The CannaGrow Conference & Expo, held in San Diego on May 7th and 8th, educated attendees on the science of cannabis cultivation. The conference brought subject matter experts from around the country to discuss cannabis breeding and genetics, soil science and cultivation facility design.
Discussions at the conference delved deep into the science behind growing while providing some expert advice. Drew Plebani, chief executive officer of Commercial Cultivator, Inc., gave a comprehensive review of soil ecology and how understanding soil fertility is crucial to successfully growing consistent cannabis. “Soil fertility is measured by laboratories in terms of soil minerals, plant-available nutrients, percent of organic materials, pH levels and most importantly the balance of the soil’s chemical makeup,” says Plebani. “There is no silver bullet in soil ecology; increasing your soil fertility comes down to understanding the composition of soil with analytical testing.” Plebani went on to add that soil systems for cannabis need to be slightly fungal-dominant in developing an endomycorrhizal system, which is optimal for cannabis plant growth.
Tom Lauerman, colloquially known as Farmer Tom and founder of Farmer Tom Organics, kicked off the conference with an introduction to cultivation techniques. Lauerman also delved into his experience working with federal agencies in conducting the first ever health hazard evaluation (HHE) for cannabis with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Through the HHE program, NIOSH responds to requests for evaluations of workplace health hazards, which are then enforced by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Lauerman worked with those federal agencies, allowing them to tour his cultivation facilities to perform an HHE for cannabis processing worker safety. “I was honored to introduce those federal agencies to cannabis and I think this is a great step toward normalizing cannabis by getting the federal government involved on the ground level,” says Lauerman. Through the presentation, Lauerman emphasized the importance of working with NIOSH and OSHA to show federal agencies how the cannabis production industry emerged from the black market, branding itself with a sense of legitimacy.
Adam Jacques, award-winning cultivator and owner of Grower’s Guild Gardens, discussed his success in breeding CBD-dominant strains and producing customized whole-plant extractions for specific patients’ needs. “I find higher percentages of CBD in plants harvested slightly earlier than you would for a high-THC strain,” says Jacques. “Using closed-loop carbon dioxide extraction equipment, we can use multiple strains to homogenize an oil dialed in for each patient’s specific needs.” As a huge proponent of the Entourage Effect, Jacques stressed the importance of full plant extraction using fractionation with carbon dioxide. He also stressed the importance of analytical testing at every step during processing.
Zacariah Hildenbrand, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at C4 Laboratories, provided the 30,000-foot view of the science behind compounds in cannabis, their interactions and his research. With the help of their DEA license, he started the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative, where they are working with Dr. Kevin Schug at the University of Texas-Arlington to screen various cannabis strains to discover new molecules and characterize their structure. “Secondarily, we are using gene expression profiles and analysis to understand the human physiological response and the mechanism through which they elicit that response,” says Hildenbrand. “As this research evolves, we should look to epigenetics and understanding how genes are expressed.” His collaborative effort uses Shimadzu’s Vacuum Ultraviolet Spectroscopy (VUV), and they use the only VUV instrument in an academic laboratory in the United States. “Pharmaceuticals are supposed to be a targeted therapy and that is where we need to go with cannabis,” says Hildenbrand. Him and his team at C4 Laboratories want to work on the discovery of new terpenes and analyze their potential benefits, which could be significant research for cannabis medicine.
Other important topics at the conference included facility design and optimization regarding efficient technologies such as LED lighting and integrated pest management.
Regulators in Colorado last week announced another massive recall of cannabis found to contain banned pesticides. 92 batches of cannabis plants, with roughly a dozen plants in each batch, were recalled for using the product, Guardian, on the plants. The culprit was an ingredient in the product called avermectin, a pesticide listed as a ‘bad actor’ by the Pesticide Action Network.
The recall follows dozens of others in Colorado this year, all because tests found pesticides present in cannabis samples. When news spreads of cannabis recalls due to concerns of pesticide contamination, it paints a picture of worrisome problems rampant in the cannabis industry. Alarmists say continued recalls could have disastrous consequences like stalling legalization initiatives or slowing growth in new markets.
In the food industry, recalls are a part of routine business. The FDA created the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a way to prevent the shipment of contaminated food products into the supply. In 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill made news when it sickened dozens with an E.coli outbreak and issued extensive recalls as a result. After that happened, the company reevaluated its practices and improved their food safety program to prevent future outbreaks.
