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.
Sanitation is not just sweeping the floors and wiping down the table – sanitation has a wide-ranging function in a cannabis food manufacturing facility. For example, sanitation covers the employees (and unwanted pests), food-contact equipment (and non-food-contact equipment), trash disposal (including sewage), and more. Ultimately, sanitation systems maintain a clean environment to prevent foodborne illness from affecting human health. Fortunately, there are resources and tools to ease into establishing a robust sanitation program.
Overall, the main goal of sanitation is to produce safe food, to keep consumers healthy and safe from foodborne illness. With the cannabis industry growing and gaining legalization, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant, or the young. These consumers, and all consumers, need and deserve safe cannabis products every experience.
1) General maintenance of the facilities: The buildings and fixtures of the food manufacturing facility cover a lot of ground – hiring a maintenance team will divide the responsibility, ensuring the entire facility can be maintained in a clean and sanitary condition. Furthermore, a team can build out a tool like a preventative maintenance program to restrict issues from ever becoming issues.
2) Control of the chemicals used for cleaning and sanitizing: Not all chemicals are equal – select the appropriate cleaning and sanitizing chemicals from reputable suppliers. Obtain the right knowledge and training on proper use, storage, and proper protective equipment (PPE). This ensures the safe and effective application of the chemicals in minimizing the risk of foodborne illness.
3) Pest control: Understand the environment within the facility and outside the facility. This will aid in identifying the most common or likely pests, in order to focus the pest control efforts. Keep in mind that internal pest management programs can be just as successful as hiring external pest control services.
4) Procedures for sanitation of both food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces: Developing sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) provides guidance to employees on appropriate cleaning and sanitizing practices, to balance effective and efficient operations. A master sanitation schedule can control the frequency of indicated sanitation procedures.
5) Storage and handling of cleaned portable equipment and utensils: Cross contamination in storage can be minimized with tools such as controlled traffic flow, signage, training, color coding, and more.
6) Water supply, plumbing, and sewage disposal: Routine inspections of plumbing, floor drainage, and sewage systems prevent unintended water flow and damage.
7) Toilet facilities: Clearly defining standards for the toilet facilities and setting accountability to everyone who uses them will ensure that the toilet facilities are not a source of contamination for the food products.
8) Hand-washing facilities: Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) include proper hand washing and proper hand washing starts with suitable hand-washing facilities. For example, frequent checks on running water, hand soap, and single use towels ensure that all hands are clean and ready to produce safe food.
9) Trash disposal: While trash can be a source of cross contamination, trash can also attract and harbor pests. Scheduling regular trash disposal and controlling traffic flow of waste are two ways to minimize the risk of cross contamination from trash.
Even after meeting these requirements, sanitation programs can be more sophisticated. An example is to institute an environmental monitoring program to verify and validate that the sanitation program is effective. Another example is in identifying and measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) within the sanitation program that can improve not just the sanitation processes, but the operations as a whole. Principally, sanitation is cleanliness on the most basic level, but waste management can encompass sanitation and grow into a larger discussion on sustainability. All in all, sanitation programs must reshape and evolve alongside the company growth.
Sanitation is interwoven throughout the food manufacturing process; sanitation is not a single task to be carried out by a sole individual. As such, it is beneficial to incorporate sanitation practices into cannabis food manufacturing processes from the beginning. Protect your brand from product rework or recalls and, most importantly, protect your consumers from foodborne illness, by practicing proper sanitation.
A steep spike in demand has created a race to the finish line in the hemp industry, but marketing a CBD product before FDA regulations are in place can be tricky. However, there is plenty you can do now to set your CBD company up for success.Let’s look at how CBD brands can get their marketing ball rolling in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Start With How You’re Different
Despite being a new market to many consumers, the hemp industry is well established and highly competitive. Leaders such as Charlotte’s Web and CV Sciences (AKA Plus CBD Oil) are publicly traded, but the market remains extremely fragmented with small mom-and-pop shops winning out in their respective locales. The number of competitors is intense and growing. In late 2018, Congress gave hemp its blessing by including it in the farm bill. As a result, “the market will continue to grow at a fast pace,” says Steve St. Clair, CEO of Enerhealth Botanicals. CBD is now officially mainstream. With thousands of competitors, it is of utmost importance that brands pull away from the pack.
