Cannabis has long been considered a green industry by the masses.
As a standalone item, the cannabis plant is very environmentally friendly. This is particularly true when it comes to hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant with a huge range of environmental benefits. An extremely versatile and robust crop, hemp uses far less land and water than other common crops and even captures carbon dioxide and regenerates soil. Approximately 20,000 products can be made from its seed, fiber and flower, from biodegradable plastics to food supplements, meaning all in all – it is an environmentally and economically sustainable crop
Yet as with most things, when cultivated in mass, the cannabis plant isn’t quite so green anymore. With its high demand for water, land and artificial lighting, cannabis cultivation can actually leave a large environmental footprint (this does however, pale in comparison to the food industry).
What’s more, many firms do not properly understand how to correctly treat and apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and use a machine gun approach to growing their crops. This can result in unnecessary bleed waste, which in turn can kill micro-organisms and contaminate soil, water and other vegetation. Packaging has also been cited as particularly environmentally unfriendly in the cannabis industry, with several organizations using single use plastic for their products, due to the strict guidelines attached to packaging products of a medical or pharmaceutical nature.
So as the CBD, medical and even adult use cannabis industries become increasingly commercialized across the globe, there is risk cannabis might start moving in the wrong direction when it comes to sustainability.
Still relatively new, the cannabis sector is nascent and exciting, with the global cannabis market size valued at $10.60 billion in 2018 and projected to reach $97.35 billion by the end of 2026. Yet as the industry grows, so too will its footprint.
I’ve seen it first-hand. The industry being hugely competitive, so for companies vying for precious investment and fighting for a spot on the stock market, often, sustainability is the last thing on their minds. In my opinion, this is wrong. Not only morally – we all play a part in looking after our planet – but it’s also a poorly calculated business decision.
It’s no secret sustainability and ESG have become a hot topic when it comes to investing. Just yesterday, Credit Suisse told CNBC that the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards sustainable investments. The bank has even introduced an exclusion strategy whereby those investing can actively exclude controversial sectors.
So with the environment firmly on investors’ minds, cannabis firms need to realize that actually, if they want to secure the support of forward-thinking shareholders, they need to consider more than just the bottom line and truly take the sustainability of their operations into account.
Luckily, there are practices which cannabis cultivators can take on board to reduce their environmental footprint. To start with – growing outdoors. This enables cannabis farmers to harness the sun’s natural power, saving them money on electricity bills and increasing energy efficiency. With cannabis being a rather thirsty plant, water use is also a major concern – although this is nothing compared to the amount of water used by cotton plants. However, it is in fact possible to design indoor operations which recycle close to 100% of the water use, including capturing the perspiration from plants – at AltoVerde this is something we are looking to implement in our upcoming Macedonian sites.
Firms keen to improve on sustainability should also cultivate in a way in which soil is fully replenished and repaired after use – this is called regenerative farming, and it’s extremely effective for maintaining and improving soil quality, biodiversity and crop yields. Another interesting concept is the use of hemp. Some farmers have started using hempcrete – a concrete-like material made from harvested cannabis plants. As if the recycling aspect wasn’t good enough, hempcrete is actually carbon negative, meaning the production of hemp for hempcrete removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces.
It’s been incredibly exciting to be a part of the cannabis industry and I am excited to watch its growth in the years to come. It’s taken hard work for the sector to improve its traditionally poor image and to be accepted across the globe, so now, cultivators must lead by example and stop industry from being branded as one which pollutes. By transitioning to more environmentally sustainable practices, firms will be doing their bit for the planet, attracting the investors of tomorrow and ensuring their own success for years to come.
With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.
Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.
Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.
Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.
Precision, Quality & Consistency
“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”
At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.
Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.
The Onyx Vision
Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.
“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”
Her Path to Leadership
Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”
Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.
A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.
What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”
This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.
“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.
At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.
Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe
Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.
Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.
Certified Efficiency is the Message
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.
Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.
The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.
Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant
From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.
Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).
That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.
Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.
Always Finish with People
Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”
“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.
Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”
National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.
The ACA believes that every American should:
Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.
We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.
Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies
Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?
Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.
A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.
Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?
McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.
We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.
Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.
Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?
Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.
With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.
Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?
Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.
Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.
Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?
Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:
When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.
Cannabis presents a plethora of challenges for entrepreneurs not seen in more traditional industries. Akin to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, the cannabis industry has seen an astonishing flurry of business over the past decade. Within this dynamic landscape, new cannabis companies come and go on a near-daily basis.
To capitalize on novel markets’ potential, hopeful entrepreneurs from all walks of life have “jumped headfirst” into the cannabis space. This new breed of entrepreneurs must not only be smart, but they must also be challenging. Yet, as the cannabis industry evolves under the forces of legalization and innovation, our understanding of what defines cannabis entrepreneurs continues to change.
Cannabis businesses are shaped by the regulations, challenges and opportunities of specific market niches. As such, cannabis entrepreneurs have evolved with the environments in which they do business.
California & Proposition 215
California paved the way for the industry of today by legalizing medical cannabis in 1995. Since the passage of historic Proposition 215, cannabis has continued to gain momentum across the globe. This progress has happened through the visions and hard work of small business owners.
The early days of legal cannabis in California are now criticized for their lack of regulation. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, all you needed to start a cultivation business in California was a place to grow a garden. While early dispensaries did need local business licenses, they could legally purchase and sell untested products from unlicensed growers.
The genealogy of the modern cannabis industry can be traced directly back to the days of California’s Prop 215. During this era, the first cannabis dispensaries were founded – this model has since been replicated thousands of times. Also, the Prop 215 model gave rise to America’s first legal, commercial cannabis farms.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in California’s medical space focused primarily on developing the blueprints for a brand-new industry. To this end, they did not have the time or luxury to finetune the businesses for such things as operational efficiency and brand awareness. Even more, these people did not have to deal with such complexities as employee screening, product testing and seed-to-sale tracking.
Medical Cannabis Entrepreneurs
New medical markets stand in stark contrast to those seen in the early days of California. To this end, today’s medical markets operate within a web of stringent government regulations. For entrepreneurs, these rules set forth major emphases on both compliance and technology.
The Pennsylvania medical cannabis industry provides an excellent platform for understanding how the regulatory system of a market shapes entrepreneurial paths. For instance, medical cannabis cards are only issued to patients that meet the minimum criteria of 23 qualifying conditions, including severe conditions like aids, cancer and epilepsy. Beyond that, cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania must meet a slew of challenging criteria to operate and pay large sums of money in licensing fees.
To handle the regulatory requirements in places like Pennsylvania and remain profitable, medical cannabis entrepreneurs are incredibly dependent on technology. To this end, dispensaries utilize point-of-sale (POS) and seed-to-sale software to track inventory and stay compliant carefully. Even more, they use state-of-the-art security systems to safeguard their operations.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in medical markets must be able to run compliant operations and support their businesses with requisite technology. These elements stand in stark contradiction to the “wild west” mentality that pervaded the early industry. As such, it’s safe to assume that the rules of today’s markets force entrepreneurs to be more professional than in the days of CA Prop 215.
Adult-Use Cannabis Entrepreneurs
The most considerable difference between medical and adult-use cannabis companies has to do with their available customer base. Importantly, adult-use cannabis companies are only bound by minimum age requirements and state borders. Furthermore, limited restrictions on licensing create highly competitive markets that require sophisticated sales and marketing operations.
As there are no limits on potential customers, and limited regulations on license counts, business opportunities in adult-use markets are primarily directed by supply and demand rules. Because competition is the driving force in adult-use markets, entrepreneurs in this vertical have a good deal in common with peers outside the cannabis industry.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of adult-use entrepreneurs is an emphasis on branding and marketing. As adult-use markets mature in places like Colorado, a phenomenon known as “brand concentration” occurs when a few companies come to dominate a majority of the market. As smaller companies fight for market share, they must develop professional brands that appeal to a broad customer base.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in adult-use markets must master the skills required in medical cannabis while also expanding their knowledge base in modern business dealings. Of these, the development of professional brands is one of the most defining characteristics of adult-use entrepreneurs.