When a recall occurs, it should prompt a surge in inquiries, responses and audits that need to be addressed and reviewed carefully. Ample proactive planning including HACCP, comprehensive risk analysis and validation studies or documents help prevent recalls from occurring in the first place. When recalls do happen, reactive measures should occur immediately with a strategy in place to deal with all of the regulatory compliance, quality, safety and branding ramifications.
When a recall occurs in the food industry, it generally means that there was a foodborne illness outbreak, followed by a reactive measure. That reactive measure, the recall itself, is what prevents foodborne illness outbreaks from growing or becoming an epidemic. Recalls in the food industry show that regulators are concerned about contamination and taking action to safeguard public health. In other words, when a recall occurs, it means that someone is watching.
I think recalls in the cannabis industry are a sign of the marketplace growing up. Recalls can be seen as a good thing, a sign of proper safety measures in place to prevent further contamination. Reporting recalls or failures means that professionals are beginning to pay attention to the safety and quality of processes in place at cannabis production facilities. Looking at the long-term sustainability of the cannabis industry, keeping quality and safety at top of mind will help businesses self-legitimize. Those not striving for the safest practices and the best quality will lose their ability to compete as the market continues to grow. Recalls can tarnish a company’s brand, but they also indicate that the industry has reached a point of legitimacy. Cannabis is now out of the closet and under a microscope.
In a letter sent to lawmakers last week, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced plans to make a decision on rescheduling cannabis by mid-2016. The announcement could represent the culmination of a shift in the federal government’s attitude toward cannabis legalization.
Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic, meaning the government views it as lacking medical benefits and have a high potential for abuse. The rescheduling of cannabis has the potential to open the floodgates for research, including much needed clinical trials.
Derek Peterson, chief executive officer at Terra Tech, a cannabis-focused agriculture company, believes this bodes well for the growth potential of the cannabis industry. “From the perspective of quality and safety standards, I find it unlikely that rescheduling it would negatively impact the degree to which cannabis is examined,” says Peterson. “It’s unnecessarily high position on the DEA drug schedule does nothing but limit the industry’s potential for growth, stall any meaningful pharmaceutical testing and increase law enforcement’s ability to prosecute non-violent drug offenders,” adds Peterson.
The rescheduling could also potentially allow for the prescribing of cannabis for patients. Stephen Goldner, founder of Pinnacle Labs and president of Regulatory Affairs Associates, is hopeful this will lead to a greater shift in public attitude towards cannabis. “The DEA’s announcement is a clear message to all States and possibly even to United Nations policy makers: even the DEA is willing to reconsider cannabis,” says Goldner. “Since the DEA is reconsidering cannabis, state politicians and local police departments can also be flexible and move away from prohibition, towards the regulation of cannabis.”
The rescheduling of cannabis could have a tremendous impact on the growth of the cannabis industry, including more clinical trials, medical research and physician participation. It could also open the door for more federal agency involvement, as the Schedule I status inhibits any EPA research on cannabis pesticide use or FDA guidance on food and drug good manufacturing practices. When reached for comment, the FDA’s press office said they could not speculate on any involvement in the matter.
DNA stores information about how to build an organism. Just as a series of 0’s and 1’s represents digital data, DNA data is represented by four letters (A, C, G and T), which inherently allows DNA to store more information per unit (Figure 1).
The amount of DNA required to build a human is mind-boggling. The human genome has 3.2 billion A’s, C’s, G’s, or T’s, (called nucleotides). Cannabis has 820 million nucleotides. This is true for every cell in the organism. The DNA from a single human cell when spread out would stretch six feet long. A cell is not visible to the naked eye, yet it contains a microscopic thread of DNA six feet long! If you put all the DNA molecules in your body end to end, the DNA would reach from the Earth to the Sun.
DNA is common in all living things, and all living things are related through DNA. Humans and plants share 50% of their genes. In humans, 99.9% of the DNA is identical, thus just 0.1% of DNA differences accounts for all of the variation observed in humans. Cannabis, as a species, is more variable with approximately 1% of the DNA being different among strains. DNA is a super efficient and reliable information storage system. However, mistakes (mutations) do occur and while infrequent, these mutations account for all the differences observed within a species and is called natural genetic variation. Variation within the genomes of a species can help the species survive in unfavorable conditions (evolution) and is also the source of differences in traits, which is the material that is required for successful breeding.
