With much of the world shutting down and many of us forced to take refuge behind our own doors, we have some time to reflect on what actions led to this. There has been, in my opinion, a clear disconnect between our actions and health outcomes. We need to bridge this gap; We now have a moment to build that bridge. We can start by reassessing our endpoint measurement of health and disease and focusing on what leading measures will impact our lagging results. Think of it as HACCP-lite or home office HACCP. Small changes in the way we think and behave can lead to significant change.
Lagging measures – Lagging measures make great headlines and typically measure an outcome. These are easily quantifiable and therefore receive a good deal of the focus.
Leading measures – Leading measures are inputs that happen during the process and in advance of an outcome. Leading measures are often difficult to quantify.
We are currently focused on the lagging measures for a communicable disease, COVID-19. Illness and death numbers stemming from the pandemic continue to rise, as is expected with more available testing. It is easy for us to dwell on these numbers as they climb and dominate the news. A study in Australia last decade indicated that just over 1% of those experiencing flu like symptoms sought treatment and eventually got tested. I’m not going to use the tip of the iceberg cliché, but there it is. Focusing on the rapidly rising rates of COVID may be easy to do, but it won’t help our future selves.
What we should be doing during this time, however, is looking at our own leading behaviors and how changing them can help prevent this situation from reoccurring.
Here are some inputs we can rethink:
Hand washing – The average American uses the restroom 6-7 times per day. This week I started a “Germ Jar” activity with my kids (spring break week!) to track washing. If we wash our hands every time we use the restroom and every time we eat, that’s roughly 10X per day. Our leading indicator of household health, then, is 10 hand washes per day. This principle can, and should be applied to workplaces, including schools, airports and hospitals. What if we had mandatory handwashing prior to airport security and boarding? My estimation is that data would indicate a sharp decline in illness and transmission rates.
Disinfecting/Sanitizing – Similar to hand washing, cleaning surfaces serves as a vital indicator of future health. Examples, such as this District in Freeport, Il, indicate that increasing frequency of disinfecting can lead to a dramatic decrease in numbers sick. In my new office setting, we have set a goal via the Germ Jar of 3 times per day wiping down high touch surfaces. As we reenter close-proximity society, we need to have a better understanding of what high touch surfaces are, both for those who are tasked to clean them, as well as those that are doing the touching. Reduction of touches coupled with above washing behaviors post-touch can help prevent disease transmission.
Monitoring – Lastly, we need to do a better job at monitoring ourselves and our environments. In my new office, we have enacted a temperature check every morning and night. If we practiced symptom reporting (coughing, sneezing, chills) and monitored temperature in other settings, such as offices and schools, could we start to see pockets of infection and trends? Taking it a step farther, while we invest a tremendous amount of time and money into protecting our food supply from foodborne illness, we rarely discuss preventive monitoring for other diseases, such as influenza and now COVID-19. Technologies are rapidly coming available that will allow us to perform quick diagnostics of both individuals and environments. If we were to monitor the air and surfaces of a school nurse’s office, would we find data that could prevent transmission of disease? Can we transfer HACCP-lite to additional (all) settings?
Over the next weeks and months, we are going to be inundated by the spike in COVID illnesses and deaths. During this time, it is on each of us to realize how our past behaviors led to the state we are in. When we return, viruses will not be absent from the world, our hospitals, schools, offices or our bodies. We can, starting now, begin to measure and change our leading behaviors and begin to shape a healthier future.
Cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC is not eligible for USDA organic certification, due to the crop’s Schedule I status. While some hemp farmers are currently on the path to obtain a USDA organic certification, the rest of the cannabis industry is left without that ability.
Growers, producers, manufacturers and dispensaries that utilize the same practices as the national organic program should be able to use that to their advantage in their marketing. Ian Rice, CEO of Envirocann, wants to help cannabis companies tap into that potential with what he likes to call, “comparable to organic.”
Rice co-founded SC Laboratories in 2010, one of the first cannabis testing labs in the world, and helped develop the cannabis industry’s first testing standards. In 2016, Rice and his partners at SC Labs launched Envirocann, a third-party certification organization, focused on the quality assurance and quality control of cannabis products. Through on-site inspections and lab testing, Envirocann verifies and subsequently certifies that best practices are used to grow and process cannabis, while confirming environmental sustainability and regulatory compliance.
“Our backyard in Santa Cruz and the central coast is the birthplace of the organic movement,” says Rice. California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), founded in Santa Cruz more than 40 years ago, was one of the first organizations in the early 1990s that helped write the national organic program.
“What we came to realize in the lab testing space and as the cannabis market grew, was that a lot of cannabis companies were making the organic claims on their products,” says Rice. “At the time, only one or two organizations in the cannabis space were making an attempt to qualify best practices or create an organic-type feel of confidence among consumers.” What Rice saw in their lab was not cannabis that could be considered organic: “We saw products being labeled as organic, or with certain claims of best practices, that were regularly failing tests and testing positive for banned chemicals. That really didn’t sit well with us.”
At the time, there was no real pathway to certify cannabis products and qualify best practices. “We met with a few people at the CCOF that were very encouraging for us to adopt the national organic program’s standards for cannabis. We followed their lead in how to adopt the standards and apply a certification, building a vehicle intended to certify cannabis producers.”