It’s astonishing to see how much the cannabis industry has grown and matured looking back just a few short years. As business opportunities come about with new legalization efforts, entrepreneurs quickly rise to take advantage of untapped markets. As the cannabis business continues to evolve with the times, entrepreneurs must pivot to stay compliant, relevant and successful.
While the early Prop 215 market in California barely resembles today’s industry, it’s important to remember where we came from. Namely, our understanding of the contemporary cannabis business results from everyone who came before us. As the industry progresses, we will continue to complement established best practices with the requisite innovations that come with new opportunities.
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
Earlier this week, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) published its recommendations for improving environmental sustainability in the cannabis industry. The report, titled Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: Impacts, Best Management Practices, and Policy Considerations, was developed by their Policy Council along with experts in the field of environmental sustainability.
The 58-page report is quite comprehensive and covers things like land use, soil health, water, energy, air quality, waste and the negative effects of an unregulated market. While the report goes into great detail on specific environmental policy considerations, like recycling, water usage, energy efficiency and more, it makes a handful of overarching policy recommendations that impact environmental sustainability on a much more macro level.
The report mentions developing a platform for sharing information in the national cannabis industry. The idea here is that information sharing on a national scale for things like energy use can be used as a communication tool for regulators as well as a tool for companies to collaborate and share ideas.
The second more overarching policy recommendation the NCIA makes in this report is “to incorporate environmental best practices and regulatory requirements into existing marijuana licensing and testing processes.” This would help streamline and unify regulations already in place and keeps sustainability in the discussion from the very start.
The last major policy recommendation they make is for incentive programs. They say that governments should incentivize cannabis businesses to operate more sustainably and “prioritize funds provided to businesses where barriers exist to entering the market, such as small- or minority-owned businesses.” The report adds that this could essentially kill two birds with one stone by promoting environmental sustainability and diversity at the same time.
Kaitlin Urso is the lead author of the report and executive project and engagement manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She says that these policy recommendations were designed to benefit everyone. “A successful, socially responsible cannabis industry will require best practices for environmental sustainability. This paper is a vital first step in that effort,” says Urso. “This is important, ongoing work that will benefit everyone. The NCIA’s paper on environmental sustainability is going to inform how we approach important questions related to the future of the cannabis industry.”
According to a press release, Drug Plastics & Glass, a packaging company that specializes in cannabis bottles and closures, announced new tools for their customers to calculate their carbon footprint. The company launched six new sustainability calculators with the goal to help their customers get more informed about their carbon footprint.
According to Jeff Johnson, director of marketing and business development for Drug Plastics, they want to show how small, incremental changes can have a lasting impact on a company’s environmental sustainability.“From switching to more eco-friendly resin and eliminating flame treatment, to calculating the savings gained from choosing PET plastic over glass, or eliminating collateral packaging, these calculators show how making simple changes can have a big impact on the environment,” says Johnson.
Here are some of their sustainability calculators they recently launched:
PCR PET Resin Sustainability Calculator: Reduce greenhouse gases by making new products from PCR PET removes plastic from the environment by converting PET plastic discarded by the consumer back into resin that can be used again.
Flaming Elimination Calculator: Conserve fossil fuels by opting out of the flame treatment process traditionally used to ensure water-based adhesive labels and silk screening would adhere properly to HDPE, LDPE, and PP bottles. Today, this is not always necessary.*
Bag Reduction Calculator: Determine the individual savings when you move to single bagging instead of double bagging bottles and closures inside the carton.
Concentrate Elimination Calculator: Switch from white pigmented bottles to those made with resin in its natural color state and eliminate CO2
Glass to PET Conversion Calculator: PET requires less energy to produce and saves on transportation costs.