Natural Genetic Variation
DNA mutations occur in every generation and these changes will be different in each individual creating natural genetic variation. Mutations (or more accurately referred to as DNA changes) will be inherited by offspring and will persist in the population if the offspring reproduce.
DNA differences maintain diversity in the gene pool, allowing organisms to respond to new environments (migration) or environmental changes (adaptation). The two most commonly described cannabis families are Indicas and Sativas. Indicas, being from cooler temperate regions, have wide leaves allowing the maximum capture of light during the shorter growing season. Sativas, being equatorial, have smaller leaves, which may be an advantage for such things as powdery mildew in a humid environment. Figure 2 shows the enormous amount of natural variation in leaves for one species with a worldwide population (Arabidopsis thaliana).
A DNA change that occurred a long time ago will be more useful to divide people/plants into different groups. For example, there are ancient DNA changes that differentiate humans originating from Europe or Asia. Other newer DNA changes allow us to further divide Europeans into those originating from Northern versus Southern Europe. Thus, different DNA changes have different values for determining relatedness or ancestry, yet every DNA change provides some information for determining heredity.
By comparing DNA changes among different strains, we can measure the relatedness between strains. For example, if strain A has a DNA change indicative of Kush ancestry and strain B has a DNA change indicative of hemp ancestry, we can assign strains to branches of the cannabis family tree comprised of strains that contain similar DNA changes. Figure 3 shows 184 strains that have been characterized for these changes, and the position of each strain is based on its shared DNA with neighboring strains. The two best-defined families of cannabis are hemp (blue) and kush (black). Strains within a family are more closely related. Strains in separate families, such as kush and hemp, are more distantly related.
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of articles focused on answering common questions regarding cannabis genetics. If you have questions regarding cannabis genetics, or wish to speak more about the topic please post in the comments section below. The next installment will delve into the THC synthase, gene discovery and manipulation and mapping chromosomes.
Colorado regulators recalled roughly 65 batches of cannabis produced by two separate companies last Friday. Pesticide recalls plastered all over the news in the past few months have painted a picture of the cannabis marketplace to the public as unsafe and lacking crucial quality standards. The continued pesticide recalls in Colorado, along with poor safety standards in Washington, show the cannabis industry in an unfavorable light. The recalls include not only cannabis sold recreationally, but also medical cannabis, which should highlight a sense of urgency to deal with such a pervasive issue.
Because patients with weakened immune systems are seeking treatment with cannabis, it is the producer’s obligation to grow cannabis safely and without pesticides. That requires proper quality controls, pesticide use standard operating procedures, very robust lab testing and an overall push to protect consumer safety from both regulators and industry leaders.
Largely due to federal illegality, there are no EPA-approved pesticides for use in cannabis production, thus a lack of guidelines for states to follow in regulating pesticide use. As a result, states are working to write their own lists of approved pesticides.
Until very recently, Washington had no procedure for recalls of cannabis in place. “The LCB in Washington State has implemented emergency recall rules but more clarity on what types of pesticides are harmful is needed,” says Trek Hollnagel, co-founder of Dope Magazine and a chain of dispensaries in Seattle, WA. It is no secret that the Washington State Liquor Cannabis Board (LCB) poorly regulates cannabis labs.
Reports show immense variation in different labs’ results and rampant laboratory shopping. Dana Luce, co-founder of GOAT Labs, Inc., a cannabis-testing laboratory based in Vancouver, Washington, has been clamoring for a standardized recall procedure. “The state needs to take a much more proactive approach in monitoring laboratories,” says Luce. “Using blind testing or secret shoppers would give them the opportunity to catching those labs playing below board.” Luce also believes that retail outlets should absorb the cost of recalls, which could help prevent laboratory shopping just for higher potency test results.
In Washington, regulators rely on producers to self-report coupled with random inspections; furthermore they do not even require pesticide testing. Without a burden of proof placed on the producer or even the laboratory, it is hardly a regulated market.