Because of their background in lab testing they added the requirement for every crop that gets certified to undergo a site inspection, sampling, as well as a pesticide residue test to confirm no pesticides were used at all during the production cycle. One of their clients is Coastal Sun Farms, a greenhouse and outdoor cannabis producer. “They grow incredible products at a high-level, commercial scale at the Enviroganic standard,” says Rice. “They have been able to prove that organic cannabis is economically viable.”
The Envirocann certification goes a bit beyond the USDA’s organic program in helping their clients with downstream supply chain risk management tools (SCRM). “Because of the rigorous testing of products to get certified and go to market, we are getting way ahead of supply chain or production issues,” says Rice. “That includes greater oversight and transparency, not just for marketing the final product.”
A good example of using SCRM to a client’s advantage is in the extraction business. A common scenario recently in the cannabis market involves flower or trim passing the pesticide tests at the lab. But when that flower makes it down the supply chain to a manufacturer, the extraction process concentrates chemical levels along with cannabinoid levels that might have previously been acceptable for flower. “I’ve witnessed millions and millions of dollars evaporate because flower passed, but the concentrated final product did not,” says Rice. “We’ve introduced a tool to get ahead of that decision-making process, looking beyond just a pass/fail. With our partner labs, we look at the chromatograms in greater detail beyond regulatory requirements, which gives us information on trace levels of chemicals we may be looking for. It’s a really rigorous audit on these sites and it’s all for the benefit of our clients.”
Envirocann has also recently added a processing certification for the manufacturing sector and a retail certification for dispensaries. That retail certification is intended to provide consumers with transparency, truth in labeling and legitimate education. The retail certification includes an assessment and audit of their management plan, which goes into details like procurement and budtender education, as well as basic considerations like energy usage and waste management.
While Envirocann has essentially adopted the USDA’s organic program’s set of standards for what qualifies organic producers, which they call “Enviroganic,” they also certify more conventional producers with their “Envirocann” certification. “While these producers might not be considered organic farmers, they use conventional methods of production that are responsible and deserve recognition,” says Rice. “A great example for that tier would be Fog City Farms: They are growing indoor with LED lighting and have multiple levels in their indoor environment to optimize efficiency and minimize their impact with waste and energy usage, including overall considerations for sustainability in their business.”
As the cannabis market matures and the value chain becomes modernized, it’s important to address product safety in a comprehensive way. In other areas of manufacturing, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) has been the standard for reducing hazards both for employees and for the products themselves. A Critical Control Point (CCP) is any spot from conception to consumption where a loss of control can potentially result in risk (Unnevehr, 1996). In the food realm, HACCP has been used to drive quality enhancements since the 1980s (Cichy, 1982).
In a nutshell, HACCP seeks to help identify where a problem may enter a product or environment and how that problem may be addressed before it escalates. In cannabis, these hazards include many of the same problems that food products have: specifically molds, yeasts, and pathogenic bacteria (Listeria, E. coli, etc.). While the current industry standard is to test products at the end stage for these contaminants, this late-stage pass/fail regimen leads to huge lots of destroyed product and a risk for consumer distrust (Yamashiro, 2019). HACCP, therefore, should be applied at every stage of the production process.
Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM) is a tool that can be used to identify CCPs in a cannabis cultivation or processing facility. The main goal of a PEM program is to find a contaminant before it reaches a surface that touches the product or the product itself. PEM is conducted using a pre-moistened swab or a sponge to collect a sample from the cannabis environment. The swab can then be sent to a lab for microbial testing. Keys to an effective PEM are:
1. Start with a broad stroke – When the FDA comes to a facility suspected of producing pathogen-laced food products, they conduct what is known as a Swab-a-thon. A Swab-a-thon is a top to bottom collection of samples, usually totaling 100 or more. Similarly, preemptively swabbing should be the first step in any PEM—swab everything to see what exists as a baseline.
2. Map your scene – identify on a map of your facility the following:
Flow of air and people (where do air and people enter and where do they go?
Identifying the above zones will help deepen your understanding of where contaminants may come into contact with cannabis and how they may migrate from a Non-CCS to a CCS.
3. Plan and execute:
Based on the results of mapping, and Swab-a-thon, identify where and when you will be collecting samples on a consistent and repeatable basis. Emphasis should be placed on areas that are deemed a risk based on 1) and 2). Samples should be collected at random in all zones to ensure comprehensive screening.
4. Remediate and modify:
If you get a positive result during PEM, don’t panic—pathogens are ubiquitous.
Remediate any trouble spots with deep cleaning, remediation devices or other protocols.
Re-test areas that were positive for pathogens to ensure remediation is successful.
Revisit and modify the plan at least once a year and each time a new piece of equipment is added or production flow is otherwise changed.
The steps above are a good starting point for a grower or processor to begin a PEM. Remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to safety; each facility has its own unique set of hazards and control points.
Comprehensive guides for PEM can be found at the links below, many of the concepts can be applied to cannabis production.
