The World Health Organization (WHO) recently recognized COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, a pandemic. What can cannabis businesses do to help reduce transmission?
At the time of this writing, community transmission of COVID-19 has been observed in every continent except Antarctica. While China and South Korea are showing signs of containment, with negative disease growth rates, the rest of world is experiencing positive – and in some cases exponential – disease growth rates. Many companies in the cannabis industry are asking: what can we do to slow the spread of the virus and get ahead of the outbreak?
By adopting sensible policies, businesses play a key role in reducing disease transmission. On March 13, 2020, The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), in collaboration with the WHO and New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), released Coronavirus Guidelines for Business, a summary of actions businesses can take to reduce immediate risks to employees and long-term risks to costs and profitability. The guidelines have since been delivered to more than 45 million businesses worldwide.
There are four sections to the guidelines:
Meetings, Travel and Visitors
Retail and Hospitality
Specific recommendations relevant to the cannabis industry include working remotely where possible, avoiding unnecessary travel and keeping clear records of each day’s contacts. Where possible, a pick-up and drop-off service, home delivery or drive by services are recommended.
Businesses should be developing, readying and implementing business continuity plans based on the ICC guidelines. At this point, a conservative position would be to assume that if an outbreak has not been reported locally it is only a matter of time before local cases are reported. Specific actions businesses should take will depend on location, nature of the workplace and potential disruptiveness to operations.
endCoronavirus.org is built and maintained by NECSI and its collaborators and specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complexity as it relates to COVID-19.
The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) is the institutional representative of more than 45 million companies in over 100 countries. ICC’s core mission is to make business work for everyone, every day, everywhere. Through a unique mix of advocacy, solutions and standard setting, they promote international trade, responsible business conduct and a global outreach to regulation, in addition to providing market-leading dispute resolution services. Their members include many of the world’s leading companies, SMEs, business associations and local chambers of commerce.
The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) is an independent academic research and educational institution with students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. In addition to the in-house research team, NECSI has co-faculty, students and affiliates from MIT, Harvard, Brandeis and other universities nationally and internationally.
According to a press release published earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced two new programs available for hemp growers to mitigate their risk.
The first is called Multi-Peril Crop Insurance (MPCI), which is a pilot hemp insurance program designed to cover against “loss of yield because of insurable causes of loss for hemp grown for fiber, grain or Cannabidiol (CBD) oil.” The second plan is Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which protects against losses from lower-than-normal yields, destroyed crops or “prevented planting” where permanent crop insurance is not available.
Both of the programs are now accepting applications and the deadline to apply is March 16, 2020. “We are pleased to offer these coverages to hemp producers. Hemp offers new economic opportunities for our farmers, and they are anxious for a way to protect their product in the event of a natural disaster,” says Bill Northey, Farm Production and Conservation Undersecretary.
The MCPI program is available for hemp producers in 21 states, according to the press release. Th program is available in certain counties in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.
There are a handful of requirements to be eligible for that program, such as having one year of growing under their belt and have contracts in place for the sale of their crops. Hemp growers producing CBD must have at least 5 acres and hemp growers producing fiber must have at least 20 acres cultivated.
In 2021, the press release states, “hemp will be insurable under the Nursery crop insurance program and the Nursery Value Select pilot crop insurance program.” With those programs, hemp crops can be insured if grown in containers and in accordance with federal law.
To apply for any of these programs, hemp growers must have a license and must be totally compliant with state, tribal or federal regulations, or be operating under a state or university research plot from the 2014 Farm Bill. Growers need to report their hemp acreage to the Farm Service Agency, a division of the USDA.
The press release also mentions that if the crops have above 0.3% THC, the crop becomes uninsurable and ineligible for any of the programs.
Cannabis legalization has taken the United States by storm, with 33 states approved for medicinal cannabis use — 11 of which are also approved for recreational use for adults aged 21 and over. With new patients and consumers entering the market every day, it’s more important than ever for cannabis cultivators to establish more effective methods for mold and fungal prevention in their crops and to ensure consumer confidence in their brands.
Today, many cultivators address the risk of mold and fungus growth by testing crops for contaminants at the end stage of production. While this helps to catch some infected product before it reaches the market, this method is largely ineffective for mold and fungal prevention during the cultivation process. In fact, recent studies have shown an 80% failure rate in mold and fungal testing in Denver cannabis dispensaries. By relying on late-stage, pass/fail testing, cannabis entrepreneurs also expose themselves to increased risk of lost crops and profits.