Glass to HDPE Conversion Calculator: See the sustainable improvements in weight, transportation costs, and durability when you use HDPE instead of glass.
The future of packaging is ripe for capitalization by the drivers of sustainability culture. With the battle lines drawn and forces at play in motion, change is now inevitable. The question arises: how quickly can the industry grow in the space of the next decade?
With an increasing number of nations banning non-biodegradable and petroleum-based plastics in certain uses, the choices at hand have naturally led to bioplastics. Bioplastics are a major ingredient of the renewable packaging industry. We derive them from various renewable agricultural crops, of which hemp is among the chief examples.
The Change for Hemp
The legal ramifications of the European Green Deal and the American Farm Bill of 2018 have created a microcosm where the sustainability discussion has turned into corporate initiatives for crops like industrial hemp, which are a source for bioplastics and numerous other products. The smaller carbon footprint of industrial hemp plays its role in shaping consumer demands towards a greener future.
Farmers are now able to cultivate the plant in the U.S., due to its removal from the list of controlled substances. Agribusinesses and manufacturers are aware of the plant’s versatility, with uses in packaging, building construction, clothing, medicinal oils, edibles like protein powder and hemp hearts, hemp paper and rope. What was once George Washington’s strong consideration as a cash crop for his estate, may gradually become the world’s cash crop of choice.
Hemp’s Sustainability Beckons
Why is the crop unanimously superior in the aspect of eco-friendliness? Its growing requirements are frugal: water, soil nutrients and pesticides are not needed in large quantities. It absorbs great quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and uses it to create 65-75% cellulose content within its biomass. Cellulose is vital in the manufacture of bioplastics. Hemp is also flexible within crop cycles, due to its small harvesting period of only 4 months.
Thus, farmers use it as a rotational crop, allowing them to also cultivate other crops after its harvest. High-quality crops like cotton, though superior in cellulose content and fibrous softness, require far more water quantities, soil nutrients and pesticides. Farmers face greater difficulties in cultivating cotton as a rotational crop, because it requires far more space and time.
Hemp Bioplastics For Packaging
We manufacture bioplastics from the hurd and cellulose of the hemp plant. Hemp bioplastics are biodegradable, and take up to a maximum of 6 months to completely decompose; by contrast, normal fossil-fuel-based plastic takes up to 1000 years to decompose.
Manufacturers incorporate these ingredients into existing manufacturing processes for regular plastics, such as injection molding. Thus, we can apply bioplastic ingredients to similar plastics applications, such as packaging, paneling, medical equipment and more. New technologies aren’t necessarily needed, so companies and manufacturers do not have any reservations about its viability as an industry.
Here are a few types of bioplastics derived from hemp:
Hemp Cellulose-based Bioplastics
This is a substance found in plant cell walls. We use cellulose to manufacture a broad range of unique plastics, including celluloid, rayon and cellophane. These plastics are usually entirely organic. We mix cellulose and its variations (such as nanocellulose, made from cellulose nanocrystals) with other ingredients, such as camphor, to produce thermoplastics and the like. Using natural polymer, we process a broad range of bioplastics and corresponding polymers. The difference in their chemical properties is down to the nature of the polymer chains and the extent of crystallization.
Composite Hemp-based Bioplastics
Composite plastics comprise organic polymers like hemp cellulose, as well as an addition of synthetic polymers. They also have reinforcement fibers to improve the strength of the bioplastic, which are also either organic or synthetic. Sometimes, we blend hemp cellulose with other organic polymers like shellac and tree resins. Inorganic fillers include fiberglass, talc and mica.
We call any natural polymer, when blended with synthetic polymers, a “bio composite” plastic. We measure and calibrate these ingredients according to the desired stiffness, strength and density of the eventual plastic product. Apart from packaging, manufacturers use these bioplastics for furniture, car panels, building materials and biodegradable bags.