Those producing cannabis with pesticides listed above should know they are violating the law. According to Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), “applying pesticides off label is a violation of state and federal law and could result in criminal and civil sanctions…”
In reality, the solution to this problem is not just a quick fix, but a multitude of corrective actions to move the cannabis industry forward. Nic Easley, chief executive officer of 3C, believes it starts with educating cultivators on using pesticides properly and good agricultural practices (GAP). “Many of the pest problems prompting the illegal use of pesticides are due to poor facility design, lack of cleanliness, over-fertilization and other general plant health issues,” says Easley. “All of those issues could be greatly reduced through education in GAP.”
Then comes regulator-industry collaboration, where all parties are constantly learning. “Regulators or independent third-party groups need to be performing on-site inspections, which cultivators need to participate in openly and transparently,” adds Easley. The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) is actively working on this aspect by offering workshops aimed at helping producers get up to speed with worker protection standards.
“Adequate standards need to be applied across the board to labs, and ongoing proficiency testing needs to take place to ensure that a lab’s facility, processes and instruments are fully validated,” says Easley. So the problem is cannabis producers still using pesticides off label and if that continues, so will the recalls. It seems the solution involves industry-regulator collaboration, more robust laboratory systems and calibration methods and educating cultivators on good agricultural practices. Additionally, more state guidance is needed in the form of research for an approved list of pesticides on cannabis and a bigger push for regulation in the form of inspections and laboratory oversight.
In the first part of this series, I presented some issues with perpetual harvest models for cultivation with respect to inefficiencies in technology and environmental monitoring. I made the case for compartmentalizing cultivation facilities to not only increase energy efficiency, but also to mitigate contamination and control risks for pest incursions. In the second part of this series, I will elaborate on how compartmentalizing your facility can help you stay compliant with pesticide use regulations and promote worker safety.
Problems with Pesticide Use and Worker Safety Regulations
Where there are pests there are pesticides, whether they are low-toxicity materials derived from natural sources or chemical products that are illegal to use on cannabis. Even in the case of growers that are following current pesticide guidelines and using only products approved by their state department of agriculture, perpetual harvest models present issues in ensuring that the workplace is safe for employees and compliant with pesticide use regulations.
One obvious difficulty is the impossibility of containing drift from pesticides applied as foliar sprays. At this point, due to the lack of research performed on pesticides and cannabis, there are currently no defined pre-harvest intervals (PHI), even for products allowed for use on cannabis. A pesticide’s PHI is the number of days that must pass between the time of the last application of a pesticide and when the crop is cut for harvest. While no official, research-based PHIs have been outlined for pesticide use on cannabis, most conscientious cultivators refrain from spraying their crops with anything once flowers have emerged, as the resinous, sticky buds and their many crevices would presumably retain a great amount of any material applied to them. However, flowers do not generally emerge fully until the third week of the flowering process, and many growers apply preventative applications in the first two weeks of flower. In a perpetual harvest facility, what is to stop drift from applications made early in flower from contacting plants close to harvest? One could simply not spray in flower at all, but eliminating early-flower preventative treatments could increase the chances of a pest incursion, which, as discussed above, can be seemingly intractable in this type of facility.
It is important to consider the restricted entry interval (REI) when dealing with pesticide use. The REI of a pesticide is the period of time after an area is treated during which restrictions on entry are in effect to protect people from exposure to hazardous levels of pesticide residues. Most of the products and materials approved for use on cannabis in Colorado have no REI or a relatively short one. At the time I left my former facility, the longest REI for any product in use was twelve hours (for Evergreen Pyrethrum Concentrate), though most had REIs of four hours or less. This issue could be avoided in a perpetual harvest facility by simply always scheduling pesticide applications at the end of the workday; if a product is sprayed at 6 PM, for example, then the treated area should be safe for entry by the following morning when employees arrive. However, what is to be done if a pest incursion is discovered in the middle of the day and an immediate treatment is necessary to prevent its spread? Would the management or ownership of such a facility be willing to clear out the entire perpetual harvest area for 4-12 hours, potentially leaving other tasks unperformed or incomplete, so that a few plants could be sprayed? Even if operators went to such lengths to observe REIs properly, instances such as the hypothetical described above would create massive interruptions in daily workflows and scheduled tasks that are highly undesirable in a well-managed commercial setting. Compartmentalization allows for essential tasks in a single room that might need an emergency treatment to be completed in a timely manner, and cordoned off after the pesticide application to observe the REI.
A final point concerning this topic is that perpetual harvest facility designs make it difficult to observe certain requirements of the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). WPS is administered by the EPA (but is enforced by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) in that state) and consists of training intended to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning and injury among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. WPS training is required for all agricultural workers and pesticide handlers, including those in the legal cannabis industry. One requirement of WPS is that employers provide decontamination supplies for their employees in case of accidental pesticide exposure or poisoning. Sandra McDonald is a pesticide safety expert and owner of Mountain West PEST, which provides WPS and other training to farmers of all crops in Colorado. She states that decontamination supplies cannot be stored in areas that are to be or have been treated by pesticides (such as perpetual harvest rooms, for the purposes of this discussion), as the applications could possibly contaminate the decontamination supplies with pesticide residues, making them useless or even dangerous.
So, in a perpetual harvest facility, where does one store decontamination materials? Again, while there are solutions to this question, they are not ideal. The materials would of course have to be located outside the perpetual harvest room, the entirety of which is a “treated area” at one time or another. But, in facilities the size of the ones under discussion, it could be difficult for an employee who has been exposed to pesticides to reach an eyewash station if he or she has to navigate the expansive perpetual harvest room, as well as a doorway or two, in order to gain access to safety supplies located somewhere that pesticide contamination is not a risk. McDonald notes that most of the products approved for use on cannabis by the CDA would not require immediate decontamination. However, as not to downplay the very real risks posed by some approved products, she also points out that first aid statements on the labels of such pesticides recommend at least 15-20 minutes of continuous rinsing in the case of a worker getting pesticides in his or her eyes, and treatment that takes place sooner rather than later is obviously preferable. Additionally, there are some approved materials with high pH levels that could be immediately damaging if a worker splashed them in his or her eyes.
The issues raised by perpetual harvest designs in respect to pesticide use and worker safety are amplified greatly if businesses operating perpetual harvest facilities employ or have employed chemical pesticides that are illegal for use on cannabis. Unfortunately, the illegal application of restricted-use pesticides has revealed itself to be widespread, as examples from Colorado and Washington illustrate. One of the most commonly used illegal products, Eagle 20EW, carries with it a 24 hour REI. This means that to properly observe this safety measure, employees would be required to keep clear of the treated area for a full day, which I find unlikely to be enforced considering the daily requirements of a cultivation facility. Drift again poses a problem, but a much more serious one compared to the products on the CDA’s approved list.
It should be obvious by now that, when considering facility or site design, compartmentalization is desirable and necessary. This goes for greenhouse and outdoor production, as well as indoor. In fact, some outdoor farmers in the Emerald Triangle area of northern California work multiple, separate parcels to hedge against the threat of crop loss wiping out their entire year’s efforts. Though the discussion above focused mostly on flowering plants; propagation, vegetative, and mother areas should be separate as well, as they effectively contain all future harvests and are therefore of paramount importance.
The appropriate amount of compartmentalization will vary depending on the operation. In most agricultural businesses, some amount of loss is expected and incorporated into plans and budgets. In terms of areas for flowering plants, they should be compartmentalized to an extent that, should a severe infestation or systems failure occur, the loss of expected revenue from one or more rooms or areas will not cripple the business. Such loss should not happen often in a well-run, well-equipped facility. However, I have seen the drastic damage that russet mites can cause, in addition to experiencing the dread that permeates an entirely darkened warehouse after a transformer explosion, and would advise that cash flow projections take into account the possible loss of a harvest or two from a single room per year, just to be safe.
In cannabis farming, as in all agriculture, we must plan for the worst and hope for the best. Compartmentalization is a fundamental and effective safeguard against small pest incursions becoming widespread infestations, while allowing for grow areas to be fully sterilized and decontaminated after a harvest without completely interrupting all operations. It also allows for the observance of REIs, PHIs (even self-imposed ones), and certain WPS guidelines much more easily than perpetual harvest models. Finally, while costing more up front, ongoing operational expenses can be lessened, with a greater return on the energy that is used. While the benefits of wide-open spaces are frequently touted in a variety of contexts, cannabis cultivation is one where being boxed in is preferable to ensure that your employees, plants, and investment are protected.
When newspapers and television run a cannabis story, it is frequently accompanied by photos or video of vast, cavernous warehouses filled with veritable oceans of plants. Photos used to illustrate stories in the New York Times and Denver Post serve to illustrate this point.
This type of facility design is sometimes referred to in the cannabis industry as a “perpetual harvest” model. This is because plants are harvested piecemeal – one row at a time, for example – with new plants ready to flower replacing the recently harvested ones. In this model, flowering plants of various ages occupy the same space and the room is never completely harvested and empty, hence the “perpetual” moniker. This is in contrast to more compartmentalized facility designs, in which flowering plants are segregated in smaller groups in various rooms, which are then harvested completely before the room is cleaned and new plants ready to flower replace the previous ones.
The perpetual harvest setup appears impressive and lends itself well to portraying the volume of production being achieved in large facilities. This is likely why I have seen such models, or similar ones, copied in other states. Prospective entrants to the industry have also approached my firm with such designs in mind for their cultivation facilities. However, we generally advise against the perpetual harvest facility model, as this type of design imposes serious difficulties upon operators. Problems arise primarily in the areas of pest and contamination mitigation, ability to properly observe pesticide use and worker safety guidelines, and inefficiencies in lighting and HVAC usage. The problems noted are linked to the perpetual harvest design and can be mitigated with increased compartmentalization. Before getting to my recommendations, however, lets run down the issues created by the perpetual harvest model.
Lighting and HVAC Inefficiencies
In many photos I see of perpetual harvest facilities, the ceilings are extremely high, as are the light fixtures in most cases. This is likely the result of one of the main perceived advantages of such spaces, which is that they require minimal construction prior to getting up and running. There are no walls to be put up or ceilings lowered, and the lack of compartmentalization makes running wires and ducting much easier.
However, whatever capital was saved in initial construction will likely be burned up by increased ongoing operational costs. High ceilings such as those in the above photos mean more cubic footage that climate control systems must cool or heat. Additionally, due to the great height of the light fixtures, plants are not getting the most bang for their buck, so to speak, compared to designs that allow lights to be lowered appropriately to provide optimal intensity and spectrum. Double-Ended High Pressure Sodium (DE HPS) lamps are probably the most common type of lighting in use for flowering by commercial cannabis cultivators today, and they are ideally situated about four feet above the canopy when running at full capacity.
For businesses aiming for a no-frills production model with minimal attention to the light management needs of individual cannabis cultivars (or strains, as they are commonly referred to), then this consideration may be moot. However, those operations attempting to produce the highest-quality flower and plant material know the value of proper light management, as well as the fact that some cultivars respond differently than others to intense light. Indeed, I have observed cultivars that produce more when light intensity was decreased, while others thrived under intense light that would have seriously damaged others. This makes the one-size-fits-all approach to light management I’ve seen in most perpetual harvest designs generally detrimental to the quality of the final product, in addition to using the same amount of energy, or more, to achieve that lower quality result.
Difficulties in Pest and Contamination Mitigation
Such a design makes it easy for a small pest incursion to become a full-blown infestation. Because plants about to be harvested are sharing space with plants just beginning their flowering process, this means that both current and future harvests will be affected, or even lost entirely if the pest problem is severe. Having plant groups of different ages share the same space is generally unadvisable. This is because older plants, particularly those close to harvest, are weaker and more susceptible to pests by virtue of the fact that their life cycles are nearing an end. On the other hand, a more compartmentalized facility design provides physical barriers that can contain mites and mildew spores to some extent, limiting the damage done by individual pest incursions.
One of the essential tasks in an indoor cultivation operation is sterilizing just-harvested spaces to ensure that the subsequent run gets off to a clean start. This task could conceivably be performed in a perpetual harvest model; say, for example, trays, trellis frames, and other equipment are scrubbed after a row has been cut down and removed for drying or processing. However, due to the fact that there are always other plants in the room, it seems impossible for any plant group to get an assuredly clean start, as other plants may be harboring bugs, mold spores, or viruses, despite not showing signs or symptoms. The presence of plants also eliminates the possibility of using cleaning agents such as bleach, which gives off harmful fumes, but is sometimes necessary to completely sterilize an area that might have previously experienced some amount of powdery mildew or botrytis.
In Part II of this series, I will discuss some problems with pesticide use and worker safety regulations as well as provide recommendations for compartmentalization in cultivation facilities. Stay tuned for Part II of A Case for Compartmentalization: Problems with “Perpetual Harvest” Models in Cultivation, coming out next week.