Brand strategy is something that CBD companies should outline now. How is your product different? Why would a consumer pick your brand over another? These questions can be defined by talking to your current customers, observing holes in the marketplace and understanding the key advantages you have over other companies.
Consider how messaging varies for Colorado Hemp Honey compared to Epidiolex. The first leads with messaging centered around not just the quality of their honey, but why honey is a great source of fuel, especially for athletes (“Bee your best”). The latter speaks directly to families with children who suffer from seizures (“Seizures are shared. So is Relief”). While Colorado Hemp Honey might put an emphasis on attending extreme sporting events, Epidiolex would find greater benefits in focusing their efforts elsewhere.
That same brand strategy can be used when considering product extensions. According to Heath Thomson, director of business development at CFH, knowing how your company serves its customers can guide you toward product development. “There’s booming demand for CBD across consumer demographics, use cases and product types. While this presents immense opportunity, CBD is not a cure-all and not every product type that is in development or new to the market is appropriate for medicinal or dietary supplement use cases,” says Thomson. “For example, many CBD suppliers/manufacturers are chasing water soluble CBD, but do we really need CBD enhanced water?”
Nail Your Brand Online
Armed with a brand strategy, it’s time to build something consumer facing: your website. Mass market retailers are beginning to launch their CBD programs; however, they have dozens of brands to choose from when it comes to building stock. Brands with an established presence, clear purpose and consistent brand identity will have a leg up on fly-by-night companies.
In marketing, a brand’s website is considered its digital headquarters. Investing in a clean website with clear communication is a must. A strong website will establish trust among consumers (and retail partners) and further communicate how your brand is different from the rest.
Beyond branding, e-commerce functionality is an important revenue driver. A consumer may feel self-conscious purchasing CBD in store (there is still quite a bit of stigma surrounding the product), but clicking “check out” in the privacy of their own home is easy.“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders.”
Own Your Email List
When it comes to driving revenue, there is no replacement for email. Some marketers personally feel their inbox is too full and so they cringe at the thought of adding to the constant stream of media we all face. The stats are undeniable though: the ROI of the typical email program is 73%.
When it comes to email, you (the marketer) set the guardrails. Unlike with paid advertising, your account won’t be shut down simply due to the nature of your product. Even with a modest 20% open rate, you’re reaching far more consumers than on social media (where brands only get 1% organic reach), and in a much more meaningful way.
Build Your PR Strategy
Two weeks of trying to run an advertising campaign for a hemp company will teach you one thing: when it comes to CBD, paid media is a minefield. To date, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Amazon still do not permit promotion of CBD products on their platforms. As a result, brands must lean more heavily on earned channels, such as PR.
“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders. Press is more than just free advertising when it comes to hemp or cannabis. Consumers want to know that what they’re putting into their body is safe, and with so much legal grey area they’ll be even more wary than with other supplements,” says James Clark, co-founder of Room 214. “News coverage – especially in the right publication – is like a seal of approval for your product and reaches audiences currently blocked by advertising.”
Leaders in the CBD industry already play a strong game when it comes to PR, but there’s plenty of room for more.
Prepare for Constant Change
This point cannot be stressed enough: over the next two to three years, everyone in the hemp industry needs to buckle up. The constant change in this ever-budding market means you must be ready to make quick turns and adjustments. This is even true in the exercise of writing this article, as every morning I wake up to news about new regulations in various states and motions from the FDA to hold hearings.
The impact constant change has on paid media is not to be underestimated. Over the course of just a few weeks, an advertising vendor may change their policies regarding hemp products. My team has seen this happen time and time again. They would spend a day getting a campaign rolling, see great success within a few days and then see the account had been suspended shortly after. While there are cannabis-specific advertising platforms such as Mantis, mainstream networks are still turning down hemp-based brands.
This sort of up-and-down movement requires patience, and a strong “try, try again” attitude. Applying the Dunkirk Marketing Model will help brands keep their eyes on the horizon while faced with these daily obstacles. With your focus on end goals, you must also be prepared for quick adjustments and split-second decisions.