Mold is ubiquitous in nature and can be found everywhere.1 Cannabis growers know this all too well – the cannabis plant, by nature, is an extremely mold-susceptible crop, and growers battle it constantly.
Of course, managing mold doesn’t mean eradicating mold entirely – that’s impossible. Instead, cultivation professionals must work to minimize the amount of mold to the point where plants can thrive, and finished products are safe for consumption.
Let’s begin with that end in mind – a healthy plant, grown, cured and packaged for sale. In a growing number of states, there’s a hurdle to clear before the product can be sold to consumers – state-mandated testing.
So how do you ensure that the product clears the testing process within guidelines for mold? And what tools can be employed in biological warfare?
Mold: At Home in Cannabis Plants
It helps to first understand how the cannabis plant becomes an optimal environment.
The cannabis flower was designed to capture pollen floating in the air or brought by a pollinating insect.
Once a mold spore has landed in a flower, the spore will begin to grow. The flower will continue to grow as well, and eventually, encapsulate the mold. Once the mold is growing in the middle of the flower, there is no way to get rid of it without damaging the flower.
A Name with Many Varieties
The types of spores found in or around a plant can make or break whether mold will end with bad product.
Aspergillus for example, is a mold that can produce mycotoxins, which are toxic to humans2. For this reason, California has mandatory testing3for certain aspergillus molds.
Another example, Basidiospores, are found outside, in the air. These are spores released from mushrooms and have no adverse effects on cannabis or a cannabis cultivation facility.
Fungi like powdery mildew and botrytis (PM and Bud Rot) typically release spores in the air before they are physically noticed on plants. Mold spores like these can survive from one harvest to the next – they can be suspended in the air for hours and be viable for years.
How Mold Travels
Different types of spores – the reproductive parts of mold – get released from different types of mold. Similar to plants and animals, mold reproduces when resources are deemed sufficient.
The opposite is also true that if the mold is under enough stress, such as a depleting nutrient source, it can be forced into reproduction to save itself.4
In the end, mold spores are released naturally into the air for many reasons, including physical manipulation of a plant, which, of course, is an unavoidable task in a cultivation facility.5
Trimming Areas: A Grow’s Highest Risk for Mold
Because of the almost-constant physical manipulation of plants that happen inside its walls, a grow’s trimming areas typically have the highest spore counts. Even the cleanest of plants will release spores during trimming.
These rooms also have the highest risk for cross contamination, since frequently, growers dry flower in the same room as they trim. Plus, because trimming can be labor intensive, with a large number of people entering and leaving the space regularly, spores are brought in and pushed out and into another space.
The Battle Against Mold
The prevalence and ubiquitous nature of mold in a cannabis facility means that the fight against it must be smart, and it must be thorough.
By incorporating an upstream approach to facility biosecurity, cultivators can protect themselves against testing failures and profit losses.
Biosecurity must be all encompassing, including everything from standard operating procedures and proper environmental controls, to fresh air exchange and surface sanitation/disinfection.
One of the most effective tactics in an upstream biosecurity effort is fungal monitoring.
Ways to Monitor Mold
Determining the load or amount of mold that is in a facility is and always will be common practice. This occurs in a few ways.
Post-harvest testing is in place to ensure the safety of consumers, but during the growing process, is typically done using “scouting reports.” A scouting report is a human report: when personnel physically inspect all or a portion of the crop. A human report, unfortunately, can lead to human error, and this often doesn’t give a robust view of the facility mold picture.
Another tool is agar plates. These petri dishes can be opened and set in areas suspected to have mold. Air moves past the plate and the mold spores that are viable land on the dishes. However, this process is time intensive, and still doesn’t give a complete picture.
Alternatively, growers can use spore traps to monitor for mold.
Spore traps draw a known volume of air through a cassette.6 The inside of the cassette is designed to force the air toward a sticky surface, which is capable of capturing spores and other materials. The cassette is sent to a laboratory for analysis, where they will physically count and identify what was captured using a microscope.
Spore trap results can show the entire picture of a facility’s mold concerns. This tool is also fast, able to be read on your own or sent to a third party for quick and unbiased review. The information yielded is a useful indicator for mold load and which types are prevalent in the facility.
Spore Trap Results: A Story Told
What’s going on inside of a facility has a direct correlation to what’s happening outside, since facility air comes infromthe outside. Thus, spore traps are most effective when you compare a trap inside with one set outside.
When comparing the two, you can see what the plants are doing, view propagating mold, and understand which of the spore types are only found inside.
Similar to its use in homes and businesses for human health purposes, monitoring can indicate the location of mold growth in a particular area within a facility.
These counts can be used to determine the efficacy of cleaning and disinfecting a space, or to find water leaks or areas that are consistently wet (mold will grow quickly and produce spores in these areas).
Using Spore Traps to See Seasonality Changes, Learn CCPs
Utilizing spore traps for regular, facility-wide mold monitoring is advantageous for many reasons.
One example: Traps can help determine critical control points (CCP) for mold.
What does this look like? If the spore count is two times higher than usual, mitigating action needs to take place. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies like cleaning and disinfecting the space, or spraying a fungicide, are needed to bring the spore count down to its baseline.
For example, most facilities will see a spike in spore counts during the times of initial flower production/formation (weeks two to three of the flower cycle).
Seasonal trends can be determined, as well, since summer heat and rain will increase the mold load while winter cold may minimize it.
Using Fungal Monitoring in an IPM Strategy
Fungal monitoring – especially using a spore trap – is a critical upstream step in a successful IPM strategy. But it’s not the only step. In fact, there are five:
Identify/Monitor… Using a spore trap.
Evaluate…Spore trap results will indicate if an action is needed. Elevated spore counts will be the action threshold, but it can also depend on the type of spores found.
Prevention…Avoiding mold on plants using quality disinfection protocols as often as possible.
Action…What will be done to remedy the presence of mold? Examples include adding disinfection protocols, applying a fungicide, increasing air exchanges, and adding a HEPA filter.
Monitor…Constant monitoring is key. More eyes monitoring is better, and will help find Critical Control Points.
Each step must be followed to succeed in the battle against mold.
Of course, in the battle, there may be losses. If you experience a failed mandatory product testing result, use the data from the failure to fix your facility and improve for the future.
The data can be used to determine efficacy of standard operating procedures, action thresholds, and other appropriate actions. Plus, you can add a spore trap analysis for pre- and post- disinfection protocols, showing whether the space was really cleaned and disinfected after application. This will also tell you whether your products are working.
Leveraging all of the tools available will ensure a safe, clean cannabis product for consumers.
ASTM standard “Assessment of fungal growth in buildings” Miller, J. D., et al., “Air Sampling Results in Relation to Extent of Fungal Colonization of Building Materials in Some Water Damaged Buildings,” Indoor Air, Vol 10, 2000, pp. 146–151.
A large part of your company’s brand image depends on the packaging that you use for your cannabis product. The product packaging creates a critical first impression in a potential customer’s mind because it is the first thing they see. While the primary function of any cannabis packaging is to contain, protect and identify your products, it is a reflection of your company in the eyes of the consumer.
For all types of businesses across the US, sustainability has become an important component for success. It is increasingly common for companies to include sustainability efforts in their strategic plan. Are you including a sustainability component in your cannabis business’ growth plan? Are your packaging suppliers also taking sustainability seriously? More and more, consumers are eager to purchase cannabis products that are packaged thoughtfully, with the environment in mind. If you are using or thinking about using plastic bottles and closures for your cannabis products, you now have options that are produced from sustainable and/or renewable resources. Incorporating sustainable elements into your cannabis packaging may not only be good for the environment, but it may also be good for your brand.
Consider Alternative Resins
Traditionally, polyethylene produced from fossil fuels (such as oil or natural gas), has been used to manufacture HDPE (high density polyethylene) bottles and closures. However, polyethylene produced from ethanol made from sustainable sources like sugarcane (commonly known as Bioresin) are becoming more common.
Unlike fossil fuel resources which are finite, sustainable resources like sugarcane are renewable – plants can be grown every year. For instance, a benefit of sugarcane is that it captures and fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every growth cycle. As a result, production of ethanol-based polyethylene contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to conventional polyethylene made from fossil fuels, while still exhibiting the same chemical and physical properties as conventional polyethylene. Although polyethylene made from sugarcane is not biodegradable, it can be recycled.
Switching to a plastic bottle that is made from ethanol derived from renewable resources is a great way for cannabis companies to take positive climate change action and help reduce their carbon footprint.
For instance, for every one ton of Bioresin used, approximately 3.1 tons of carbon dioxide is captured from the atmosphere on a cradle-to-gate basis. Changing from a petrochemical-derived polyethylene bottle to a bottle using resins made from renewable resources can be as seamless as approving an alternate material – the bottles look the same. Ensure that your plastic bottle manufacturer is using raw materials that pass FDA and ASTM tests. This is one way to help reverse the trend of global warming due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere.
Another option is to use bottles manufactured with recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Consisting of resin derived from 100% recycled post-consumer material, it can be used over and over. This is an excellent choice because it helps keep plastic waste to a minimum. Regardless of the resin you select, look for one that is FDA approved for food contact.
Consider Alternative Manufacturing Processes
Flame Treatment Elimination
When talking about plastic bottle manufacturing, an easy solution to saving fossil fuels is eliminating the flame treatment in the manufacturing process. Historically, this process was required to allow some water-based adhesives, inks, and other coatings to bond with HDPE (high density polyethylene) and PP (polypropylene) bottles. Today, pressure-sensitive and shrink labels make this process unnecessary. Opt out and conserve natural gas. For instance, for every 5 million bottles not flamed approximately 3 metric tons of CO2is eliminated. This is an easy way to reduce the carbon footprint. Ask your cannabis packaging manufacturer if eliminating this process is an option.
Source Reduction (Right-Weighting)
When considering what type and style of bottle you want to use for your cannabis product, keep in mind that the same bottle may be able to be manufactured with less plastic. A bottle with excess plastic may be unnecessary and can result in wasted plastic or added costs. On the other hand, a bottle with too little plastic may be too thin to hold up to filling lines or may deform after product is filled. Why use a bottle that has more plastic than you actually need for your product when a lesser option may be available? This could save you money, avoid problems on your filling lines, and help you save on your bottom line. In addition, this will also help limit the amount of natural resources being used in production.
