank you very much for your time today.

Mowgli Holmes: Thank you.

> Listen to Episode 56 of the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast.