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Why the concept of terroir matters for drug cannabis production

Abstract

This article questions how the concepts of terroir and landrace are relevant for the drug cannabis industry at a time when cannabis legalisation and its associated “green rush” pose a growing threat to both the genetic and cultural diversity that is associated with historical small cannabis farming. The article draws on a multidisciplinary approach based on both extensive secondary sources and primary research. A large and detailed definition work first informs what terroir and landrace are and most especially what they have in common, from the typicity of their end products, to how they owe their existence to geographic remoteness and isolation, and to how tradition and change (or modernity) affect their development and conservation. Defining and connecting terroirs and landraces in historical, anthropological, environmental, and of course chemical terms, makes it possible to determine how cannabis terroirs compare with and differ from other terroirs and plants, based on the rare dual qualities of the plant (being both a food and a drug) but also, given the illegality of its cultivation, on the specific territorial characteristics of its production areas, notably their geographic remoteness and isolation, their politico-territorial control deficits, etc. The article concludes that acknowledging and protecting cannabis terroirs and landraces matters because it favours the conservation and the promotion of a biological, cultural, and sensorial diversity that has endured illegality and repression but is now threatened by legalisation.

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Notes

  1. Which is “the ability of individual genotypes to alter their growth and development in response to changes in environmental factors” (Barrett, 1982, quoted in Small, 2015: 199).

  2. This article is about drug (psychoactive) cannabis, not non-drug cannabis (“hemp” of fibre cannabis) or the fast emerging medicinal uses of psychoactive cannabis.

  3. To clarify the terminology: variety refers to a taxonomic rank while cultivar is a registered cultivated variety defined by a stable phenotype. As for strain (widely mentioned in the cannabis industry), it is a term used in microbiology that is without any official meaning in botany (although it is often used to refer to the group of offspring from a modified plant). In the end, the best way to globally refer to the different cannabis varieties and cultivars, including the so-called strains, is by speaking of cultigens, that is, “deliberately selected plants that may have arisen by intentional or accidental hybridisation in cultivation, by selection from existing cultivated stocks, or from variants within wild populations that are maintained as recognisable entities solely by continued propagation” (Brickell et al., 2009: 1). As a consequence, we can say that if all cultivars are cultigens (they are cultivated), not all cultigens are cultivars (because not all cultigens have been formally named and catalogued as cultivars). The landraces with which we are concerned hereafter cannot be considered varieties, or cultivars, much less strains, but they are clearly cultigens.

  4. I would like to acknowledge here the late Frenchy Cannoli (1956–2021), who was not only a master hashishin and a well-known cannabis activist, but was also the most fervent advocate of a terroir-based approach of cannabis production. See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/31/us/frenchy-cannoli-dead.html.

  5. Let us acknowledge that tradition and modernity constitute an “obsolete dichotomy” in that they are “not polar opposites in a linear theory of social change”, or steps on a ladder to economic development (Germond-Duret, 2016; Gusfield, 1967). Here, the focus is on change vs. conservation, and the word tradition will be used in a non-fixist manner.

  6. Or “agricultural land manager” as it was then called since “agronomy” only appeared in the mid-eighteenth century.

  7. Despite common belief, there is no historical evidence that Cistercian monks from Burgundy delimited “terroirs” (the notion of climats does not really take hold before the late seventeenth century). The alleged role of the Cistercian monks in defining terroirs will be put forward only in the 1920s in the context of the emerging wine folklore (Garcia, 2020: 144). In fact, it does not seem that location or soil quality were qualifying criteria of wines before the mid-eighteenth century (Garcia, 2014; Labbé, 2011).

  8. Actually a translation of goût du terroir, or taste of terroir/place, rather than of terroir.

  9. Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, the French official institution responsible for the implementation of “the French policy on official signs of identification of the origin and quality of agricultural and food products”.

  10. An agroecosystem is “a biological and natural resource system managed by humans for the primary purpose of producing food as well as other socially valuable nonfood products and environmental services.” (Wood et al., 2000: 24).

  11. Cannabinoids and terpenes are secondary metabolites. The most prevalent cannabinoids of the at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabinol (CBN). Cannabinoids are known to have many psychotropic and pharmacological effects. As for terpenes, they are “responsible for the flavor of the different varieties of cannabis and determine the preference of the cannabis users” but “pharmacological effects have been detected for some cannabis terpenes and they may synergize the effects of the cannabinoids” (Flores-Sanchez & Verpoorte, 2008: 616, 627). In any case, terpenes contained in both cannabis and hops have been shown to “exhibit antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-tumor activities” (Nuutinen, 2018: 220).

  12. It is actually more suggested than formally demonstrated as scientific evidence is still lacking.

  13. The results of various studies that have analysed the relationship between leaf terpenoid concentrations and nutrient availability have largely proven contradictory.

  14. “NASA Study: Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Will Help and Hurt Crops”, Samson Reiny, 3 May 2016, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/nasa-study-rising-carbon-dioxide-levels-will-help-and-hurt-crops (page visited on 6 January 2022).

  15. Landraces are not, as is most often explained in the amateur cannabis-related literature, strains (never defined), wild varieties (or, worse, wild species), necessarily purebreds (whatever that means genetically and historically), very stable and with very few variationsif any—from one plant to another (actually the very opposite of what a landrace population is).

  16. Populations of open-pollinated and unlisted (by the ICNCP) cultivars that are: more stable than landraces, not necessarily linked to a specific locality, used to be commercialised and/or maintained by gardeners and farmers before the development of modern F1 hybrids.

  17. “Nanda Devi: Landraces and Tall Tales from the Himalayas”, Blog post from The Real Seed Company, 30 August 2018, https://landrace.blog/2018/08/30/nanda-devi-and-tall-tales-from-the-himalayas/ (page visited on 6 January 2022).

  18. When the so-called Hippie Trail that connected the world’s major cannabis-producing centres across Asia made the global success of Afghan, Indian, and Thai landraces and initiated the modern hybridisation era (Chouvy, 2019b).

  19. In the same way that the Islamic conquests in the Mediterranean region but also the Anglo-French wars had a strong (but varied) impact on local vineyards and the European wine trade (Enjalbert, 1953; Meloni & Swinnen, 2018).

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Chouvy, PA. Why the concept of terroir matters for drug cannabis production. GeoJournal (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-022-10591-x

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Keywords

  • Cannabis
  • Terroir
  • Landrace
  • Typicity
  • Tradition
  • Illegality
  • Legalisation