However, emerging sensor technologies exist that can test plants during the grow process, significantly reducing the risks associated with cannabis cultivation while increasing the bottom line for commercial grow operations. By leveraging data from these monitoring sensors along with environmental automation systems that are integrated with data analytics platforms, cannabis professionals can take a proactive approach to achieve the ideal environmental conditions for their crops and prevent against mold and fungal infestation.
Common Causes for Bud Rot in Indoor Growing Systems
Botrytis cinerea — commonly known as “bud rot” — is a pathogenic fungi species that creates a gray mold infection in cannabis plants. An air-borne contaminant, it is among the most prevalent diseases affecting marijuana crops today and can lead to significant damages, particularly when left untreated during post-harvest storage. Bud rot is one of the most difficult challenges cannabis entrepreneurs face: Once plants have been affected, only 2% can be expected to recover. This is because Botrytis cinerea can use multiple methods for attacking host plants, including using the plant’s natural defenses against it to continue infestation.
While difficult to contain, bud rot is very easy to spot. Plants affected with the fungus will begin yellowing, experience impaired growth, and develop gray fungus around its buds. Overall crop yield will be significantly reduced, leading to decreased profit for cannabis cultivators. The biggest contributing factors to a Botrytis cinerea infestation are as follows:
Humidity: Indoor grow facilities that maintain humidity levels in excess of 45% are breeding grounds for mold and fungus. These environments can become perfect conditions for mold and fungal growth.
Temperature: Bud rot typically thrives in environments where temperatures fall between 65- and 75-degrees Fahrenheit, which is why greenhouses and grow rooms are often the victim of such infestations.
Ventilation: Poor airflow is another contributing factor to Botrytis cinerea Without proper ventilation, excess moisture buildup will eventually result in mold and mildew growth.
Strain: Some marijuana strains are better equipped to fend off bud rot infection. In particular, sativa plants have a higher resistance to mold development than their C. indica and C. ruderalis cousins.
Controlling mold and fungal growth in commercial grow facilities is a top priority for cannabis cultivators. Not only detrimental to their profitability and crop yield, infected plants can pose serious health risks to consumers, especially for immunocompromised patients. Consuming cannabis products that have been compromised by bud rot or other mold and fungal infections can cause a wide range of medical concerns, including pneumonitis, bronchitis, and other pulmonary diseases. As a result, growers are required to dispose of all infected plants without the possibility to sell.
Bud rot isn’t the only culprit responsible for cannabis plant destruction. Powdery mildew, Fusarium, sooty molds, and Pythium all contribute to the challenges faced by cannabis professionals. In fact, a recent study conducted by Steep Hill Labs and University of California, Davis – Medical Center found that in 20 randomly-selected samples submitted for testing, all samples showed detectable levels of microbial contamination7. Many of these samples also contained significant pathogenic microorganism contamination. Without proper detection and prevention methods in place, these pesky plant-killers will only continue to terrorize the cannabis cultivation industry.
The Current Cannabis Cultivation Landscape
The data is clear: Current practices for cannabis cultivation are insufficient for preventing against mold and fungal growth. Sterilization and pass/fail testing do not identify the root cause of harmful infestations in plants, therefore leaving cannabis professionals in the dark about how to better optimize their grow conditions for improved crop reliability and safety. In order to prevent against damages incurred from mold and fungal infestation, marijuana growers must be more diligent in their grow condition monitoring practices.
Many cannabis professionals rely on manual monitoring to identify environmental changes within their indoor grow facilities. While it’s important to collect data on your operation’s essential systems, doing so without the right tools can be time-consuming and ineffective. Manual monitoring often relies on past data and does not illustrate the relationship between different systems and their impact on environmental changes. The goal is to assemble data from all the grow systems and create correlations on actual bio-environmental conditions during the grow process to compare to yield results. This is only available when an information management platform is synthesizing data from all the systems within the grow facility and presenting meaningful information to the growers, facility operators and owners.
Especially as the cannabis industry is expected to grow exponentially in coming years, growers need more robust tools for tracking and manipulating environmental changes within their indoor growing systems.
