Hemp Cannabinoids Unveiled as Potential Natural Pesticides in Cornell University Study

By Michael Feldenkrais, CEO of CATV

A groundbreaking study from Cornell University sheds light on the potential for cannabinoids, derived from hemp, to serve as natural pesticides. Researchers at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell AgriTech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) have discovered that hemp plants with a higher concentration of cannabinoids exhibit less damage from chewing insects compared to those with lower cannabinoid content.

This research, conducted as part of Cornell’s Hemp Breeding Program initiated in 2017, opens the door to the development of new natural insecticides. However, the current focus suggests that these pesticides are more likely to be applied to non-edible plants, given the pharmacological effects of cannabinoids such as CBDA, THCA, and CBGA. These compounds, convertible to CBD, THC, and CBG through decarboxylation, pose challenges for use on food crops.

Larry Smart, a plant breeder and professor at CALS, underscores that while the intoxicating and medicinal effects of cannabinoids have been extensively studied, little research has explored why cannabis plants evolved to produce over 100 distinct substances.

“It has been speculated that they are defensive compounds, because they primarily accumulate in female flowers to protect seeds, which is a fairly common concept in plants,” explained Smart, the senior author of the study.

Cornell’s research demonstrated that hemp varieties lacking cannabinoids were highly susceptible to damage from Japanese beetles, while those containing cannabinoids showed significantly less damage. Isolating CBDA and CBGA for controlled insect feeding studies revealed that insect larvae experienced stunted growth and reduced survival rates as cannabinoid concentrations increased.
George Stack, a postdoctoral researcher in Smart’s lab and one of the study’s authors, highlighted the significance of the findings in developing THC-compliant hemp cultivars with inherent defenses against herbivores. The study, titled “Cannabinoids Function in Defense Against Chewing Herbivores in Cannabis Sativa L.,” was published in October in the peer-reviewed journal Horticulture Research.

Despite the promising prospects of cannabinoids as natural pesticides, Stack acknowledged potential regulatory barriers due to the compounds’ pharmacological activity. Further studies are needed to explore the full spectrum of pests affected by cannabinoids, with sap-sucking insects like aphids as potential subjects, although federal marijuana illegality currently limits comprehensive research in this area.

In conclusion, Cornell University’s research unveils a new dimension in the potential applications of hemp cannabinoids, offering a natural solution to pest control with implications for sustainable agriculture.

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