Tag Archives: environment

There’s More to Sustainable Packaging than Meets the Eye

By Balaji Jayaseelan
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People today are more eco-conscious than ever. The last several years have seen a growing awareness of the impact of human behavior on the environment, and COVID-19 brought real-life context to the catastrophic effects of a global crisis. Lifestyle changes during the pandemic empowered people to make choices with a positive impact for the collective good. In a June 2021 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey , half of global consumers said they’ve become more eco-friendly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers are changing their behaviors, educating themselves about the businesses they support, and evaluating the products they buy through a “green” lens. Terms like circular economy, zero-waste, ESG and carbon footprint are now part of the common vernacular, and sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have but a business imperative.

Cannabis consumers, in particular, value sustainability. They are conscientious of what they’re putting into their bodies and the planet. There is increased interest in brands and businesses that use responsible growing practices, eco-efficient manufacturing, and sustainable packaging. In a nationwide survey conducted by Canivate Growing Systems, 79% of U.S. cannabis consumers said they support establishing environmental standards. And in 2021, the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC) was formed to promote sustainability best practices.

Sustainable packaging is an important way that brands can show a commitment to the environment. Packaging is a highly visible and tangible representation of your brand and one that matters to consumers. A July 2021 Adweek/Morning Consult poll found that 77% of consumers believe it is the brand owners’ responsibility to make sure their packaging is recyclable. According to Nielsen, of the top five sustainability attributes consumers are willing to pay more for, three are packaging-focused: Recycled packaging, reduced packaging and reusable packaging. While cannabis packaging has unique regulatory requirements and safety guidelines, it can still be eco-friendly. Sustainable cannabis packaging has the necessary properties to protect against moisture and maintain freshness and smell. It can also be child-resistant and include other unique cannabis functionalities.

Image: Nielsen, 2019

When it comes to sustainable cannabis packaging, that which you may believe to be the “greenest” option may not be sustainable at all. Many factors go into this determination, including packaging material, weight, distance traveled from supplier to manufacturer, water and energy usage and more. At Berlin Packaging , we take a comprehensive and integrated approach to sustainability to ensure our solutions meet customer objectives and consumer expectations. We use life-cycle analysis to quantify a product’s environmental impact throughout its entire life cycle, including sourcing/raw materials extraction, manufacturing, distribution and end-of-life. This analysis ensures that the solutions we provide are effective, impactful, and don’t contribute to greenwashing.

One key pillar of sustainable cannabis packaging is material circulation – using recycled and recyclable plastics and alternative materials. It’s important to understand that not all plastics are created equal. HDPE and PET are fully recyclable and have a ~30% recyclability rate. Polypropylene, on the other hand, while recyclable, only has roughly a 3% recyclability rate. Color can also play a role. PET is valued for its transparency, so colored and opaque plastics are not considered recyclable.

Continuous innovation and technological improvements have contributed to several eco-friendlier plastic packaging solutions. One popular choice for many of today’s brands is post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials. Using recycled plastic reduces single-use plastic waste that fills our landfills and threatens our waterways. Bio-plastics, made using renewable plant-based materials, are another sustainable option. Berlin Packaging has partnered with numerous premium packaging manufacturers to provide sustainable solutions for our customers. Many of our offerings – suitable for flower, pre-rolls, edibles, concentrates and more – can be produced using PCR or bio-plastics.

Material circulation means using recycled and recyclable plastics and alternative materials.

We’re also seeing brands embrace new compostable, biodegradable and paper packaging options. Berlin Packaging offers pre-roll tubes that are 100% compostable in industrial or municipal facilities and are better for the environment while also protecting the product inside. With zero migration, zero odor, and zero visibility, these air-tight tubes maintain freshness and meet regulatory requirements. We also offer a variety of paper tubes for pre-rolls, vape carts, and flower that are reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable.

