Tag Archives: spores

The Best Way to Remediate Moldy Cannabis is No Remediation at All

By Ingo Mueller
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Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.

The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.

It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.

Compounding Risks

Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.

The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.

If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.

Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.

He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.

Powdery mildew starts with white/grey spots seen on the upper leaves surface

The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.

The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.

The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.

Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.


References

i. Holmes M, Vyas JM, Steinbach W, McPartland J. 2015. Microbiological Safety Testing of Cannabis. Cannabis Safety Institute. http://cannabissafetyinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Microbiological-Safety-Testing-of-Cannabis.pdf

ii. Jill Ellsworth, June 2019, Eliminating Microbials in Marijuana, Willow Industries, https://willowindustries.com/eliminating-microbials-in-marijuana/#

iii. Ketch DeGabrielle, April 2018, Largest U.S. Cannabis Farm Shares Two Years of Mold Remediation Research, Analytical Cannabis, https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/largest-us-cannabis-farm-shares-two-years-of-mold-remediation-research-299842

 

Cultivation facilitiy

A Case for Compartmentalization: Problems with Perpetual Harvest Models in Cultivation, Part I

By Adam Koh
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Cultivation facilitiy

When newspapers and television run a cannabis story, it is frequently accompanied by photos or video of vast, cavernous warehouses filled with veritable oceans of plants. Photos used to illustrate stories in the New York Times and Denver Post serve to illustrate this point.

Cultivation facilitiy
Photo credit: Lawrence Downes

This type of facility design is sometimes referred to in the cannabis industry as a “perpetual harvest” model. This is because plants are harvested piecemeal – one row at a time, for example – with new plants ready to flower replacing the recently harvested ones. In this model, flowering plants of various ages occupy the same space and the room is never completely harvested and empty, hence the “perpetual” moniker. This is in contrast to more compartmentalized facility designs, in which flowering plants are segregated in smaller groups in various rooms, which are then harvested completely before the room is cleaned and new plants ready to flower replace the previous ones.

The perpetual harvest setup appears impressive and lends itself well to portraying the volume of production being achieved in large facilities. This is likely why I have seen such models, or similar ones, copied in other states. Prospective entrants to the industry have also approached my firm with such designs in mind for their cultivation facilities. However, we generally advise against the perpetual harvest facility model, as this type of design imposes serious difficulties upon operators. Problems arise primarily in the areas of pest and contamination mitigation, ability to properly observe pesticide use and worker safety guidelines, and inefficiencies in lighting and HVAC usage. The problems noted are linked to the perpetual harvest design and can be mitigated with increased compartmentalization. Before getting to my recommendations, however, lets run down the issues created by the perpetual harvest model.

AdamKohcultivation
Photo credit: Denver Post

Lighting and HVAC Inefficiencies

In many photos I see of perpetual harvest facilities, the ceilings are extremely high, as are the light fixtures in most cases. This is likely the result of one of the main perceived advantages of such spaces, which is that they require minimal construction prior to getting up and running. There are no walls to be put up or ceilings lowered, and the lack of compartmentalization makes running wires and ducting much easier.

However, whatever capital was saved in initial construction will likely be burned up by increased ongoing operational costs. High ceilings such as those in the above photos mean more cubic footage that climate control systems must cool or heat. Additionally, due to the great height of the light fixtures, plants are not getting the most bang for their buck, so to speak, compared to designs that allow lights to be lowered appropriately to provide optimal intensity and spectrum. Double-Ended High Pressure Sodium (DE HPS) lamps are probably the most common type of lighting in use for flowering by commercial cannabis cultivators today, and they are ideally situated about four feet above the canopy when running at full capacity.

For businesses aiming for a no-frills production model with minimal attention to the light management needs of individual cannabis cultivars (or strains, as they are commonly referred to), then this consideration may be moot. However, those operations attempting to produce the highest-quality flower and plant material know the value of proper light management, as well as the fact that some cultivars respond differently than others to intense light. Indeed, I have observed cultivars that produce more when light intensity was decreased, while others thrived under intense light that would have seriously damaged others. This makes the one-size-fits-all approach to light management I’ve seen in most perpetual harvest designs generally detrimental to the quality of the final product, in addition to using the same amount of energy, or more, to achieve that lower quality result.

Difficulties in Pest and Contamination Mitigation

Such a design makes it easy for a small pest incursion to become a full-blown infestation. Because plants about to be harvested are sharing space with plants just beginning their flowering process, this means that both current and future harvests will be affected, or even lost entirely if the pest problem is severe. Having plant groups of different ages share the same space is generally unadvisable. This is because older plants, particularly those close to harvest, are weaker and more susceptible to pests by virtue of the fact that their life cycles are nearing an end. On the other hand, a more compartmentalized facility design provides physical barriers that can contain mites and mildew spores to some extent, limiting the damage done by individual pest incursions.

One of the essential tasks in an indoor cultivation operation is sterilizing just-harvested spaces to ensure that the subsequent run gets off to a clean start. This task could conceivably be performed in a perpetual harvest model; say, for example, trays, trellis frames, and other equipment are scrubbed after a row has been cut down and removed for drying or processing. However, due to the fact that there are always other plants in the room, it seems impossible for any plant group to get an assuredly clean start, as other plants may be harboring bugs, mold spores, or viruses, despite not showing signs or symptoms. The presence of plants also eliminates the possibility of using cleaning agents such as bleach, which gives off harmful fumes, but is sometimes necessary to completely sterilize an area that might have previously experienced some amount of powdery mildew or botrytis.

In Part II of this series, I will discuss some problems with pesticide use and worker safety regulations as well as provide recommendations for compartmentalization in cultivation facilities. Stay tuned for Part II of A Case for Compartmentalization: Problems with “Perpetual Harvest” Models in Cultivation, coming out next week.