Leveraging Building Automation Systems & Data Analytics in Cannabis Cultivation
A powerful approach to prevent environmental conditions that are known to lead to mold and fungus growth exists in leveraging the data produced from your grow facility’s various automation systems. Most commercial cultivation facilities have multiple stand-alone and proprietary systems to control their indoor environment, making it difficult to not only collect all of this valuable data, but also to achieve the level of grow condition monitoring necessary for mold and fungal prevention.
With some data analytics platforms, such as GrowFit Analytics, data is collected across disparate systems that don’t normally communicate with one another, providing access to the key insights necessary for achieving environmental perfection with your cannabis crops. A viable solution collects vital grow facility system data and relevant bio-environmental monitoring data, and delivers this information in one, centralized software interface. The software then will apply analytic algorithms to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) while working to detect system anomalies, faults, and environmental fluctuations. The right analytics solution should also be customizable, allowing you to track the KPIs that are most important to your unique facility, and to achieve the vision of your chief grower. Ultimately, the software should serve up actionable insights that empower facility management and growers.
Collecting reliable data from different grow facility systems and environmental sensors can be a complex process and the information collected illustrates more than just what’s working right and what isn’t. By implementing an advanced data analytics solution, cannabis cultivation professionals can now be empowered to track minute details about their indoor grow facility, providing a safer, healthier environment for their crops and avoiding those environmental conditions that lead to mold and fungus altogether.
An ideal data analytics platform won’t simply collect data to be analyzed at a later date, and simple trending of sensor data is not enough. Information — especially in a commercial grow facility — is time-sensitive, which is why growers should select a system that offers real-time analytics capabilities. Some platforms offering real-time analytics utilize cloud computing, allowing for easy access from anywhere while also providing enhanced security to protect sensitive facility data. The most robust data analytics platforms provide detailed historical data for your entire crop’s lifecycle that provide a “digital recipe” to replicate successful crops, and fine-tune the process for continuous improvement.
Data analytics tools can also impact the bottom line by lowering operational costs. GrowFit Analytics, for example, was born out of a software solution designed to lower energy costs for large complex buildings like commercial grow facilities.
The data and insights provided can help identify opportunities for greater energy efficiency, which can lead to significant utility savings. Grow facilities operate 24 hours/day, with energy expenses representing one of the largest operational costs. With data analytics tools at their disposal, facility managers are armed with the information they need to improve system efficiency, increase energy savings, and improve profitability.
Eliminating Mold & Fungus from the Future of Cannabis Cultivation
By focusing on grow condition monitoring using data analytics tools, cannabis professionals can effectively eliminate the risk of mold and fungus growth in their crops. Leading data analytics tools make tracking environmental changes simple and easy to manage, allowing cannabis professionals to take a proactive approach to mold and fungus prevention. As we look to the future of the cannabis cultivation industry, it’s paramount for professionals to explore the technological advancements available that can help them address their business’ most pressing challenges.
In 1887, Julius Petri invented a couple of glass dishes, designed to grow bacteria in a reproducible, consistent environment. The Petri dish, as it came to be known, birthed the scientific practice of agar cultures, allowing scientists to study bacteria and viruses. The field of microbiology was able to flourish with this handy new tool. The Petri dish, along with advancements in our understanding of microbiology, later developed into the modern field of microbial testing, allowing scientists to understand and measure microbial colonies to detect harmful pathogens in our food and water, like E. coli and Salmonella, for example.
The global food supply chain moves much faster today than it did in the late 19th century. According to Milan Patel, CEO of PathogenDx, this calls for something a little quicker. “Traditional microbial testing is tedious and lengthy,” says Patel. “We need 21st century pathogen detection solutions.”
Milan Patel first joined the parent company of PathogenDx back in 2012, when they were more focused on clinical diagnostics. “The company was predominantly built on grant funding [a $12 million grant from the National Institute of Health] and focused on a niche market that was very specialized and small in terms of market size and opportunity,” says Patel. “I realized that the technology had a much greater opportunity in a larger market.”
He thought that other markets could benefit from that technology greatly, so the parent company licensed the technology and that is how PathogenDx was formed. Him and his team wanted to bring the product to market without having to obtain FDA regulatory approval, so they looked to the cannabis market. “What we realized was we were solving a ‘massive’ bottleneck issue where the microbial test was the ‘longest test’ out of all the tests required in that industry, taking 3-6 days,” says Patel. “We ultimately realized that this challenge was endemic in every market – food, agriculture, water, etc. – and that the world was using a 140-year-old solution in the form of petri dish testing for microbial organisms to address challenges of industries and markets demanding faster turnaround of results, better accuracy, and lower cost- and that is the technology PathogenDx has invented and developed.”