Other sustainable packaging strategies include refill & reuse systems, which have gained popularity over the past several years, especially among personal care categories. Other tactics to consider when evaluating your package’s sustainability scorecard are eliminating unneeded packaging components like outer wraps and neck seals, ensuring labels are recyclable, and lightweighting (reducing the weight of your package). Berlin Packaging evaluates all of these avenues when developing sustainable packaging solutions.

Beyond the packaging itself, we encourage our customers to consider aligning their branding design and on-pack messaging to tell their sustainability story. We’re seeing many brands elevate their packaging sustainability benefits on their packaging’s primary display panel. The How2Recycle labeling program is another tool that helps educate consumers about how to dispose of packaging to ensure it gets recycled properly. Berlin Packaging’s sustainability specialists assist companies with comprehensive messaging strategies. Given the rise of greenwashing and consumer confusion and skepticism, effective and impactful messaging is a critical part of a sustainable packaging strategy.

Working with packaging suppliers and design partners who understand the cannabis market and have sustainability expertise is key to a brand’s success. A holistic approach that considers consumer insights, design functionality, aesthetics, manufacturability, regulatory requirements and sustainability results in packaging solutions that grow sales and build brand loyalty.

Leaders in Cannabis Formulations: Part 5

By Aaron Green
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Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. Cannabinoid oils can be formulated into emulsions to form a fine suspension in water to modulate bioavailability, stability and flavor.

Happy Chance is a cannabis infused products company offering better-for-you products to their customers. Happy Chance recently launched a low-glycemic index fruit bite line made from fresh ingredients, distinguishing them from traditional gummies. Splash Nano is a cannabis infused products ingredients company specializing in nano emulsions. Happy Chance utilizes Splash Nano technology in their fruit bites formulations.

We spoke with Katherine Knowlton, founder of Happy Chance, and Kalon Baird, co-founder and CTO of Splash Nano to learn more about their products and how they came to do business together. Prior to Happy Chance, Knowlton worked as a chef. Prior to Splash Nano, Baird was a consultant to the cannabis industry.

Aaron Green: Katherine, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Katherine Knowlton, Founder of Happy Chance

Katherine Knowlton: I am a chef by trade. I went to culinary school in 2015. My partner also got into the cannabis space in 2017, which was right around the time when adult use cannabis became legal in California. As a chef, I am very passionate about cooking for optimal health and well-being. I noticed right away the abundance of candy- and sugar-laden products on the market. I set out to create a wellness driven product blending healthy, whole foods with a better value proposition, better-for-you and better-for-the-planet.

Green: Okay, great. Kalon, same question: how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Kalon Baird: I left a corporate job in 2011 and started cultivating in Southern California. I started to develop techniques for horticulture and developed a connection with the plant. I was a consultant for many years, and then decided to take a different path when legalization happened and got into the regulated manufacturing space. My goal was to bring new products to market to help satiate the demand for the infused category, the non-smokeable categories and to pursue niche product development.

Green: Tell me about your recent product development interests?

Kalon Baird, Co-Founder and CTO of Splash Nano

Baird: We’re interested in the research that comes out regarding cannabis minor constituents. We work with other research labs doing two-dimensional chromatography. We’re trying to figure out what compounds exist in the plant that aren’t just the major cannabinoids, and how to work with them in a pharmacological context so that they can be standardized and replicated at scale.

So, it’s not just about making a sugary THC gummy, it’s about seeing what minor cannabinoids, what minor terpenoids and what other unknown compounds can we explore, and then put back into products.

Green: That’s 2D GC-mass spec?

Baird: Yeah, it’s GC-by-GC and tandem mass spec. There are only a couple people that make that piece of equipment. The lab that we work with on that project is called Veda scientific. They’re one of the only people in the cannabis space that uses that machine. And they’re right in our backyard. The tech enables us to further quantify terpene profiles and helps to differentiate our products.

Green: I’d like to focus first on the Splash Nano technology and then we’ll dig into how you got to know each other, and then we’ll finish off with learning more about Happy Chance. So Kalon, tell me more about Splash Nano.