Convert to Plastic Pallets
If you are purchasing bottles in large quantities and your supplier ships on pallets, consider asking about plastic pallets. Reusable plastic pallets last longer than wood pallets, eliminate pallet moisture and improve safety in handling. They also reduce the use of raw materials in the pallet manufacturing process (natural gas, metal, forests, etc.) aiding in efforts towards Zero Net Deforestation. And, returnable plastic pallets provide savings over the long term.
If You Don’t Know, Ask Your Cannabis Packaging Partner
It is important to find out if your plastic packaging partner offers alternative resins that are produced from renewable sources or recycled plastics. It is also prudent to partner with a company that is concerned about the impact their business has on the planet. Are they committed to sustainability? And, are they eliminating processes that negatively affect their carbon footprint? What services can they provide that help you do your part?
When you opt to use sustainably produced plastic bottles and closures for your cannabis products, you take an important step to help ensure a viable future for the planet. In a competitive market, this can improve the customer’s impression of your brand, increase consumer confidence and help grow your bottom line. Not only will you appeal to the ever-growing number of consumers who are environmentally-conscience, you will rest easy knowing that your company is taking action to ensure a sustainable future.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, is often credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Ten years later, VP Edmund Muskie elevated the environment to a major issue in his 1972 Presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. 57 years after Ms. Carson’s book, we’re still having the same problems. Over 13,000 lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto and last month a jury in Alameda County ruled that a couple came down with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma because of their use of Roundup. The jury awarded them one billion dollars each in punitive damages. Is there a safer alternative?
“Effectively replacing the need for pesticides, we use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which is a proactive program designed to control the population of undesirable pests with the use of natural predators, a system commonly known as “good bugs (such as ladybugs) fighting bad bugs”, states the website of Mucci Farms, a greenhouse grower. While this applies to cannabis as well, there is one major problem with the crop that isn’t faced by other crops.
While states are moving rapidly to legalize it, the EPA is currently not regulating cannabis. That is in the hands of each state. According to a story in the Denver Post in 2016, “Although pesticides are widely used on crops, their use on cannabis remains problematic and controversial as no safety standards exist.” Keep in mind that it takes a lot more pesticides to keep unwarranted guests off your cannabis plant when it’s outdoors than when it’s in a controlled environment.
We’re accustomed to using endless products under the assumption that a range of governmental acronyms such as NIH, FDA, OSHA, EPA, USDA are protecting us. We don’t even think about looking for their labels because we naturally assume that a product we’re about to ingest has been thoroughly tested, approved and vetted by one of those agencies. But what if it’s not?
Again, cannabis regulation is at the state level and here’s why that’s critical. The budget of the EPA is $6.14 billion while Colorado’s EPA-equivalent agency has a budget of $616 million. According to the federal budget summary, “A major component of our FY 2019 budget request is funding for drinking water and clean water infrastructure as well as for Brownfields and Superfund projects.” In short, federal dollars aren’t going towards pesticide testing and they’re certainly got going towards a product that’s illegal at the federal level. That should make you wonder how effective oversight is at the state level.
What impact does this have on our health and what impact do pesticides have on the environment? A former Dean of Science and Medical School at a major university told me, “Many pesticides are neurotoxins that affect your nervous system and liver. These are drugs. The good news is that they kill insects faster than they kill people.” Quite a sobering thought.
“We have the ability to control what kinds of pesticides we put in our water and how much pesticides we put in our water.”Assuming that he’d be totally supportive of greenhouses, I pushed to see if he agreed. “There’s always a downside with nature. An enclosure helps you monitor access. If you’re growing only one variety, your greenhouse is actually more susceptible to pests because it’s only one variety.” The problem for most growers is that absent some kind of a computer vision system in your greenhouse, usually by the time you realize that you have a problem it’s already taken a toll on your crop.
Following up on the concept of monitoring, I reached out to Dr. Jacques White, the executive director of Long Live the Kings, an organization dedicated to restoring wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Obviously, you can’t monitor access to a river, but you certainly can see the effects of fertilizer runoff, chemicals and pesticides into the areas where fish live and eventually, return to spawn.
“Because salmon travel such extraordinary long distances through rivers, streams, estuaries and into oceans they are one of the best health indicators for people. If salmon aren’t doing well, then we should think about whether people should be drinking or using that same water. The salmon population in the area around Puget Sound is not doing well.”
We talked a bit more about pesticides in general and Dr. White summed up the essence of the entire indoor-outdoor farming and pesticides debate succinctly.
“We have the ability to control what kinds of pesticides we put in our water and how much pesticides we put in our water.”
If you extrapolate that thought, the same applies to agriculture. Greenhouse farming, while subject to some problems not endemic to outdoor farming, quite simply puts a lot fewer chemicals in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
The first article of this series discussed resource management for cannabis growers. In this second piece of the series on how indoor farming has a reduced impact on the environment, we’re going to look at land use & conservation. There are really two aspects and we have to be up front and acknowledge that while our focus is on legal cannabis farming, there’s a significant illegal industry which exists and is not subject to any environmental regulation.