Get Started Now
While CBD companies face far more obstacles than other CPG companies when it comes to promotion, your marketing should not take a back seat. How you build your brand today will position you to earn the trust of consumers tomorrow. Spend time building a solid foundation by getting to know your core customer. Outline a messaging plan and your brand’s positioning, and invest in owned and earned channels such as your website, email marketing and PR.
The increasing appeal and public acceptance of medical and recreational cannabis has increased the focus on the possible food safety hazards of cannabis-infused products. Foodborne illnesses from edible consumption have become more commonplace, causing auditors to focus on the various stages of the supply chain to ensure that companies are identifying and mitigating risks throughout their operations. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans developed and monitored within a cannabis ERP software solution play an essential role in reducing common hazards in a market currently lacking federal regulation.
What are cannabis-infused products?
Cannabis infusions come in a variety of forms including edibles (food and beverages), tinctures (drops applied in the mouth), sprays (applied under the tongue), powders (dissolved into liquids) and inhalers. Manufacturing of these products resembles farm-to-fork manufacturing processes common in the food and beverage industry, in which best practices for compliance with food safety regulations have been established. Anticipated regulations in the seed-to-sale marketplace and consumer expectations are driving cannabis infused product manufacturers to adopt safety initiatives to address audit concerns.
What are auditors targeting in the cannabis space?
The cannabis auditing landscape encompasses several areas of focus to ensure companies have standard operating procedures (SOP’s) in place. These areas include:
Product development – including risk analysis and release
Accurate labeling – allergen statements and potency
Product sampling – pathogenic indicator and heavy metal testing
Water and air quality – accounting for residual solvents, yeasts and mold
Pest control – pesticides and contamination
In addition, auditors commonly access the reliability of suppliers, quality of ingredients, sanitary handling of materials, cleanliness of facilities, product testing and cross-contamination concerns in the food and beverage industry, making these also important in cannabis manufacturers’ safety plans.
How a HACCP plan can help
Whether you are cultivating, harvesting, extracting or infusing cannabis into edible products, it is important to engage in proactive measures in hazard management, which include a HACCP plan developed by a company’s safety team. A HACCP plan provides effective procedures that protect consumers from hazards inherent in the production and distribution of cannabis-infused products – including biological, chemical and physical dangers. With the lack of federal regulation in the marketplace, it is recommended that companies adopt these best practices to reduce the severity and likelihood of compromised food safety.
Automating processes and documenting critical control points within an ERP solution prevents hazards before food safety is compromised. Parameters determined within the ERP system are utilized for identification of potential hazards before further contamination can occur. Applying best practices historically used by food and beverage manufacturers provides an enhanced level of food safety protocols to ensure quality, consistency and safety of consumables.
Hazards of cannabis products by life-cycle and production stage
Since the identification of hazards is the first step in HACCP plan development, it is important to identify potential issues at each stage. For cannabis-infused products, these include cultivation, harvesting, extraction and edibles production. Auditors expect detailed documentation of HACCP steps taken to mitigate hazards through the entire seed-to-sale process, taking into account transactions of cannabis co-products and finished goods at any stage.
Cultivation– In this stage, pesticides, pest contamination and heavy metals are of concern and should be adequately addressed. Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria can also be introduced during the grow cycle requiring that pathogenic indicator testing be conducted to ensure a bacteria-free environment.
Harvesting– Yeast and mold (aflatoxins) are possible during the drying and curing processes. Due to the fact that a minimal amount of moisture is optimal for prevention, testing for water activity is essential during harvesting.
Extraction – Residual solvents such as butane and ethanol are hazards to be addressed during extraction, as they are byproducts of the process and can be harmful. Each state has different allowable limits and effective testing is a necessity to prevent consumer exposure to dangerous chemical residues.
Edibles– Hazards in cannabis-infused manufacturing are similar to other food and beverage products and should be treated as such. A risk assessment should be completed for every ingredient (i.e. flour, eggs, etc.), with inherent hazards or allergens identified and a plan for addressing approved supplier lists, obtaining quality ingredients, sanitary handling of materials and cross-contamination.