Baird: We employ nano emulsion technology. It’s essentially the science of making oil and water compatible and suspended in a way that reduces droplet size. With nano emulsions, you create an interfacial layer that enhances absorption and solves technical problems like being able to make cannabis oil compatible in water-based matrices, and sometimes in non-water-based matrices. The idea is that as we spread out the particles and as we change attributes of how they’re coated, they’re more bioavailable, and you get a more consistent and faster onset experience like you would in the pharmaceutical or alcohol industry. It’s bringing the industry standard up to the consumer package level and the pharmaceutical level, so that people aren’t waiting the typical hour-long timeframe to absorb that first dose.

Green: Tell me about your business model.

Baird: When we started out in 2018, we were going for a manufacturing license. In the meantime, we saw the drink category evolving and we wanted to be a part of that conversation in that ecosystem. We started developing our own nano emulsions that we knew would be useful when we got our license. We knew that we would sell the base material to co-packers who would put them into beverages. We didn’t want to co-pack the beverages ourselves. So, we developed a drink additive that was our proof of concept that had legs for the technology so that we could show people how to use it. That proof of concept spun off and became its own product and now it’s in the market under the brand name Splash Nano and comes in four distinct product SKUS using minor cannabinoids as differentiators.

The Splash Nano drink additive

Meanwhile, our bread-and-butter business was working with smaller brands, like Happy Chance that needed a path to market but couldn’t get the license or couldn’t go through that whole rigmarole of a two-year waiting period and a half a million dollars and all the other stuff. So, we started taking on all these smaller brands effectively licensing their brand IP and their ideas. In the process, we ended up learning a ton about product development and it became kind of a passion.

We have three core revenue streams. One of them is contract manufacturing, or private labeling. The other one is our own product Splash Nano which is a drink additive. And then the last is we open sourced the technology and sell that as a business-to-business platform so that people can infuse their own products with our fast-acting emulsions. We’re working on a licensing model that will allow other states to create that same consistency, where we send a black box model out to them, and then they infuse the cannabis and then turn that into a product.

Green: Moving on to Katherine here. Tell me about Happy Chance, and how you came up with the brand concept and the product idea.

Knowlton: Going back to what I touched on earlier, many traditional edibles in the space are brownies, cookies and candy type of products that do not contribute to wellness. I wanted to give the wellness driven consumer an option in cannabis. I wanted to create a powerhouse edible that was not only functional and complete but that elevated the consumer’s experience as a whole because of the ingredients we choose and the whole cannabis we source.

Some of the Happy Chance fruit bites

I’m someone who values better-for-you products that contribute to optimal health and well-being. So, I set out to make something. I didn’t really know what I wanted to make in the beginning. I bought a dehydrator and a food processor, and I started messing around with different applications in my kitchen. Over 100 variations later, the fruit bite was born.

The fruit bite is made with dates – a natural sugar that delivers nutritional power: a low glycemic index and high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A sweet you can feel great about. And we use pumpkin seeds which have a lot of great protein. We are working with a company in California that takes imperfect fruits and vegetables and upcycles that back into the food supply chain. We utilize the whole fruits and vegetables as a dried intermediate, capturing all the flavor of nutrients. No added natural flavors and nothing from concentrate.

Green: How does the consistency differ from a gummy?

Knowlton: The consistency is similar to a Lara bar or an Rx bar. Essentially, it’s that same consistency in a bite form and so it’s very different than a gummy. It’s a low dose, low sugar alternative to the modern-day gummy.

Green: So, you’ve got this healthy concept for the fruit bite. You’re looking at suppliers and technologies to infuse the product. How did you finally decide on Splash Nano?

Knowlton: I watched my partner lose his company a few years ago to a larger vertically integrated company. The MSO promised the moon and the stars, and they got lost in the weeds of their eco-system, ultimately losing their company. That said, I was very sensitive when I first started on this journey. I even took on my own partners who didn’t work out either. I spoke with a lot of manufacturers in the selection process. Splash Nano was the tenth manufacturer I spoke with.