A composite of polypropylene (PP), reinforced with natural hemp fibers, showed that hemp has a tensile strength akin to that of conventional fiberglass composites. Furthermore, malleated polypropylene (MAPP) composites, fortified with hemp fibers, significantly improved stress-enduring properties compared to conventional fiberglass composites.
Pure Organic Bioplastics With Hemp
We have already generated several bioplastics entirely from natural plant substances like hemp. Hemp fibers, when made alkaline with diluted sodium hydroxide in low concentrations, exhibit superior tensile strength. We have produced materials from polylactic acid (PLA) fortified with hemp fibers. These plastic materials showed superior strength than ones containing only PLA. For heavy-duty packaging, manufacturers use hemp fibers reinforced with biopolyhydroxybutyrate (BHP), which are sturdy enough.
With the world in a state of major change due to the coronavirus outbreak of 2020, the focus is back on packaging and delivery. In this volatile area, perhaps the industry can learn a few new tricks, instead of suffocating itself in old traditions and superficial opportunism. The permutations and combinations of bioplastic technology can serve a swath of packaging applications. We must thoroughly explore this technology.
Hemp’s Future in Packaging
Fossil fuel-based plastic polymers are non-renewable, highly pollutive and dangerous to ecosystems, due to their lifespans. They are some of the most destructive inventions of man, but thankfully could be held back by this crop. Industrial hemp upheld countless industries through human history and now is making a comeback. After existing in relative obscurity in the U.S. due to false connotations with the psychoactive properties of its cousin, it is now back in business.
With the American hemp industry on the verge of a revolution, hemp packaging is primed to take over a significant part of the global packaging sector. The political, economic and environmental incentives for companies to adopt bioplastics are legion. Its lower cost lends to its allure as well. Consumers and agribusinesses are following suit, making the choice to be environmentally-conscious. By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the plastics industry will be bioplastics.
We can only mitigate the plastic pollution in oceans, landfills and elsewhere, with the use of biodegradable bioplastics; otherwise, animals, humans and plants are getting adversely affected by imperceptible microplastics that pervade vast regions of the Earth. With hemp bioplastics, we use the cleaner, renewable matter of plants to conserve the planet’s sanctity. We can expect this new technology to continue to light the way for other nations, societies and companies to build upon this sustainable plan.
Hemp-based construction materials are an attractive option for achieving environmentally friendly goals in construction, including reduced emissions and conservation of natural resources. Hemp construction materials dating back to the 6th Century have been discovered in France and it has long been eyed with interest by hemp growers and manufacturers, as well as environmentalists in the United States and abroad. As the European Union moves forward with its 2019 European Green Deal, United States hemp, construction and limestone industries, as well as regulatory agencies, will be provided with an important preview of the benefits, risks and issues arising out of the use of hemp in construction.
The European Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan
Hemp applications in construction are gaining increased interest as the EU seeks to neutralize its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Much of the specifics for this transition to zero emissions are outlined in the EU’s “A New Circular Economy Action Plan,” announced on March 11, 2020. According to the EU, “This Circular Economy Action Plan provides a future-oriented agenda for achieving a cleaner and more competitive Europe in co-creation with economic actors, consumers, citizens and civil society organisations.” The plan aims at accelerating the transformational change required by the European Green Deal and tackles emissions and sustainability issues across a number of industries and products, including construction.
Construction in the EU accounts for approximately 50% of all extracted natural resources and more than 35% of the EU’s total waste generation. According to the plan, greenhouse gas emissions from material extraction, manufacturing of construction products and construction and renovation of buildings are estimated at 5-12% of total national greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that greater material efficiency could save 80% of those emissions. To achieve those savings, the plan announces various efforts to address sustainability, improve durability and increase energy efficiency of construction materials.
How Hemp Could Help Europe Achieve Neutral Emissions
Hemp, and specifically hempcrete, is being eyed with heightened interest as the EU enacts its plan. Indeed, recent mergers and acquisitions in the European hemp industry signal just how attractive this hemp-based product may be as international, national and local green initiatives gain momentum. But how would hemp be utilized in construction and what types of legal issues will this industry face as it expands?