New Frontier, a financial data analysis firm, recently released a report that caused a media frenzy over the cannabis industry’s alarmingly high energy bill. The Washington Post published an article with the headline “The Surprisingly Huge Energy Footprint of the Booming Marijuana Industry.” Denver news publication, Westword, posted an article with the headline “Legal Marijuana Used Over $6 Billion in Energy Last Year, Report Says.” There are dozens of articles published suggesting the legal cannabis industry’s energy consumption has a $6 billion price tag, which is misleading.
What’s the problem? The $6 billion figure that New Frontier cites comes from a 2012 research study that estimates the energy footprint for legal and illicit markets. That means the $6 billion estimate includes the legal cannabis industry and the black market’s energy footprint. To put it in perspective, the size of the entire legal cannabis industry in the United States was less than that in 2014 at $4.6 billion, according to the ArcView Group.
According to Giadha Aguirre DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, only including the legal market would significantly reduce the size of this estimate. “Dr. Mills’ study looked to assess the total energy use associated with marijuana in the US, not just that of the nascent legal marijuana industry; including this holistic view is an important growth determinant for the legal market as the U.S. transitions from a predominantly illicit production environment,” says Decarcer.
Dr. Evan Mills, energy analyst at the Department of Energy and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conducted the 2012 research study and is a senior advisor on the New Frontier report.
Brett Roper, founder and chief operating officer at Medicine Man Technologies, believes those numbers still need to be adjusted. “Dr. Mills’ study is based on pre-2011 data and sources that date back as far as 2003,” says Roper. “The study provides figures that are, quite frankly, outdated based upon changes in the industry related to cultivation and production efficiency.” The study focuses on cultivation increments of sixteen square feet consuming 13,000 KW per year that, according to Roper, is not reflective of current indoor cultivation technology and energy consumption metrics.
According to Roper, today’s efficiencies, scalable cultivation operations and new technology could explain the overestimate from five years ago. “We are a Tier III operator that produced approximately 5,100 (+/-) pounds of dried cured flower in 2015 and have a total power bill of approximately $420,000 for the year,” he says. Note that the company had roughly $18 million in revenue in 2015. “Using this metric we have a total energy billing of approximately $83 per pound grown.” According to Roper, they cultivate completely indoors with HPS lights that are not particularly energy-efficient, so this estimate is relatively conservative.
Dr. Mills’ research cites much higher numbers for the cost of energy per pound of finished product than Roper’s findings. “From the perspective of a producer, the national-average annual energy costs are approximately $5500 per module or $2500 per kilogram [roughly 2.2 pounds] of finished product,” says Dr. Mills. That would suggest the average cost of energy for indoor growing to be above $1,000 per pound, roughly half the current average wholesale price. These numbers would mean that cannabis growers, on average, lose roughly 50% of their total revenue to their energy bill. Medicine Man Technologies’ energy usage is less than 3% of their total revenue.
The New Frontier report does provide caveats on the use of Dr. Mills’ research. “While this analysis was conducted before many of the recent advancements in cultivation technologies, it highlights the significant energy-related environmental impact of marijuana production, and makes the issue of energy efficiency not just one of competitive advantage but also one of environmental sustainability.”
New Frontier’s CEO, DeCarcer, stresses that their report is intended to serve as a starting point to a much broader exploration of energy use in cannabis. “We are already in the process of establishing a partnership through which New Frontier will ingest real time energy-use data from cultivators across different legal markets for analysis in our next report,” says DeCarcer. “Our goal is to build on the work done by Dr. Mills and others in order to ensure that we are providing the most accurate representation of where the industry currently is, and where it is headed.”
Regardless of the discrepancies, this kind of discourse is great for prompting innovation and getting people to think about the environment. It is very important to examine the energy footprint of cannabis cultivation as it raises questions regarding energy efficiency, which would help the industry’s long-term environmental sustainability.
Walking into one of the grow rooms on Adam Jacques’ farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, you will find dozens of cannabis plants and a whiteboard on the wall with the note “Do it for Frank” across the top. This is a reminder of why Jacques and his team are growing medical marijuana: To help people.
Frank Leeds, one of Jacques’ cannabis patients, lost his battle with cancer in early January.
Jacques was working with Frank for the past five years to develop “Frank’s Gift,” a high-cannabidiol (CBD) strain with a slew of potential medical benefits. Deeply saddened by the loss of his patient and close friend, Jacques continues to run his grow operation, Grower’s Guild Gardens, where he and his wife, Debra, work to get high-quality, safe medicine to their patients.