“Streams in Mendocino run dry during the marijuana growing season impacting Coho salmon and steelhead trout who lay their eggs in the region’s waterways.” One biologist reported seeing “dead steelhead and Coho on a regular basis in late August and September, usually due to water reduction or elimination from extensive marijuana farming.” The quotes are from an extensive article on cannabis land use by Jessica Owley in the U.C. Davis Law Review.The concept that land will stay in its natural state is a mixture of idealism and reality.
This is going to continue until it’s more profitable to go legit. For this article, we’re going to focus on the legitimate cannabis grower. On the land use side, we usually hear four main reasons for indoor growing: remaining land can stay in its natural state, fewer space usually translates to fewer waste, you conserve land and natural resources when you don’t use fossil fuels, greenhouses can be placed anywhere.
The concept that land will stay in its natural state is a mixture of idealism and reality. Just because someone only has to farm five acres of land instead of one hundred acres doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to leave the rest in its pristine natural state. Granted the footprint for automated greenhouses is significantly less but the key is what happens to that extra space. Assuming that it will all be preserved in its natural state isn’t realistic. What is realistic is the fact that a developer may not want to build tract houses abutting a commercial greenhouse operation. If they do, likely there’s going to be more land set aside for green space than if a farm was sold outright and a series of new homes were plunked down as if it were a Monopoly board.
Combined with workforce development program funding, urban indoor farming is getting more attractive every day.That’s not the same kind of issue in urban areas where the situation is different. Despite the economic boom of the past ten years, not every neighborhood benefitted. The smart ones took creative approaches. Gotham Greens started in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and has expanded to Chicago as well. “In early 2014, Gotham Greens opened its second greenhouse, located on the rooftop of Whole Foods Market’s flagship Brooklyn store, which was the first ever commercial scale greenhouse integrated into a supermarket.”
Green City Growers in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood is another example. “Situated on a 10-acre inner-city site that was once urban blight, the greenhouse—with 3.25 acres under glass–now serves as a vibrant anchor for the surrounding neighborhood.”
The beauty of greenhouse systems even those without greenhouse software, is they can be built anywhere because the environmental concerns of potentially contaminated soil don’t exist. The federal government as well as state and local governments offer a myriad of financial assistance programs to encourage growers to develop operations in their areas. Combined with workforce development program funding, urban indoor farming is getting more attractive every day.
As for the argument that greenhouses save energy and fossil fuels, I think we can agree that it’s pretty difficult to operate a thousand-acre farm using solar power. To their credit, last year John Deere unveiled a tractor that will allow farmers to run it as a fully autonomous vehicle to groom their fields while laying out and retracting the 1 kilometer long onboard extension cord along the way. It’s a start although I’ll admit to my own problems operating an electric mower without cutting the power cord.
In a 2017 article, Kurt Benke and Bruce Tomkins stated, “Transportation costs can be eliminated due to proximity to the consumer, all-year-round production can be programmed on a demand basis, and plant-growing conditions can be optimized to maximize yield by fine-tuning temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions. Indoor farming in a controlled environment also requires much less water than outdoor farming because there is recycling of gray water and less evaporation.”
The overall trend on fossil fuel reduction was verified this week when the Department of Energy announced that renewables passed coal for the first time in U.S. history. And on the water issue, Ms. Owley had a salient point for cannabis growers. “The federal government will not allow federal irrigation water to be used to grow marijuana anywhere, even in states where cultivation is legal.” That’s not a minor detail and it’s why outdoor farming of cannabis is going to be limited in areas where water resources and water rights are hotly debated.
Core values often get wrapped into buzzwords such as sustainability, locally sourced and organic. In the first part of a series of four articles exploring greenhouses and the environment, we’re going to take a look at indoor vs. outdoor farming in terms of resource management.
Full disclosure; I love the fact that I can eat fresh blueberries in February when my bushes outside are just sticks. Is there a better way to do it than trucking the berries from the farm to a distribution plant to the airport, where they’re flown from the airport to a distribution center, to the grocery store and finally to my kitchen table? That’s a lot of trucking and a lot of energy being wasted for my $3.99 pint of blueberries.The largest generation in the history of the country is demanding more locally grown, sustainable and organic food.
If those same blueberries were grown at a local greenhouse then trucked from the greenhouse directly to the grocery store, that would save diesel fuel and a lot of carbon emissions. People who can only afford to live near a highway, a port or an airport don’t need to ask a pulmonary specialist why their family has a higher rate of COPD than a family who lives on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs.
Fact: 55% of vegetables in the U.S. are grown under cover. The same energy saving principles apply to indoor cannabis and the reasons are consumer driven and producer driven. The largest generation in the history of the country is demanding more locally grown, sustainable and organic food. They want it for themselves and they want it for their kids.
The rapid proliferation of greenhouses over the past ten years is no coincidence. Millennials are forcing changes: organic fruit and vegetables now account for almost 15% of the produce market. A CNN poll last month revealed that 8 of 10 of registered Democrats listed climate change as a “very important” priority for presidential candidates. The issue is not party I.D.; the issue is that a large chunk of Americans are saying they’re worried about the direct and indirect impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding and wildfires.
