Illinois became the 20th state in the country to legalize medical marijuana earlier this month. As more doctors and people begin to see evidence of medical marijuana’s possible health benefits, more states will undoubtedly begin to approve of the drug. But one issue is starting to raise questions: Could biotechnology giant Monsanto and other bioengineering companies target genetically modified marijuana next?

Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seeds. In the U.S., the company has provided genetically altered seeds for corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat, among others. In fact, GE corn, soybeans, and cotton account for about 90 percent of all such crops in the U.S., according to the FDA.

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Genetically engineered foods come with potential benefits, such as added nutrients, added flavor; drought, disease, and insecticide resistance; and when farming, the crops can be closer together, maximizing land usage. In recent years, the health effects of GE food has become a large part of public discourse because of concerns that they aren’t tested effectively. The FDA currently relies on studies provided by the developers of GE foods to determine whether or not they’re safe.  

RNA Interference 

Monsanto has effectively cornered the GE food market. Now, it’s researching a process known as RNA interference (RNAi). This process allows gene regulation through double-stranded RNA. In 2006, researchers published a study in which they were able to shut down, or silence, certain genes within a nematode worm. They reported in the same study that they were also able to upregulate, or activate, certain genes through a process known as RNAa.

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As it applies to plants, biologists were able to regulate the pigment-producing gene in a purple petunia. By using RNAi, the colors of the petunia weren’t a solid purple, but instead, a mix of white and purple.

Gentically Engineered Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana has been around for quite some time now, however, it was done through interbreeding strains, and not through modern biotechnology. As medical marijuana becomes more popular, companies like Monsanto might see the plants as the next opportunity. By using RNAa, Monsanto would be able to upregulate the genes responsible for the potency of the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This could create a scenario in which the plant’s DNA becomes completely controllable. In addition to this, using its other technology, the company would be able to outgrow competitors in both yields and crop size. In Canada, a new law allows large-scale growers to distribute marijuana by mail, opening up a major market for companies like Monsanto, according to Chicago Now.   

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Monsanto hasn’t announced any plans to enter the market, but considering their dominance in agribusiness, a step into the medical marijuana world wouldn’t be unfounded, especially since medical marijuana is a $1.5 billion industry. Of course, all this speculation could just be drummed up by small-scale growers, worried about losing their business.