It was a very organic way of meeting. I am also based in Santa Barbara where Splash Nano is located. My partner’s brother shared an office space with Kalon, so we met through that connection. I learned right away that Splash was founded on wellness, much like Happy Chance. It was important to source clean cannabis, an aspect that Kalon and his team take pride in. We quickly discovered that Kalon’s Splash Nano technology was going to work in my product. Happy Chance immediately found a home, and it has been an organic evolution of realistic business and friendship.

Green: Kalon, I’d love to get your perspective as well. How do you think about partnering with brands?

Baird: Because of our contract manufacturing experience, we’ve been able to touch approximately 50 brands over our three-year tenure in this space. We’ve seen kind of everything from the multi-state operator to the owner-operator and everything in between. I developed a passion for working with these smaller brands for a lot of different reasons. This industry is built on the success of small mom and pops. Yes, the multi-state operators do have a place and they absolutely add a lot of value. But at the same time, they have their own natural challenges. You have essentially a culture of employees versus a business owner that’s making a lot of their own decisions.

There are advantages to somebody like Katherine, who’s in the trenches of business, and understands the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of this industry and be able to get through some of those challenges a lot more organically and a lot more sustainably. Katherine has such a deep pulse on her business and on her customer and on her own money. She tends to make a lot more calculated decisions, and I really appreciate that.

There’s a lot of waste that gets accumulated in this industry through packaging, through bad decisions, and over extensions of capital. It’s sad to watch and you see these people that have great potential, but it’s kind of lost in this sort of the framework of a large organization. Again, I like multi-state operators, they’re great. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s just a different flavor. I’m trying to highlight the fact that working with somebody that has a pulse on her business, and the passion for what she’s doing is wonderful. It’s not just about making money; it’s about adding value.

Green: Katherine, talk to me about sustainability and how you’ve woven that into your product.

Knowlton: We’re dedicated to supporting Product, People and Planet. That’s the whole mission and ethos of Happy Chance. As a chef, I wanted to be intentional about where our ingredients come from. We only source organic and upcycled ingredients – an essential recipe in sustaining a healthy, eco-friendly plant. Intention and integrity are always at the forefront of our products. We prioritize partnering with more transparent supply chains. We want to show the world how cannabis can promote positive lifestyle changes that support living more actively and consciously.

To reiterate, we are also not using anything from concentrate. We are using the entire strawberry, the entire blueberry and so it encapsulates all the flavor and all the nutrition that you would have from a fresh fruit into our products.

Green: How do you think about sustainability in product packaging?

Knowlton: As far as packaging goes in this industry, we’re very limited in what we can do. Compostable packaging isn’t really available, but we have partnered with a packaging company that definitely has mindfulness at the core of their mission. They have established their entire supply chain to ensure they are focusing on green practices and reducing waste each step of the way. Their energy efficient machinery creates a zero-waste manufacturing process to reduce their carbon footprint and they utilize soy and vegan inks to help reduce air pollution by minimizing toxic emissions in the air. My hope for the industry is that as it continues to evolve, we can become less wasteful as far as packaging goes.

Green: Rapid fire questions for both of you: What trends are you following in the industry right now?

Knowlton: As a chef and coming from the CPG world, I’m passionate about health and wellness. I think that it’s important to stay on trend with what we’re seeing in CPG. There’s definitely a market as far as people wanting these better-for-you products. I want to bring that into the cannabis space.

Baird: We’re seeing the inclusion of minor cannabinoids, terpenoids, standardized recipes and faster- or slower-acting delivery systems. So, I’m following trends in advanced drug delivery systems paired with minor cannabinoids.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Knowlton: I’m most interested in how I can take what I’ve learned in the food space and help bring that into the world of cannabis through Happy Chance. Ultimately cannabis is plant medicine. So, how can we educate people that the ingredients we choose to make products should be good for us too. I think that there’s a lot that can be done with it from a from a health and wellness standpoint.

Baird: I’m interested in learning more about the analytical overlay between quantifying and standardizing entheogens and plant medicines like cannabis into the product development process in CPG. I’m thinking of ways to blend the two worlds of traditional science and New Age medicine.