Following and documenting the HACCP plan through all of the stages is essential, including a sampling testing plan that represents the beginning, middle and end of each cannabis infused product. As the last and most important step before products are introduced to the market, finished goods testing is conducted to ensure goods are safe for consumption. All information is recorded efficiently within a streamlined ERP solution that provides real-time data to stakeholders across the organization.
Besides hazards that are specific to each stage in the manufacturing of cannabis-infused products, there are recurring common procedures throughout the seed-to-sale process that can be addressed using current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP’s). cGMPs provide preventative measures for clean work environments, training, establishing SOPs, detecting product deviations and maintaining reliable testing. Ensuring that employees are knowledgeable of potential hazards throughout the stages is essential.Lacking, inadequate or undocumented training in these areas are red flags for auditors who subscribe to the philosophy of “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Training, re-training (if necessary) and documented information contained within cannabis ERP ensures that companies are audit-ready.
The importance of proper labeling in the cannabis space cannot be understated as it is a key issue related to product inconsistency in the marketplace. Similar to the food and beverage industry, accurate package labeling, including ingredient and allergen statements, should reflect the product’s contents. Adequate labeling to identify cannabis products and detailed dosing information is essential as unintentional ingestion is a reportable foodborne illness. Integrating an ERP solution with quality control checks and following best practices ensures product labeling remains compliant and transparent in the marketplace.
Due to the inherent hazards of cannabis-infused products, it’s necessary for savvy cannabis companies to employ the proper tools to keep their products and consumers safe. Utilizing an ERP solution that effectively manages HACCP plans meets auditing requirements and helps to keep cannabis operations one step ahead of the competition.
Cannabis is the most highly regulated crop in California, and the state just added another layer of regulation. This article breaks down the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) recently updated Cannabis Cultivation Policy – Principles and Guidelines for Cannabis Cultivation (“Policy”) into six key takeaways.1 These guidelines impose new rules on cannabis cultivation activities that have the potential to impact a watercourse (stream, creek, river or lake). Most of these rules apply to cultivation of sun-grown cannabis, which is currently allowed in some form in 12 counties. Compliance with these new requirements will be implemented through the CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Program.
When developing farmland, hillsides should be avoided and erosion must be controlled.
The Policy provides specific rules for growing pot on undisturbed land. To prevent erosion, numerous limitations are placed on earthmoving and activities in sensitive areas, and cultivators are not allowed to grade hillsides that exceed a 50% slope.2
Cultivation prepping activities must minimize grading, dust, soil disturbance, erosion, and impacts on habitat, especially during the winter season.3 No vehicles or heavy equipment may be used within a riparian setback4 or watercourse,5 and cultivators must avoid damaging native riparian vegetation6 and oak woodlands.7 All farm equipment, fuel, and hazardous materials must be carefully stored away from creeks and sensitive habitat.8 The Policy also governs road construction.9
Cultivators should avoid work in or near a surface waterbody.10
If a cultivator’s activities impact a river, stream, or lake, they must consult with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).11 Cultivators must maintain minimum riparian setbacks for all cannabis activities, including grading and ancillary farm facilities. Before grading land, a biologist must identify any sensitive flora or fauna, and if any is located, consult with CDFW and provide a report to the Regional Board.12 No irrigation runoff, tailwater, chemicals or plant waste can be discharged to a waterbody.13 Diversion facilities for the irrigation of cannabis may not block fish passage, upstream or downstream, and must be fitted with a CDFW-approved fish screen; new facilities are subject to all applicable permits and approvals.
During the dry season, cultivators may not use surface water.
The use of surface water supplies in California requires a valid water right and the use of water for cannabis cultivation is no different.14 Anyone seeking to appropriate “water flowing in a known and defined channel” or from a watercourse must apply to the SWRCB and obtain a permit or license.15 Alternatively, a landowner whose property is adjacent to a watercourse may have a riparian right to divert the water for use on her land. Riparian users do not need permission from the SWRCB to divert water, but they must report water use annually.16
The biggest obstacle that growers face under this Policy is that they cannot divert anysurface water during the dry season—the growing season (April 1 through Oct. 31). It should be noted:
The seasonal prohibition of surface water diversion applies regardless of the nature of the water right or what has been historically used to irrigate other crops.
