Behind the OSU Global Hemp Innovation Center: An Interview with Dr. Jay Noller & Dr. Jeffery Steiner
The Oregon State University (OSU) College of Agricultural Sciences is home to the largest, most comprehensive Hemp research program in the nation known as the Global Hemp Innovation Center (GHIC). The university is dedicated to advancing the hemp industry and solving the significant global challenges presented by the growing demand for food, fiber, essential oils, and other products that hemp is capable of producing.
While the university has been engaged in hemp research for more than a century, it wasn’t until the turning of the proverbial page that was the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, that finally opened the door for the GHIC to be formally created. While the GHIC holds its stature today as a result of the body of work being done by the university’s more than 50 faculty across 20 disciplines and 7 colleges, it would not have been possible without the thought leadership and drive of the GHIC directors, Jay Noller and Jeffrey Steiner, and administrator Kristin Rifai.
Dr. Noller is the Director of the GHIC & Professor Emeritus of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Dr. Steiner is the Associate Director of the GHIC. Both of them have illustrious backgrounds in research and academia and are internationally known for their accomplishments across various disciplines. As a result of our continued collaboration with the GHIC, Vanguard has had the opportunity on numerous occasions to engage both Dr. Noller and Dr. Steiner in rich and insightful discussions around the ongoing research efforts of the GHIC and the future of the hemp industry as a whole. As a result of these conversations, we requested the opportunity to have one of our very own OSU alumni and current Vanguard R&D Engineer, Shane Sehgal, sit down with both Dr. Noller and Dr. Steiner for an in-depth discussion around their unique experiences, expertise, and the origins of the GHIC.
Shane: To offer some context, I'd love to get to each of your backgrounds before you went ahead and joined the GHIC, as well as what led each of you to the positions where you are now.
Dr. Noller: I joined the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science in 2000, with research on soil geomorphology in various parts of the world, particularly focused on archaeological studies of early agrarian societies – seeking answers to when and how humans figured out farming. I became Head in 2014, administering to a diverse assemblage of research, teaching and extension in natural resources, many commodities, conventional and organic agriculture, large and small farms. This was just before the 2014 Farm Bill passage and I saw the need to set up research framework around a new-old crop that missed the last 80 years of science and technological advancement. Rather than impose this new, academically risky crop on others, I took it on as my new policy pursuit that expanded into a research pursuit.
I currently represent Oregon State University on all matters that are hemp related, and I've enjoyed doing that since late 2014. I am Oregon's research leader on all things hemp. Starting in 2015, I linked up with dozens of universities and institutions in Europe and started growing hemp in 2015 in Serbia. That was effectively the launching of OSU’s hands-on hemp research program which had to take place overseas because of problems with getting seeds into the state for the university to actually grow. In addition to that, I began participation in field research on hemp in China in 2018, so we've expanded there and into several other countries, and continue to do that in different states. So, my role is to look at hemp from the standpoint of not only what's best for Oregon, but also what's best for the nation. And then, of course, last but not certainly least, global trade and market classes product specifications. For the past two years, I've also been working directly with states and the US government on the hemp importation and exportation processes for hemp products, which are slowly becoming available now.
Dr. Steiner: My previous position was a Division Director for Plant Production at the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington DC. I had a staff that led the extramural grant programs that address all aspects of crop production like genetics, genomics of plant physiology, plant products, cropping systems, and so forth. As hemp was recognized as a legal crop, I served as the technical lead for hemp and worked with USDA administration to establish policies allowing financial support of hemp research, education, and extension activities. This allowed hemp to be considered for funding like any other commodity. It was at NIFA that I met many of the hemp researchers around the country while serving at the USDA advisor to the first nation-wide Hatch multistate hemp research project and also assisted the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist in organizing the first nation-wide symposium to brief USDA employees on the status of hemp science.
My wife and I raised our family in Oregon, and decided that it was time to move home, so we came back to Oregon and I began my work with the GHIC. But prior to that I had spent 25 years with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, both here in Oregon, as well as in the Washington DC area. My background as an agricultural systems researcher and administrator helps me have a broad perspective on agriculture around the country and how a new crop like hemp can fit in.
