My Personal Breeding Ethics
In this section, I want to focus on my ethics of breeding. I'll cover my how to's of breeding on another page.
What are my breeding goals?
My simple goal of breeding is to get a better plant than the one I have. And, a better one in the next generation, and so on. Continuous improvement is not only possible it's inevitable, if you have the self discipline to follow a few rules. If you think you don't, relax. Breeding cannabis develops self discipline like nothing else I've ever done, except maybe fighting.
Everyone is a Connoisseur
In my opinion, conniosseur taste is NOT the exclusive domain of breeders and experienced growers. I think even the newbie consumer has as valid a sense of taste for cannabis as I do. People like what they like, you can't fault them for it. I've always invited any and all to my testing sessions because of this. In fact, I think the choosing of plants is the 'heavy lifting' of breeding while the task of growing out of a few hundred plants is what scientists refer to as trivial.
Truth is the currency of the breeder. When someone pays me for seeds, they're paying me to tell the truth as much as they're paying for the seeds themselves. When I say truth, I'm talking about the pedigree, but it can also be additional knowledge about the seeds being payed for. The only reliable way to give other people the truth is if you know it yourself. This next point may seem obvious, but the best line of defense against fooling other people is not to fool yourself. And as R.P. Feynman so accurately pointed out, “you are the easiest one to fool”. Selling truth requires more self discipline than selling product.
What's in a name?
First, the breeder will purchase or be gifted genetic material to begin breeding with. Since they will be breeding, it is very important to know the source of the genetic material they're staring with. To me, un named genetics have considerably less value, even if it's fire. Knowledgable growers would point out that names are not reliable anyway and I agree. But, my solution is to go with whatever name was given to me with the genetic material.
For example, I have a cut of Master Kush. But, there are so many Master Kush's that the name has lost it's meaning. I still call it Master Kush and if I breed it, it will be called that in the pegigree. Since I have no way of finding the truth of that MK cut, the name becomes almost a formality in my mind, but I keep it because it's better than nothing.
Since names are of utmost importance, the breeder makes and keeps labels of every plant he/she grows as if life depends on it. Then, they keep records of crosses which accumulate into a pedigree.
My personal rules for names
My rule is simple. I try to give seed batches/strains/crosses a name that alludes to the heritage of those seeds, while saving unique names for those extremely unique plants that only come along 'once in a blue moon'.
I'm a label Nazi!
Labels are the breeders first line of defense against error. I say defense because as far as I can tell, eliminating error completely is a fantasy. It's not an issue of whether you will have an error in labeling, it's only about how you will handle it. I have extremely strict rules about labels that I adhere to. If I find a seed without a label, it has no worth to me. If a seedlings' label is lost, that plant is worthless to me unless it's I can identify it without a shadow of doubt. I still use my old method of transferring labels from container to container when I repot, but a system that attaches the label to the seedling (like my associate 'El Wood' uses) would obviously be less prone to error.
My dad was one of those people who can recite long strings of numbers back after hearing them, even reversed. He would lean on me about my memory, but when I grew up I found out my memory was not bad, just average. I still take the subject of memory seriously, and have always tried to apply the tips and tricks my dad tried to teach me.
I always took notes when I was breeding guppies, so when I started breeding cannabis I did the same. In a few years, I realized that I was effectively keeping proof of my law breaking activities, got paranoid and destroyed the evidence. One the one hand, I knew I needed to be keeping records for breeding, but I also knew that it was risky to do so.
I worked out a system of writing enough information on labels themselves that it greatly enhanced my memory. By looking at the letter code, I could mentally rebuild the pedigree even if I hadn't looked at those seeds for a few years. After each chunk of 'inheritance' was memorized, I would reduce that to an acronym and so on. I've always had a good visual memory, but like most peoples it was completely untrained. After 5-10 years of practicing with the labels, I was able to step back in time, visualizing plants and their traits from over a decade ago in detail.
The breeder needs to keep goals in mind through the course of a number of generations. An ability to catalogue and memorize many visual traits is valuable as well, but keeping breeding goals in line is most important. Again, it's easier now than back in the day because you can take notes without paranoia. The notes you take will help other people as well as yourself. Exchanging observations of traits with other people who are growing similar genetics is a resource that could give the modern breeder some serious leverage.
Open Source Genetics?
Here's where navigating the ethics of breeding could get a bit bumpy. I might say some things that you may disagree with, especially if you already are a breeder with a some experience and a reputation.