The primary hemp-based construction material is “hempcrete.” Hempcrete is typically composed of hemp hurds (the center of the hemp plant’s stalk), water and lime (powdered limestone). These materials are mixed into a slurry. The slurry petrifies the hemp and the mixture turns into stone once it cures. Some applications mix other, traditional construction materials with the hempcrete. The material can be applied like stucco or turned into bricks. According to the National Hemp Association, hempcrete is non-toxic, does not release gaseous materials into the atmosphere, is mold-resistant, is fire– and pest-resistant, is energy-efficient and sustainable. To that last point, hemp, which is ready for harvest after approximately four months, provides clear advantages over modern construction materials, which are either mined or harvested from old forests. Furthermore, the use of lime instead of cement reduces the CO2 emissions of construction by about 80%.
Watching Europe with an Eye on Regulation and Liability Risks
Hempcrete indeed sounds like a wünder-product for the construction industry (and the hemp industry). Unfortunately, while it may alleviate some of the negative environmental impacts of the construction sector, it will not alleviate the threat of litigation in this industry, particularly in the litigious United States. The European Union’s experience with it will provide important insights for U.S. industries.
Because hemp was only recently legalized in the United States with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, it is not included in mainstream building codes in the United States, the International Residential Code, nor the International Building Code. Fortunately, there are pathways for the consideration and use of non-traditional materials, like hempcrete, in building codes. However, construction applications of any form of hemp, including hempcrete, at this point would likely require extensive discussions with local building authorities and an application showing that the performance criteria for the building are satisfied by the material. Such criteria would include standards and testing relating to structural performance, thermal performance, and fire resistance. Importantly, the ASTM does have a subcommittee working on various performance standards for hemp in construction applications. European progress on this front would pave an important regulatory pathway for the United States, as well as provide base-line standards for evaluating hempcrete materials.
Insights into regulation and performance standards are not the only reason to watch the EU construction industry in the coming decades. Introduction of hempcrete and hemp-based building materials in the United States will likely stoke litigation surrounding these materials. Although there is no novel way to avoid the most common causes of construction litigation, including breach of contract, quality of construction, delays, non-payment and personal injury, the lessons learned in Europe could provide risk management and best-practice guidance for the U.S. industry. Of particular concern for the hemp industry should be the potential for product liability, warranty, and consumer protection litigation in the United States. The European experience with hempcrete’s structural performance, energy efficiency, mold-, pest- and fire-resistant properties will be informative, not just for the industry, but also for plaintiff attorneys. Ensuring that hempcrete has been tested appropriately and meets industry gold-standards will be paramount for the defense of such litigation and EU practices will be instructive.
The United States construction industry, and particularly hempcrete product manufacturers, should pay close attention as the EU expands green construction practices, including the use of hempcrete. The trials and errors of European industry counterparts will inform U.S. regulations, litigation and risk management best practices.
If you missed the Cannabis Industry Journal’s 3rd Annual Infused Products Virtual Conference last week, one of the speakers, Ellice Ogle, founder and CEO of Tandem Food presented on Food Safety Culture in the Cannabis Industry. An overview of the information in the presentation can be found here, Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace. Below are answers to some of the post-presentation questions we received, but were unable to answer during the Q&A session. To get your additional questions answered or for a complimentary consultation for your company, specially provided to readers of Cannabis Industry Journal, contact Ellice Ogle at Ellice@tndmfood.com.
Question: What are some recommended digital programs for internal auditing?