While originally a spinoff technology designed for clinical diagnostics, they deployed the technology in cannabis testing labs early on. The purpose was to simplify the process of testing in an easy approach, with an ultra-low cost and higher throughput. Their technology delivers microbial results in less than 6 hours compared to 24-36 hours for next best option.
Out of all the tests performed in a licensed cannabis testing laboratory, microbial tests are the longest, sometimes taking up to a few days. “Other tests in the laboratory can usually be done in 2-4 hours, so growers would never get their microbial testing results on time,” says Patel. “We developed this technology that gets results in 6 hours. The FDA has never seen something like this. It is a very disruptive technology.”
When it comes to microbial contamination, timing is everything. “By the time Petri dish results are in, the supply chain is already in motion and products are moving downstream to distributors and retailers,” Patel says. “With a 6-hour turnaround time, we can identify where exactly in the supply chain contaminant is occurring and spreading.”
The technology is easy to use for a lab technician, which allows for a standard process on one platform that is accurate, consistent and reproduceable. The technology can deliver results with essentially just 12 steps:
Take 1 gram of cannabis flower or non-flower sample. Or take environmental swab
Drop sample in solution. Swab should already be in solution
Transfer 1ml of solution into 1.5ml tube
Conduct two 3-minute centrifugation steps to separate leaf material, free-floating DNA and create a small pellet with live cells
Conduct cell lysis by adding digestion buffer to sample on heat blocks for 1 hour
Conduct Loci enhancement PCR of sample for 1 hour
Conduct Labelling PCR which essentially attaches a fluorescent tag on the analyte DNA for 1 hour
Pipette into the Multiplex microarray well where hybridization of sample to probes for 30 minutes
Conduct wash cycle for 15 minutes
Dry and image the slide in imager
The imager will create a TIFF file where software will analyze and deliver results and a report
Their DetectX product can test for a number of pathogens in parallel in the same sample at the same time down to 1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram. For bacteria, the bacterial kit can detect E. coli, E. coli/Shigella spp., Salmonella enterica, Listeria and Staph aureus, Stec 1 and Stec 2 E.coli. For yeast and mold, the fungal kit can test for Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus terreus.
Their QuantX is the world’s first and only multiplex quantification microarray product that can quantify the microbial contamination load for key organisms such as total aerobic bacteria, total yeast & mold, bile tolerant gram negative, total coliform and total Enterobacteriaceae over a dynamic range from 100 CFU/mL up to 1,000,000 CFU/mL.
Not all of the PathogenDx technology is designed for just microbial testing of cannabis or food products. Their EnviroX technology is designed to help growers, processors or producers across any industry identify areas of microbial contamination, being used as a tool for quality assurance and hazard analysis. They conducted industry-wide surveys of the pathogens that are creating problems for cultivators and came up with a list of more than 50 bacterial and fungal pathogens that the EnviroX assay can test for to help growers identify contamination hotspots in their facilities.
Using the EnviroX assay, growers can swab surfaces like vents, fans, racks, workbenches and other potential areas of contamination where plants come in contact. This helps growers identify potential areas of contamination and remediate those locations. Patel says the tool could help growers employ more efficient standard operating procedures with sanitation and sterilization, reducing the facility’s incidence of pathogens winding up on crops, as well as reduction in use of pesticides and fungicides on the product.
Deploying this technology in the cannabis industry allowed Milan Patel and the PathogenDx team to bring something new to the world of microbial testing. Their products are now in more than 90 laboratories throughout the country. The success of this technology provides another shining example of how the cannabis market produces innovative and disruptive ideas that have a major impact on the world, far beyond cannabis itself.
Selling in a grey market isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to deal with the stigma surrounding your products and services, the potential for legal troubles, along with bureaucratic hurdles that all businesses face.
Acceptable marketing language surrounding consumable THC and CBD products encapsulates all of these issues, and it’s why everyone in the industry needs to pay close attention to what they’re saying. One innocent turn of phrase could have the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) shut down your business faster than you can say, “Oops.”