Green: Awesome, that concludes the interview. Thank you both, Katherine and Kalon.

At Delic Labs, We Have a Dream: A Cannabis Better Future

By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen, Dr. Eric Janusson
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Many people associate cannabis with eco-friendly, counter-cultural movements, but we know the environmental impacts of the cannabis industry are significant. Given the climate crisis, cannabis production companies have a responsibility to ensure future demands of the industry are met in an environmentally sustainable way. We also know that as the world is seeing the impacts of climate change, consumers are changing their spending habits 1. As a result, companies also have the financial incentive to seriously consider implementing more environmental policies, to align their interests with the interests of consumers. Unfortunately, restrictions on cannabis research and the legal industry create barriers to implementing many environmentally friendly alternatives in production. However, this does not give us an excuse to do nothing while we wait – there are many steps that can be taken while we work to overcome these barriers. Our team at Delic Labs aims to help companies ensure the environmental and economic sustainability of the cannabis industry. So, we did some research and developed the Cannabis Better Future (CBF) concept, a guide that considers the impacts of cannabis cultivation and processing on the environment. The pillars of CBF are:

  1. Use of renewable/recyclable materials in production

The packaging used for legal cannabis products is infamously excessive. A standard 3.5-grams of dried cannabis is estimated to come packaged in more than 70 grams of plastic. This seemingly redundant packaging is done to meet regulations surrounding cannabis packaging that often require single-use plastic with labels and warnings at specific sizes 2. Despite this, there is work being done to get biodegradable packaging approved in the industry.

More companies, such as Knot Plastic, are using plant-based materials to provide medical-grade biodegradable alternatives to single-use plastic 3. As members of the industry, we should support these companies and call for regulations to approve biodegradable packaging. As for immediate actions that can be taken, we can turn to companies that reduce the amount of plastic from the industry that ends up in landfills. The Tweed x TerraCycle Cannabis Packaging Recycling Program accepts all cannabis containers from licensed producers in Canada – free of charge – and melts down the plastic to create new products 4. This includes tins, plastic bags, tubes and bottles with child-proof caps. The program has saved more than 165,000 containers from ending up in landfills.

  1. Upcycle biomass waste

It is estimated that for every pound of cannabis harvested, up to 4.5 pounds of plant waste is generated 5. Cannabis biomass waste can be discarded in four different ways: via landfill, composting, in-vessel digestion or incineration 6. Cannabis bio-waste usually ends up in landfills because this is the cheapest method. However, landfill disposal represents a missed opportunity for companies to use biomass waste for economic and environmentally-friendly uses.

Converting biomass for other uses will drastically limit waste

To reduce landfill waste, some companies are looking at sustainable bio-circular solutions, where cannabis biomass is converted into something of industrial use such as compost, bio-plastics and paper packaging for cannabis products 7.  The easiest way to reuse cannabis biomass with current regulations in place is to upcycle it to produce compost and greywater that can be used for industrial cultivation 8. Currently, bleach is commonly used to remove THC from biomass, making it unfit to be used for these purposes 6. However, Micron Waste Technologies Inc. have shown enzymatic denaturation can be adopted on the industrial scale to remove THC from the biomass, resulting in reusable water and compostable matter 8. Turning to this alternative method would also reduce the amount of required fertilizer and replace bleach with a more environmentally-friendly solution.

  1. Recycle production side streams

Terpenes are the compounds in cannabis that give it distinctive aromas and flavors sought after by consumers.During the cannabis drying stage, over 30% of terpenes can be lost along with the water phase from the product 9. This terpene-containing water phase gets trapped in drying rooms and decarboxylation ovens and is usually thrown out. To reintroduce the terpenes in their products, companies usually purchase them 10.However, they instead could be recapturing terpenes that are otherwise going to waste, and re-introducing them into their products. Recapturing terpenes would not only reduce the production and shipment energy that goes along with purchased terpenes, but also the costs of buying them.