So how does the consumer side tie into the cannabis industry? Consumers like doing business with companies who share their values. The hard part is balancing consumer values with investor values, which is why many indoor growers are turning to cultivation management platforms to help them satisfy both constituencies. They get the efficiency and they get to show their customers that they are good stewards of their environment. The goal is to catch things before it’s too late to save the plants. If you do that, you save the labor it costs to fix the problem, the labor and the expense of throwing away plants and you reduce pesticide and chemical usage. When that happens, your greenhouse makes more money and shows your customers you care about their values.
The indoor change is happening rapidly because people realize that technology is driving increased revenue while core consumer values are demanding less water waste, fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.Let’s add some more facts to the indoor-outdoor argument. According to an NCBI study of lettuce growing, “hydroponic lettuce production had an estimated water demand of 20 liters/kg, while conventional lettuce production had an estimated water demand of 250 liters/kg.” Even if the ratio is only 10:1, that’s a huge impact on a precious resource.
Looking at the pesticide issue, people often forget about the direct impact on people who farm. “Rates in the agricultural industry are the highest of any industrial sector and pesticide-related skin conditions represent between 15 and 25% of pesticide illness reports,” a 2016 article in The Journal of Cogent Medicine states. Given the recent reports about the chemicals in Roundup, do we even need to continue the conversation and talk about the effects of fertilizer?
I’ll finish up with a quote from a former grower. “The estimates I saw were in the range of between 25%-40% of produce being lost with outdoor farming while most greenhouse growers operate with a 10% loss ratio.”
The indoor change is happening rapidly because people realize that technology is driving increased revenue while core consumer values are demanding less water waste, fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Lastly, most Americans simply have a moral aversion to seeing farms throw away food when so many other people are lined up at food banks.
No matter the size of your cannabis greenhouse operation, keeping your plants alive and healthy requires the best possible growing environment. This means greenhouse managers and personnel must frequently monitor the status of environmental conditions and equipment. The sooner someone discovers extreme temperature fluctuations, rising humidity or equipment failure, the more inventory you can save.
That’s why integrating a remote monitoring system into your greenhouse operation can save you time, money and anxiety. Monitoring systems that use cloud-based technology let you see real-time status of all monitored conditions and receive alerts right on your mobile device.
Installing a monitoring system and sensors can be easier than you might think. Here are answers to ten questions to ask before installing a cloud-based monitoring system:
What is required to use a remote monitoring system?
Most remote monitoring systems require an internet or WiFi connection and access to an electrical outlet. Programming is done through a website, so it’s easiest to use a computer for the initial setup. If you don’t have an internet connection at your location, you’ll want to choose a cellular system. Make sure that there’s sufficient signal strength at your site, and check the signal quality in the area before purchasing a cellular device.
2. How do we determine what kind of monitoring system and sensors we need?
A reputable manufacturer will have a well-trained support team that can assess your needs even without a site visit to determine which products are best for your application. If you feel you need them to check out your greenhouse operation,many companies can set up a video conference or FaceTime chat to substitute for being on site.
You will want to provide details about the scope and purpose of your cannabis growing operation. Important factors to discuss include:
Skeletal structure of the greenhouse (metal, plastic, wood, etc.) and the covering material (glass or plastic).
Floor space square footage and height of each of your greenhouses.
Number of greenhouse structures in your operation.
Outdoor climate to determine if you rely more on heating or air conditioning and the level of humidity control needed.
Space dedicated to phases of growth (cloning and propagation, vegetative, flowering) and the microclimates needed for each.
Types of lighting, ventilation and irrigation systems.
Level of technological automation versus manual operation in place.
The monitoring system representative will then determine the type of system that would best serve your operation, the number of base units you will need and the types of sensors required.
The representative should also be able to provide tips on the placement of the sensors you’re purchasing. For example, to ensure thorough air temperature coverage, place sensors throughout the greenhouse, next to the thermostat controlling the room temperature and in the center of the greenhouse out of direct sunlight.
Note that there shouldn’t be a cost for a demo, consultation or assistance throughout the sales process. Be sure to ask if there are any fees or licenses to keep using the monitoring equipment after you purchase it.
3. Are sensors included with the monitoring system?
In most cases, sensors are sold separately. The sensors you select depend upon the conditions you want to monitor and how many you can connect to your base unit. Certainly, temperature is critical, but there are many other factors to deal with as well, such as humidity, CO2, soil moisture, water pH, power and equipment failure, ventilation and physical security.
For example, humidity has a direct impact on the photosynthesis and transpiration of plants. High humidity can also cause disease and promote the growth of harmful mold, algae and mildew. Sensors can detect changes in humidity levels.
Like any other plant, cannabis needs CO2 to thrive, so it’s a good idea to include a CO2 sensor that will signal to the monitoring device when readings go out of the preset range. There are even sensors that you can place in the soil to measure moisture content to help prevent over- or underwatering, budget water usage costs, promote growth and increase crop yield and quality.