During the dry period, cultivators may only irrigate using stored water (see no. 5 below) or groundwater.
It remains to be seen whether a legal challenge will be brought against the state for their draconian prohibitions on irrigating cannabis during the six-month growing season. Because this prohibition applies to all watersheds in California, singles out one low-water use crop, and ignores established water rights, it is overly broad and may constitute a constitutional “taking” of property rights.
During the wet season, surface water diversions must be monitored closely.
Cannabis-specific restrictions also apply during the wet season. From Nov. 1 to March 31, cultivators must comply with instream flow requirements and check in with the state daily. All surface water diversions for cannabis are subject to “Numeric and Narrative Instream Flow Requirements,” to protect flows needed for fish migration and spawning. To ensure diversions do not adversely impact fish flows, cultivators must also “maintain a minimum bypass of at least 50% of the streamflow.”17,18
While valid appropriative right holders may divert more than 10 gal./min. for cannabis irrigation during the wet season, riparian right holders are not allowed to exceed that diversion rate.19 All cultivators (including small diverters <10 acre-feet (“AF”)/yr) are required to employ water-saving irrigation methods, install measuring devices to track diversions daily, and maintain records on-site for at least five years.20 Cultivators must inspect and repair their water delivery system for leaks monthly,21 and inspect sprinklers and mainlines weekly to prevent runoff.22
Cannabis cultivators may obtain a new water storage right for use during the dry season.
To address dry season irrigation limitations, cultivators are urged to store water offstream during the wet season, including rainwater, for dry season use. Growers may not rely on onstreamstorage reservoirs, except if they have an existing permitted reservoir in place prior to Oct. 31, 2017.23 Alternatively, small growers (storage is capped at 6.6 AF/yr) may benefit from the new Cannabis SIUR Program, an expedited process for cultivators who divert from a surface water source to develop and install storage offstream. Only diverters with a valid water right that allows for diversion to storage between Nov. 1 and March 31 qualify.
Groundwater is less regulated, but cultivators should avoid drilling or using wells near waterbodies.
Groundwater is generally the recommended water supply for cannabis because, unlike surface water, it may be used during the dry season and is not subject to many of the restrictions listed above. It should be noted however:
Many groundwater basins are now governed by California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), which requires water agencies to halt overdraft and restore balanced levels of groundwater pumping from certain basins. Thus, SGMA may result in future pumping cutbacks or pumping assessments.
In some counties, moratoriums and restrictions on drilling new wells are on the rise.
Under this Policy, the state may step in to restrict groundwater pumping in the dry season in watersheds where there are large numbers of cannabis groundwater, wells located close to streams, and areas of high surface water-groundwater connectivity.24
In short, groundwater pumpers are at risk of cutback if the state deems it necessary to maintain nearby creek flows.Noncompliance can bring lofty fines, revocation of a grower’s cultivation license, or prosecution
This cannabis policy presents one of California’s most complex regulatory schemes to date. Before investing in a property, one must understand this Policy and have a robust understanding of the water rights and hydrology associated with the cultivation site. Growers looking to reduce permitting time and costs should invest in relatively flat, historically cultivated land with existing wells and ample groundwater supplies, or alternatively, grow indoors.
This article attempts to synthesize the maze of water supply and water quality regulations that make compliance exceedingly difficult; more detailed information can be found here. Noncompliance can bring lofty fines, revocation of a grower’s cultivation license, or prosecution. Growers are encouraged to contact a hydrologist and water lawyer before making major investments and to designate a water compliance officer to monitor and track all water diversions and water used for irrigation. Growers should also consult with their local jurisdiction regarding water use restrictions and stream setbacks before moving any dirt or planting cannabis.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 4. The Policy defines “Qualified Professional” as a: California-Licensed Professional Geologist, including Certified Hydrogeologist and Certified Engineering Geologist, California-Licensed Geotechnical Engineer, and Professional Hydrologist. (Policy, Definition 72, p. 11.)