Ellice Ogle: Before looking at the tools for conducting an internal audit, understand the goal of the internal audit. One key aspect of internal auditing is knowing which standard(s) to audit against. For example, regulatory audits for cGMP certification are different than optional third-party certifications such as any GFSI scheme (SQF, BRC, PrimusGFS, etc). While the standards ultimately have the same goal of food safety with varying focuses, it is important to have an experienced food safety specialist conduct the audit as realistically as possible. The experienced specialist will then be able to recommend an appropriate tool for internal auditing moving forward, whether it is software such as FoodLogiQ, SafetyChain, Safefood 360°, among many others, or simply providing a template of the audit checklist. Overall, the risk of foodborne illnesses can be minimal, but it takes persistence and commitment to achieve a successful food safety culture. Metrics can assist in assessing the commitment to food safety and, as a result of these efforts, you will minimize the risk of compromising the health and safety of your guests, employees, foods and business. If you want a specific example, I’d like to direct you to a case study in partnership with Heylo LLC in Washington state, posted on the Tandem Food website.
Q: What are examples of ways to share environmental monitoring results to enhance a good edible safety culture?
Ellice: In the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods: Guidance for Industry Draft Guidance (2017), the FDA states that “a well-designed environmental monitoring program promotes knowledge and awareness of the environmental conditions that could result in product contamination and is a more effective program than product testing alone.” In other words, environmental monitoring programs and results can identify environmental conditions within a facility that could cause potential contamination. Publishing these findings, for example in the form of a case study or sharing the details of the practice, can enhance the food safety culture in the specific niche industry. For example, to borrow from the meat industry, Tyson Foods, Inc developed and shared environmental monitoring programs that are used by their peers, promoting a unified food safety culture, rather than competitive, guarded secrecy.
Q: Are the food safety requirements the same for retail and manufacturing?
Ellice: The food safety requirements are not exactly the same for retailers and manufacturers. The difference is inherent that retailers are working with finished product while manufacturers are working with raw ingredients and the manufacturing process to develop the finished product. Let’s take a closer look at cannabis regulation in Washington state. Chapter 314-55-104(12) states “Processors creating marijuana extracts must develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and a training plan prior to producing extracts for the marketplace.” Compare this to the requirements for retailers, 314-55-105(11) which states “A marijuana producer, processor or retailer licensed by the WSLCB must conduct the production, processing, storage, and sale of marijuana-infused products using sanitary practices.” While SOPs and GMPs are not explicitly mentioned for retailers as they are for manufacturers, sanitary practices could be documented as Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Proper storage practices can also be an overlapping food safety concern with respect to temperature control or pest management systems. Overall, food safety should remain a top priority in maintaining the integrity of the products throughout the supply chain.
Q: To your knowledge, has there been a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product?
Ellice: One possible cannabis-related death investigated in 2017 uncovered deadly pathogens in medical cannabis. However, to my knowledge, I have not seen a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product. There might be any number of reasons that this is so, for example, possibly because a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product might not have had a large impact to make headlines. Although, with the cannabis industry already misunderstood and a stigma so prevalent to even promote fake news, it is better to prevent an outbreak from ever occurring. One thing to note is that ultimately cannabis is just another ingredient in existing products, of course with special properties. So, the common food safety offenders are present: listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, among others. On the plant, cannabis food product manufacturers must minimize the risk of mycotoxins produced by molds, pest contamination, and pesticide contamination. For products that contain cannabis infusions or extractions as an ingredient, there is the possibility of the growth of Botulism toxin. Many of these pathogens can be minimized by appropriate heat treatment or maintenance of refrigeration, testing, and by practicing preventive measures. Arguably, the largest potential for pathogenic contamination is due to improper employee handling. To refer to what we discussed earlier, employee training is key, as well as proper enforcement. Having a strong food safety culture ensures that people have the knowledge of food safety risks and the knowledge of preventing outbreaks.
Q: Do any of the panelists know of any efforts to develop a food safety-oriented standard for the cannabis industry?
Ellice: Yes, Tandem Food LLC is positioned to consult on cGMP certification for manufacturing facilities in the cannabis industry. First, a gap assessment can be conducted to obtain useful actionable data for you, rather than be an intimidating experience. Working from the identified baseline, Tandem Food will work with you to create and implement all related documentation and programs, providing training as necessary. Overall, with the right commitment, cGMP certification can take 6-12 months.
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