Of course, all the critical systems in your growing facility—from water pumps to irrigation lines to louvers—rely on electrical power. A power outage monitoring sensor detects power failure. It can also monitor equipment for conditions that predict if a problem is looming, such as power fluctuations that occur at specific times.
Ventilation systems not only help control temperature, they also provide fresh air that is critical to plant health. Automated systems include features like vented roofs, side vents and forced fans. Sensors placed on all these systems will send personnel an alert if they stop running or operate outside of preset parameters.
To monitor the physical security of your greenhouses, you can add sensors to entrance doors, windows, supply rooms and equipment sheds. During off hours, when no staff is on duty, you can remain vigilant and be alerted to any unauthorized entry into your facility.
4. Do monitoring systems only work with the manufacturer’s sensors?
Not necessarily. For example, certain monitoring units can connect with most 4-20mA sensors and transmitters regardless of the brand. When selecting sensors, you might have a choice between ones that are designed by the manufacturer to work specifically with the monitoring system or universal components made by a third party. If the components aren’t made by the system manufacturer, you’ll want to find out if they have been tested with the monitor you are choosing and if you need to work with another vendor to purchase the parts.
5. Is a monitoring system easy to set up, or do we need to hire an electrician?
Many monitoring systems are quick and easy to install, and users can often set them up without hiring an outside expert. Look for one that requires only a few simple physical installation steps. For example:
Mount the device to the wall or somewhere secure;
Plug it into an electrical outlet and an internet connection;
Connect the sensors.
You connect the sensors to the base unit’s terminal strip using wire, which is included with many sensors. The range of many wired sensors can be extended up to 2,000 feet away from the base unit by adding wire that can be easily purchased at any home store. It’s a good idea to hire an electrician if you need to run wires through walls or ceilings.
Usually, once you plug in the device and connect the sensors, you then create an account on the manufacturer’s designated website and begin using your device. There should be no fee to create an account and use the site.
If the manufacturer doesn’t offer installation services, ask if they can recommend a local representative in your area who can set up your system. If not, make sure they provide free technical support via phone or email to walk you through the installation and answer any questions you might have about programming and daily usage.
6. Is there a monthly fee to access all the functionality of a monitoring device?
Many web- or cloud-based systems provide free functionality with some limitations. You might have to purchase a premium subscription to unlock features such as text messaging, phone call alerts and unlimited data logging access.
7. Should we get a system that is wired or wireless? Will we need to have a phone line, cable, internet or something else?
Wireless can mean two different things as it relates to monitoring: how the system communicates its data to the outside world and how the sensors communicate with the system.
The most popular systems require an internet or WiFi connection, but if that’s not an option, cellular- and phone-based systems are available.
A hardwired monitoring system connects the sensors to the base device with wires. A wireless system uses built-in radio transmitters to communicate with the base unit. Some monitoring systems can accommodate a combination of hardwired and wireless sensors.
8. Can one system monitor several sensor inputs around the clock?
Once the monitoring system is installed and programmed, it will constantly read the information from the sensors 24/7. Cloud-based systems have data logging capabilities and store limitless amounts of information that you can view from any internet-connected device via a website or app.
If the system detects any sensor readings outside of the preset range, it will send an alarm to all designated personnel. The number of sensors a base unit can monitor varies. Make sure to evaluate your needs and to select one that can accommodate your present situation and future growth.
When a monitoring system identifies a change in status, it immediately sends alerts to people on your contact list. If you don’t want all your personnel to receive notifications at the same time, some devices can be programmed to send alerts in a tiered fashion or on a schedule. Multiple communications methods like phone, email and text provide extra assurance that you’ll get the alert. It’s a good idea to check the number of people the system can reach and if the system automatically cycles through the contact list until someone responds. Some systems allow for flexible scheduling, so that off-duty personnel don’t receive alerts.
9. Do monitoring systems have a back-up power system that will ensure the alarming function still works if the power goes out or if someone disconnects the power?
The safest choice is a cloud-based system that comes with a built-in battery backup that will last for hours in the event of a power failure. Cloud-based units constantly communicate a signal to the cloud to validate its online status. If the communication link is interrupted—for example by a power outage or an employee accidently switching off the unit—the system generates an alarm indicating that the internet connection is lost or that there is a cellular communications problem. Users are alerted about the disruption through phone, text or email. All data collected during this time will be stored in the device and will be uploaded to the cloud when the internet connection is restored.
If you opt for a cloud-based monitoring system, make sure the infrastructure used to create the cloud platform is monitored 24/7 by the manufacturer’s team. Ask if they have multiple backups across the country to ensure the system is never down.
10. What should we expect if we need technical support or repairs to the system?
Purchase your system from a reputable manufacturer that provides a warranty and offers full repair services in the event the product stops working as it should. Also, research to make sure their tech support team is knowledgeable and willing to walk you through any questions you have about your monitoring system. Often, support specialists can diagnose and correct unit setup and programming issues over the phone.
It helps to record your observations regarding the problem, so the tech team can look for trends and circumstances concerning the issue and better diagnose the problem. Ideally, the manufacturer can provide loaner units if your problem requires mailing the device to their facility for repair.
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