The unfortunate fact is that most people get into breeding cannabis for reasons that could be seen as unethical, or even greedy. The common scenario is the grower who has enough years under his/her belt to become aware of the importance of genetics grows a seedling that they consider to be very exceptional. They clone it and after running it a few cycles, decide they should breed it for the purpose of selling seeds.
There is already a conflict of interest arising because a (experienced) commercial grower wants to have exclusive genetics, it's what sets him/her apart from the competition. Ideally, an exclusive clone that no one else has. Their product is for sale, but the cut is a company owned asset. It could be for sale, but the price for such intellectual property would be high.
A grower in this position doesn't even want the seeds to be as good as his/her prize plant. Take a second to let that sink in. Indeed, there are many breeders on the market now who 'breed down' to consumers in that they purposely sell seeds that are less than what they would make for themselves. There are two ways to achieve this; crossing with an inferior male or feminized seeds.
Feminized seeds are an excellent way for the breeder to 'protect', or withhold their best genetics. They have considerably less variation than normal ones, so the chances of finding a plant that exceeds it's mother are slim to none. To their credit, wise growers have discovered that feminized seeds have very little variation and usually buy only one or two of each strain.
And finding a plant that exceeds it's mother is what we've been talking about the whole time. It's what you want. It's what any breeder wants. But, it's not what the unethical breeder who still has one foot in production want's you to be able to grow from the seeds he/she sold you.
What is Stability, exactly?
“You keep using that word, I don't think it means what you think it means”, Inigo Montoya.
Here's what I think happened; The word stable got thrown around in some odd ways by people who were just beginning to breed cannabis, and it somehow made it's way into the popular lexicon. It's not that it has no meaning at all, it's just never used in context. For example, I've yet to figure out what anyone means when they declare that an individual plant is stable. On the other hand, I can understand the word when it is applied to a population of plants and qualified by what trait we are talking about. For example, the statement, “She's a stable pheno” makes no sense to me at all. But, “this seed line is stable for purple pistils” does.
In the mid 70's, I noticed that other breeders were wildly hybridizing everything in sight, so I decided someone had to be responsible and try to preserve existing strains. By the late 80's, other breeders wanted to preserve the old heirloom genes too, and were beginning to try their hands at inbreeding.
Because of it's dioecious nature, normally pollinated cannabis is resistant to reduced variation in populations. It's the exact opposite of corn, which suffers quickly from inbreeding and needs to be outcrossed regularly to keep strains vigorous. I inbred Cherry Bomb exclusively without any incrosses for at least 15 generation with no signs of inbreeding depression at all. In fact, CB is outrageously vigorous and healthy as a strain and still has considerable variation for many traits.
If 'stable' means decreased variation, you don't want it. If it means increased similarity, you do.
When I was breeding Cherry Bomb, I worked towards open pollination early on. In the first few generations, I selected a few from large numbers, applying selective pressure. Later, instead of choosing one best male and one best female, I would include a percentage, eliminating those that didn't fit. Still later, that percentage grew until I was only 'rogue-ing' out a few plants and including most others.
It was during this work that I began to imagine that decreasing variation and increasing similarities were two different things. I still can't explain it well, but I'm convinced it works. Decreased variation would preclude future improvements, while increasing similarities is exactly the path towards continued incremental improvements in the future. Stability of the kind that puts a cap on possible future improvements through exclusive inbreeding is not desirable.
What is a strain exactly, and is it good for anything?
In other areas of horticulture, it's usually agreed that 5-7 generations of inbreeding are needed to call something a strain, but in cannabis breeding the term rarely means that. There are very few strains of cannabis that have been inbred for more than one or two generations. Some have been attempted by backcrossing (linebreeding) to a single plant, but that method has been found to reduce variation too much to support continued improvement.
The fact that we have so few strains is no great tragedy. I don't think they're of much use except in breeding. Personally, I think select clones are the future for both commercial and home growing.
There is one good use for true strains and that is (the selection of) males that don't really need progeny testing. A male from an inbred strain can be counted on to 'breed true'. Additionally, the traits from the inbred male's strain will be known, and therefor easier to sort in the successive generations after the cross.
I want to stress that a special male cannabis plant could be found anywhere. The fact that it comes from an inbred strain doesn't guarantee that male is anything special, it just bypasses the need to progeny test.