Shane: It's pretty clear that Oregon State has a very rich, deep history with hemp research. What was it like when the 2018 Farm Bill passed? Did it kind of just open this up for the university to have more opportunities working with Hemp? What was the climate like around the university? Was there a lot of excitement?
Dr. Noller: There was excitement to some degree, but also not a whole lot mainly because of the fear factor – hemp was just decriminalized at federal level and yet the US government hadn’t yet embodied that. A large part of the OSU budget is funded by the federal government. We had to deal with numerous hurdles to getting the program off the ground. The first of which was that typically a University has a certain mindset of “these are things we've always done” and innovation is something that isn't necessarily always thought of as an academic exercise. We typically teach from books. So, we had to break out of that mindset and stop focusing on a backward-looking approach, and instead change the framework to looking forward to innovating. So, that was our first hurdle to overcome.
At the time we had also just gotten a new dean, so we had to present our case on just how important this was, could be, and would be for the college. We had to take the approach of convincing not only the new dean but many others around the program that this isn't any sort of crop that's a new fad, that hemp will keep going. So, the university had to really take a deep dive, to do the pilot studies to really understand that we didn't have a government that was looking forward to needing to change things in house and then also fund that because the market could out-run us. We had to overcome that as well to even get the program to a place where we could get it off the ground.
And then the final hurdle was that even after the 2018 Farm Bill passed, we had an in-house general counsel assigned to us and they were very hesitant because they really didn't like the legal risks of cannabis at all, so that was a barrier we didn't need. Luckily, I figured out how to get around them, and we were able to get outside counsel to advise us and once that happened it was just go, go, go and the ball just continued rolling from there.
Shane: It sounds like there's a lot of interesting initiatives that you guys are working on. I know, Dr. Steiner, you had mentioned at least six OSU colleges that have faculty that can serve multiple industry sectors are now involved in the GHIC and that the number of faculty involved with the center is growing, it appears quite quickly. Could you go ahead and touch on some of the other initiatives or research that's going on around the entire consortia that is really interesting to you guys?
Dr. Steiner: One of the first consortia that really took off was driven by the livestock industry in the state of Oregon. The initiative was to look at the potential for utilizing hemp as a feed supplement for livestock. Primarily taking on this research are faculty within the Department of Animal and Rangelands Sciences and Veterinary Medicine. They are looking at the feed value of the hemp biomass that's left after the cannabinoids and other compounds have been extracted. We’ve found this material has a very high feed value that works very well with sheep and which we are now testing with dairy cows. We will soon begin work with beef cattle and even poultry. But, because of hemp's legal status, and particularly back in the 1970s, hemp could not be fed to livestock used for food production. So, we've had to start all over to not only look at the value of that material and its effects on livestock when they eat it, but also what impacts does it have on any residues that are left over in milk? In meat? And so therefore, the Food and Drug Administration's very interested in that and so we're generating data to be able to reestablish hemp and hemp byproducts as a feed material for livestock.
Another one that we're very excited about is based on the work that Jay launched back in 2019, and that we extended in 2020. Which is to look at how well different hemp varieties grown for cannabinoids are adapted to the different environments around the country. With that, we have engaged partners at 14 different universities to get an idea of how hemp varieties interact with their production conditions, what impacts that has on the products that are made from the cannabinoids. as well as getting information on how well they are adapting to these other production environments? How do they respond to diseases, insects, different day lengths that you have in different regions and so forth. With that we've just now formed an exciting partnership with the University of California Davis and Washington State University, as well as the USDA National Plant Germplasm System. So, what is really exciting is that we are really looking to peel back the fundamental genetics and look at the diversity of germplasm and how that is adapted for essential oil production, such as the cannabinoids like CBD, but also for grain and fiber production. So, this is a very exciting partnership that's going to have a great deal of benefit, not only to breeders in Oregon, but hemp breeders all around the country and even overseas. So, those are two major initiatives that we're strongly involved in right now.