Avoiding this fate means making some adjustments to how you think about your marketing language, but this knowledge quickly becomes rote. Take a moment to learn how to protect yourself so that you can run your business rather than run afoul of the law.
Food, Drugs and Dietary Supplements
Scroll through Instagram for a few minutes and you’ll encounter a deluge of companies making claims about cannabis and CBD products. Many, if not most, are going about it incorrectly. Part of the confusion surrounds the fact that under the FDA’s rules, foods, drugs and dietary supplements are treated differently.
How does the FDA decide what’s what? Based on how you advertise the product. If labeling suggests the substance is “intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or is an “article” (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals,” the FDA will regulate it as a drug.
The language and regulations surrounding drugs are extremely strict. On December 20, 2018, the FDA put out a statement reiterating that these rules are in effect for cannabis products. In other words, you can only make a drug claim if you have received approval from the FDA on your New Drug Application (NDA). Since approval requires hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clinical trials, this option is out of reach for most companies.
The rule states that you may not say that your product diagnoses, cures, mitigates, treats or prevents any disease, or any recognizable symptom of a disease. Disease is defined as: damage to an organ, part, structure, or system of the body such that it does not function properly (e.g., cardiovascular disease), or a state of health leading to such dysfunction it (e.g. hypertension). Examples of diseases would include cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, autoimmune diseases, Lyme disease and more. In other words, you couldn’t say your product “prevents memory loss due to Alzheimer’s” or “treats symptoms of fibromyalgia.”
If you’re making any claims about curing anything in your cannabis business name, product name, packaging, web copy, advertising or marketing materials, you are at risk for breaking these rules and getting caught. The FDA’s regulations dovetail with the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising laws, which state that your claims must be backed by legitimate research (such as peer-reviewed journal articles or double-blind studies) and must not mislead consumers. These rules are already being enforced within the cannabis industry, so pay close attention to what you’re putting out there.
However, you can’t avoid penalties by using this kind of language and claiming your product is a dietary supplement or food, either. According to the FDA, products that contain THC or CBD cannot be sold as dietary supplements. Their reasoning for this decision is that THC and CBD are active ingredients in FDA-approved drugs, such as Epidiolex and Dronabinol. Active ingredients in approved drugs may not be introduced into the food supply as dietary supplements or otherwise.
The language rules surrounding food can be equally complex. Foods approved by the FDA can make nutritional claims about how a nutrient impacts the structure/function of the body, such as “Calcium builds strong bones.” The problem for cannabis products is that these statements need to be authorized or qualified by the FDA and have significant scientific evidence and consensus. However, this consensus doesn’t exist for THC and CBD, meaning that you’re barred from making these kinds of claims.
Note that these rules don’t just apply to human supplements. They also apply to ones for pets. Many people don’t realize that a supplement for a pet is considered an “illegal drug of low regulatory concern.” But if you add in THC or CBD, a supplement becomes an illegal drug of—you guessed it—higher regulatory concern.
At a Loss for Words?
By now, you may be wondering what you can actually say to market your product; it may feel as though there are more restrictions than guidelines. Fortunately, the FDA hasn’t left us completely out at sea.
Just because we’re in a strange place under federal law operating our businesses every day doesn’t mean that we should disregard fundamental rules and regulations that all businesses must follow. The FDA published a final rule in the Federal Register in 2000 defining strict rules that govern the types of statements that may be used on a label without prior review of the agency. These are called structure/function claims. According to the FDA, “Structure/function claims may describe the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient intended to affect the normal structure or function of the human body.” In contrast, statements that claim to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease require prior approval by the FDA and are only for products that are approved drugs. Don’t use any of those words. Ever.
You can use the following words in your cannabis product names, advertising or marketing, as long as you’re not connecting them to a disease state: restore, support, maintain, raise, lower, promote, regulate, stimulate. You must specifically state that the claim relates to a non-disease condition; otherwise, you’ll be in trouble with the FDA. To go back to an earlier example, you cannot say that your product “prevents memory loss due to Alzheimer’s.” However, stating that your product “helps maintain a healthy brain” is fine.
Just because we’re in a strange place under federal law operating our businesses every day doesn’t mean that we should disregard fundamental rules and regulations that all businesses must follow. Following these rules does more than keep our enterprises out of trouble. It reinforces the idea that our industry is responsible, legitimate, and—perhaps most importantly—here to stay.
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