There are many other wasted by-products that can be recycled. Ethanol that has been used as extraction solvent can be reused as cleaning solvent, reducing the need to purchase ethanol separately for cleaning purposes. Further, the condensation caught in HVACs can be recycled to water plants.

  1. Optimize production energy efficiency
LED lights use less energy and omit less heat than other more traditional options

A study by Summers et al. 11 found that from producing one kilogram of dried cannabis flower, the emitted greenhouse gasses emissions range from 2,283 to 5,184 kg of CO2. Electricity used for indoor cultivation is the major culprit in producing these emissions. In fact, over $6 billion is spent annually to power industrial cannabis growth facilities in the U.S. alone12. Growing outdoors is significantly more energy efficient; however, non-auto flowering, high-THC cannabis plants depend on the specific timing of daylight (and darkness) to grow properly 13. Optimal conditions for these plants are not always achievable in outdoor setting. Meanwhile, auto-flowering plants that are hearty outdoors are generally lower in THC content 14. Promoting research into generating more stabilized cannabis cultivars may help outdoor growing be a more feasible solution. Given the recent work being done with genetically modified and transgenic plants, upregulating THC production in cannabis and increasing the heartiness in different climates is well within the realm of possibility 15–17.

In the meantime, cultivation facilities can do their part to maintain a controlled growth environment with reduced energy waste. Companies that are still using high-intensity sodium lights should consider switching to high-efficiency LED bulbs 12. These are a good alternative option as they produce less heat, and as a result, require less mechanical cooling. It has been shown that many plants, including cannabis, might even do better under blue-red LED lights 18,19. Growth under these conditions correlated with an increase in THC and CBD levels, and overall larger plants 18. In addition to low energy consumption, LED lamps have flexible mobility and a tunable spectrum range. This makes it possible to mediate the spectrum specifically for cannabis crops by controlling each spectral range and manipulating spectral quality and light intensity precisely. Finally, lights can also be brought closer to plants, to further reduce the amount of mechanical cooling needed.

  1. Utilize high-precision processes

Reducing energy use while maintaining production rates can only be done if the process is optimized. Our own research improves process optimization in the cannabis industry. A key component of industrial optimization is reducing wasted time on various machines. For cannabis producers, this machine “junk time” can accumulate when the instrumentation is not progressing the reaction.

Reducing energy use in this case means ensuring machines are not in operation if they are not progressing the reaction. For example, many companies spend approximately two hours on the decarboxylation step because decarboxylation is always complete after two hours 20; however, decarboxylations are often complete in as little as thirty minutes 21. Companies can save energy by installing a monitor on decarboxylation systems to stop reactions once they are complete.

Reducing the environmental impacts of the cannabis industry is crucial to combat the developing climate crisis. While lifting restrictions on cannabis research and mitigating stigmas surrounding the legal industry will be what ultimately paves the way for meaningful changes toward a sustainable industry, cannabis companies cannot wait for regulatory changes to occur before considering eco-friendly practices. As outlined by CBF, there are existing actions which all companies can take to reduce their carbon footprint immediately. Delic Labs, and many other companies we have noted, aim to support companies in making these decisions for a better future for cannabis.


References:

  1. Statista Research Department. Share of consumers worldwide who have changed the products and services they use due to concern about climate change in 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1106653/change-made-consumer-bevaviour-concern-climate-change-worldwide/ (2021).
  2. Akeileh, O., Moyer, E., Sim, P. & Vissandjee Amarsy, L. Chronic Waste: Strategies to Reduce Waste and Encourage Environmentally-Friendly Packaging in Canada’s Legal Cannabis. https://www.mcgill.ca/maxbellschool/files/maxbellschool/policy_lab_2020_-_strategies_to_reduce_waste_and_encourage_environmentally-friendly_packaging_in_canadas_legal_cannabis_industry.pdf (2020).
  3. Bauder, P. Ry Russell of Knot Plastic️: 5 Things We Must Do to Inspire the Next Generation about Sustainability and the Environment. (2020).
  4. Waste360 Staff. Tweed, TerraCycle Take Cannabis Packaging Recycling Across Canada. (2019).
  5. Peterson, E. Industry Report: The State of Hemp and Cannabis Waste. CompanyWeek (2019).
  6. Commendatore, C. The Complicated World of Cannabis Waste Generation (Part One). Waste 360 (2019).
  7. Drotleff, L. Cannabis-based packaging and paper could reduce waste, promote sustainability. MJBiz Daily(2020).
  8. Waste 360 staff. Micron Secures U.S. Design Patent for Waste Treatment Tech. Waste 360 (2019).
  9. Challa, S. R. DRYING KINETICS AND THE EFFECTS OF DRYING METHODS ON QUALITY (CBD, TERPENES AND COLOR) OF HEMP (Cannabis sativa L.) BUDS. (2020).
  10. Erickson, B. Cannabis industry gets crafty with terpenes. chemical and engineering news (2019).
  11. Summers, H. M., Sproul, E. & Quinn, J. C. The greenhouse gas emissions of indoor cannabis production in the United States. Nature Sustainability 4, (2021).
  12. Reott, J. How Does Legalized Cannabis Affect Energy Use? Alliance to Save Energy (2020).
  13. When To Plant Cannabis Outside: A State By State Guide. aPotforPot.comhttps://apotforpot.com/blogs/apotforpot/when-to-plant-cannabis-outside-a-state-by-state-guide/ (2020).
  14. 15 Pros And Cons of Autoflowering Cannabis. aPotforPot.com https://apotforpot.com/blogs/apotforpot/15-pros-and-cons-of-autoflowering-seeds/ (2019).
  15. Ye, X. et al. Engineering the Provitamin A (β-Carotene) Biosynthetic Pathway into (Carotenoid-Free) Rice Endosperm. Science 287, 303–305 (2000).
  16. Giddings, G., Allison, G., Brooks, D. & Carter, A. Transgenic plants as factories for biopharmaceuticals. Nature Biotechnology 18, 1151–1155 (2000).
  17. Hu, H. & Xiong, L. Genetic Engineering and Breeding of Drought-Resistant Crops. Annual Review of Plant Biology 65, 715–741 (2014).
  18. Wei, X. et al. Wavelengths of LED light affect the growth and cannabidiol content in Cannabis sativa L. Industrial Crops and Products 165, (2021).
  19. Sabzalian, M. R. et al. High performance of vegetables, flowers, and medicinal plants in a red-blue LED incubator for indoor plant production. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 34, (2014).
  20. LunaTechnologies. Decarboxylation: What Is It and Why Is It Important? LunaTechnologies.
  21. Shah, S. et al. Fast, Easy, and Reliable Monitoring of THCA and CBDA Decarboxylation in Cannabis Flower and Oil Samples Using Infrared Spectroscopy. (2021).

Controlled Environment Agriculture: An Interview with Sam Andras

By Aaron Green
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Food-focused controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a multidisciplinary production technique whereby plants and products are grown inside greenhouses, vertical farms and growth chambers where every aspect of the environment can be monitored and controlled. Using CEA, cultivators can produce high-value and traditional food crops with the goal of maximizing plant productivity in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.

As the industry’s first integrated building and cultivation systems design firm, urban-gro is ushering in a new era in the design of efficient indoor agriculture facilities, providing productivity and efficiency benefits to CEA operators when designing and operating facilities.

We interviewed Sam Andras, executive vice president of Professional Services at urban-gro, and principal of MJ12 Design Studio. Sam joined urban-gro after his company MJ12 Design Studio was acquired in July 2020. Prior to that, he was principal in charge of 2WR+ Partners, a 20-year Georgia-based architecture and interior design firm.

Aaron Green: Sam, tell me, how did you get started in the cannabis industry?

A facility that Andras designed in Massachusetts

Sam Andras: I started my architecture firm in 2001 in Georgia and later moved to Colorado in 2012. In 2013, I had the opportunity to do three cannabis facilities and really saw it as an emerging market that I thought would be really cool to dig into and pursue. Due to the marijuana stigma at the time, our company, 2WR, decided to create a cannabis-specific entity and developed MJ12 Design Studio. We built a website and it took off. Since 2013, I’ve personally designed about 130 cultivation facilities and vertically integrated facilities, from Hawaii all the way to New Zealand.