Dr. Noller: Yeah, and to add to that, one of the things we hear a lot is about the FDA is holding us back, right? This is in part because the FDA also is another federal agency where there are written and unwritten rules that are leading to the specter of random testing of government employees. And these tests can't tell the difference between say CBN and THC, because the blood test doesn’t differentiate the two. So, we’re working with the current administration to try to find those pinch points so they are not in a position where they have to keep looking over their shoulders for fear of their job. There's just a lot of things on the policy side to look over and say, “we need the science.” That's why the center is deeply engaged with the USDA. We look forward to hopefully being set up with the FDA in terms of helping them move forward so that the industry can benefit. We want to help reduce barriers so that the farmer and all the people along the supply chain can make a profit.
Shane: Those partnerships you mentioned are also very intriguing. Could you touch some more of them that the GHIC has been able to foster thus far? It really sounds like the initiatives you have are very well-received, even beyond the University.
Dr. Steiner: Yes, when you think about the Global Hemp Innovation Center, it's not just the College of Agriculture. The center reaches across the campus and even beyond, We have also had a lot of interactions with companies such as Vanguard to build up our research capacity. We have also found that while the market is getting sorted out for the private sector, there are companies holding a lot of diverse genetics that they're willing to donate to Oregon State University for the common good of the industry. Oregon State, University of California Davis, and Washington State University have formed a West Coast partnership and are cooperating with the new USDA plant germplasm repository in Geneva, NY to begin developing a national hemp germplasm collection that will be accessible to hemp breeders all around the country. There's a vision that without a good foundation of genetic materials, then the industry is not going to be able to move forward, just as Jay has talked about. So, that's one, new exciting development.
As in the past year, there are hemp seed companies donating seeds of their varieties to our national variety trials to help us work with our land grant university partners in other states to develop the methods for establishing national hemp variety testing trials. Some of these varieties are also being used in coordinated irrigation trials in Oregon, California, and Colorado to define how much water it actually takes to irrigate hemp. Because these companies are willing to donate substantial amounts of their seeds, it helps us greatly keep costs down so the grant funds we receive from the USDA Agricultural Research Service go further than if we had purchased the seeds for these types of studies. And what's really cool with that, too, is that one of the companies is also donating seeds to our Hemp Equity program so that black farmers as well as Native American farmers can begin to explore how to grow hemp and to reduce their personal financial risk to grow the crop. We are working with colleagues at Alabama A&M University and Vote Hemp to reach Black and Native American farmers in Alabama, Tennessee, and South Dakota. So, that's another type of partnership that's really cool to see emerge.
Dr. Noller: In addition to that, partnerships are also coming up with companies themselves, right, so they're turning our faculty into a sort of R&D engine for a particular product that the company has in mind. We are looking to help continue to have those conversations across the gamut whether it be for building materials, medical and health arts, and extraction and processing of not only cannabinoids but beyond with other chemicals found in hemp. And then there are also interactions with companies that we are having around textiles. On that side of the industry, we are seeing quite a different number of government pursuits, like who the government needs to acquire certain types of fibers for textiles and other materials. To accomplish this, we pull from OSU faculty not only in the agricultural and food sciences, but also in engineering, forestry, business, and pharmacy. So, right now it's across the full range of talent at OSU that can be tapped to help industry and we are very excited to see where our current and future partnerships will take us.
Shane: Dr. Noller, Dr. Steiner, it has been a pleasure catching up with you both. As an alumni of Oregon State University, I am thrilled that I am able to work together with you both through Vanguard’s partnership with the GHIC. Thank you again for your time and I look forward to seeing you both in the near future.
About Vanguard Scientific’s Commitment to Academia and Research: Vanguard Scientific™ is dedicated to advancing the cannabis industry through collaboration and innovation at the highest level. Through thought leadership and strategic partnerships in academia, Vanguard takes a hands-on approach to making meaningful advancements through product development, new technology collaboration and method creation, whitepaper and technical writing publication, scientific journal research and curriculum development with academia and industry partners. It is through these collaborative and concentrated efforts that Vanguard Scientific™ remains committed to staying on the cutting edge of this fast-paced industry.