On their farm, strain testing is currently underway for the upcoming changes in the recreational program in Oregon. “With the way the medical laws are now, I have 48 plants for my patients, including multiple high-CBD genetics, and any excess flower will be sold to recreational dispensaries to cover our overhead costs,” says Jacques. When the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) grants them their recreational grow license, he will take some of those trial strains to an outdoor crop estimated to be in the thousands of plants on his 42-acre farm.
Presenting at the Dispensary Next Conference a few weeks ago, Jacques said to a crowded room of industry professionals: “The biggest reward is helping people.” Jacques and his team’s work exemplifies the good that smaller grow operations can do for the industry.
Jacques’ recent work has taken him to help Leni Young, a four-year-old girl originally from Alabama who suffers from debilitating seizures. Her parents became medical refugees when she was not selected for an Alabama study involving cannabis oil. As a result, the Young’s took their daughter to Eugene, where with the help of Jacques and his team, they could get her customized cannabis oil with high doses of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THC-A) that could help treat her seizures.
The cannabis oil that Jacques created has brought Young’s seizures down from multiple occurring every day to just one every six weeks. “One-strain solutions like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ are no longer the answer for treating medical conditions,” says Jacques. “We create something custom designed for individual patients, and it is working.” CBD and THC-A, the main active ingredients in Leni’s medicine, are two of the non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis believed to have extraordinary medical benefits.
Less than three weeks ago, a bill was introduced to the Alabama legislature that would decriminalize the possession of and allow patients to get high-CBD oil. The bill is called “Leni’s Law.”
Jacques’ goal in the long term is to get clinical trials with peer-reviewed studies to connect the dots between his patients, cannabis and evidence-based medicine. “I am working with a laboratory in Arizona and a doctor from Israel to perform a peer-reviewed study,” he adds. “Getting peer-reviewed will allow me to provide legitimate scientific evidence for my claims and get the knowledge into the hands of my patients.”
Looking into the immediate future, Jacques is wary of different regulations coming to Oregon. “Once you go recreational with your business, you lose the ability to provide any sort of a medical recommendation,” says Jacques. “I do not want to see the recreational program and the desire for profits push out our ability to help patients.”
Jacques and his team represent the idea that embodies the cannabis legalization movement, which is to help people get the medicine they need. “The money is not really important any more,” says Jacques.
In the second part of this series, I speak with Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, to find out what particular solutions growers can use to increase efficiency. Last month, I introduced the challenge of growing cannabis more sustainably. To recap, I raised the issue of sustainability as an economic, social and environmental problem and referenced recent pesticide issues in Colorado and carbon footprint estimates of growing cannabis.
“Switching to outdoors or greenhouse will always be more sustainable than indoor, but depending on the type of facility, energy efficiency and specifically lighting should be at top of mind,” says Cooley. “Just looking at your bottom line, it is cheaper to use energy efficient lighting sources such as plasma or LED lighting, which will reduce your need for air conditioning and your overall energy consumption.”
Looking into sustainable technologies is one of the quicker ways to improve your overall efficiency. “We are big believers in VRF [variable refrigerant flow] HVAC systems because it is one of the most energy efficient ways to cool a large space in the world,” adds Cooley. “Use a smart water filtration system that gets away from wasting water by catching condensate off AC and dehumidifiers, filtering and then reusing that water.”
Utilizing your waste streams is another relatively simple and cost effective practice to grow cannabis sustainably. “Our soil and biomass goes through a composting company, we recapture any of our waste fertilizer and runoff for reuse,” says Cooley. “We try to use post-consumer or fully recyclable packaging to reduce what would go into the waste streams.”
So some of the low hanging fruit to improve your bottom line and overall sustainability, according to Alex Cooley, include things like reusing materials, composting, increasing energy efficiency and saving water. These are some of the easily implementable standard operating procedures that directly address inefficiency in your operation.
In the next part of this series, I will discuss Terra Tech’s approach to sustainable cultivation, which utilizes the “Dutch hydroponic greenhouse model” on a large scale growing produce such as thyme and basil, but are now taking their technologies and expertise to the cannabis industry. I will also discuss the benefits of using a third party certification, Clean Green Certified, to not only help grow cannabis more ecofriendly, but also market your final product as such. Stay tuned for more in Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part III.
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