Green: When you say vertically integrated, what does that include?

Andras: The full building design of cultivation, product manufacturing, extraction, infusion and dispensaries.

Green: Is that something urban-gro currently does as well?

Andras: Now? Yes, with MJ12 under the facility design umbrella. After urban-gro acquired us in July, they were able to start offering full turnkey services. Everything from architecture, mechanical and plumbing engineering, electrical engineering, integrated cultivation, design of fertigation, benching, lighting, water treatment, environmental controls and other plant focused services– all of that is under our umbrella.

Green: Can you explain what controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is?

Andras: Absolutely. To me, CEA is crop agnostic, it can be anything from leafy greens to cannabis. Though we’re mainly focused on the cannabis industry and controlling that environment, we do also serve some leafy green companies. Environmental control includes things like temperature and humidity levels in the various stages of growth which is key to the economic success of organizations.

A California dispensary he designed

I’m a firm believer in legalization on the federal level down the road, which means that everything’s going to be under FDA for human consumption. If you look at the European models, when you look at the medicinal product development, it’s focused on consistency of the crop, from one crop to the next. And the way you achieve consistency is with CEA.

Green: From a resource perspective, can you describe how CEA differs from indoor to outdoor and greenhouse?

Andras: When you look at the market and the sale value of cannabis flower grown indoors versus outdoors or even greenhouse, greenhouse growing has huge variations by region. I believe greenhouses function better in more of a dry, arid climate. Indoor grows give you the ability to design and control your entire environment including temperatures, humidity levels, plant sizes, watering rates and other considerations. Growing indoors, in a controlled environment, gives you more flexibility to explore different alternatives in your cultivation.

A California cultivation facility he designed

Green: Final question: what in cannabis or in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?

Andras: That’s a great question. I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I would love to spend a couple of weeks working in extraction, as that’s the piece of the puzzle, as an architect, I know the least about. We’ve designed pretty much every type of cultivation from drip irrigation aeroponics to aquaponics, ebb & flow. You name it, we’ve done it, but the whole extraction process and the different equipment, and why companies choose ethanol, butane, hydrocarbon, CO2 and how to design for those extraction processes is something that as an architect, I’d love to learn more about.

Green: Okay, Great. That concludes the interview. Thanks Sam!

Andras: Thanks, Aaron.

cannabis close up
Soapbox

Too Many Cannabis Firms Put Sustainability in Last Place

By Mitesh Makwana
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cannabis close up

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.

A field of hemp plants, (Cannabis sativa L.)

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.

photo of outdoor grow operation
Outdoor growing can require less energy inputs

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.

Designing Precision Cannabis Facilities: A Case Study

By Phil Gibson
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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.

Background

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

Andrew Lange, Ascendant Management

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 Syrek, director of operations at Onyx Agronomics

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 Ag Day: An Interview with Industry Leaders Disrupting Agriculture in Positive Ways

By Aaron Green
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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.

Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies

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.

Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.

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)

Aaron Green: What motivated you to publish the Cannabis H2O: Water Use and Sustainability in Cultivation report?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Evolution of Cannabis Entrepreneurship

By Jonathan Monk
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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.

Smart Plants: A Q&A with Jonathan Vaught, CEO and Co-Founder of Front Range Biosciences

By Aaron Green
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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.

Aaron Green: Jon, thank you for taking the time today. I saw in the news you recently sent tissue cultures to the International Space Station? I’d love to learn more about that!

Hemp tissue culture samples like these sat in an incubator aboard the ISS

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.

Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences

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.

Hemp clones and seeds is a big part of the Front Range Biosciences business

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.

Their nursery services include breeding, propagation and production of cannabis

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!

NCIA Publishes Environmental Sustainability Recommendations

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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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.”

To read the report in its entirety, click here.