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Terms 4 and 10.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 3.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 40.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 33.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 34.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 7.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Terms 15 to 29.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 41.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 3; see also 1602.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 10.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 326.
Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 69.
Wat. Code §1225; See alsoWat. Code §1201 [providing that the state shall have jurisdiction over, “[a]ll water flowing in any natural channel” except water that is appropriated or being used for beneficial purpose upon land riparian to the channel.”]
Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus Technical Services Analyst, Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, and Charles Deibel, President Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants resulting from human industrial activities such as mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants and farm/house hold water run-off. They affect the water and soil, and become concentrated in plants, animals, pesticides and the sediments used to make fertilizers. They can also be present in low quality glass or plastic packaging materials that can leach into the final cannabis product upon contact. The inputs used by cultivators that can be contaminated with heavy metals include fertilizers, growing media, air, water and even the clone/plant itself.
The four heavy metals tested in the cannabis industry are lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) mandates heavy metals testing for all three categories of cannabis products (inhalable cannabis, inhalable cannabis products and other cannabis and cannabis products) starting December 31, 2018. On an ongoing basis, we recommend cultivators test for the regulated heavy metals in R&D samples any time there are changes in a growing process including changes to growing media, cannabis strains, a water system or source, packaging materials and fertilizers or pesticides. Cultivators should test the soil, nutrient medium, water and any new clones or plants for heavy metals. Pre-qualifying a new packaging material supplier or a water source prior to use is a proactive approach that could bypass issues with finished product.
The best approach to heavy metal detection is the use of an instrument called an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). There are many other instruments that can test for heavy metals, but in order to achieve the very low detection limits imposed by most states including California, the detector must be the ICP-MS. Prior to detection using ICP-MS, cannabis and cannabis related products go through a sample preparation stage consisting of some form of digestion to completely break down the complex matrix and extract the heavy metals for analysis. This two-step process is relatively fast and can be done in a single day, however, the instruments used to perform the digestion are usually the limiting step as the digesters run in a batch of 8-16 samples over a 2-hour period.
Only trace amounts of heavy metals are allowed by California’s BCC in cannabis and cannabis products. A highly sensitive detection system finds these trace amounts and also allows troubleshooting when a product is found to be out of specification.
For example, during the course of testing, we have seen lead levels exceed the BCC’s allowable limit of 0.5 ppm in resin from plastic vape cartridges. An investigation determined that the plastic used to make the vape cartridge was the source of the excessive lead levels. Even if a concentrate passes the limits at the time of sampling, the concern is that over time, the lead leached from the plastic into the resin, increasing the concentration of heavy metals to unsafe levels.
Getting a Representative Sample
The ability to detect trace levels of heavy metals is based on the sample size and how well the sample represents the entire batch. The current California recommended amount of sample is 1 gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary but cannot be larger than 50 pounds of flower. There is no upper limit to the batch sizes for other inhalable cannabis products (Category II).
It is entirely likely that two different 1 gram samples of flower can have two different results for heavy metals because of how small a sample is collected compared to an entire batch. In addition, has the entire plant evenly collected and concentrated the heavy metals into every square inch of it’s leaves? No, probably not. In fact, preliminary research in leafy greens shows that heavy metals are not evenly distributed in a plant. Results from soil testing can also be inconsistent due to clumping or granularity. Heavy metals are not equally distributed within a lot of soil and the one small sample that is taken may not represent the entire batch. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample by collecting several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch, combining them, and taking a 1 g sample from this composite for analysis.
Linger, P. J. Mussig, H. Fischer, J. Kobert. 2002. Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) growing on heavy metal contaminated soil: fibre quality and phytoremediation potential. Ind. Crops Prod. 11, 73–84.
A clean, reliable water supply lies at the heart of every successful cannabis farm. It’s no surprise that the stakes for finding land with ideal growing conditions, including adequate water, are high. But new buyers (and lessees) caught up in the green rush often gloss over water rights or are unaware of California’s byzantine rules governing the irrigation of cannabis.
Water rights are complex. Water regulations applicable to cannabis cultivation are even more complex. And our new climate reality convolutes things further. Longer droughts, more volatile weather, political uncertainties, increased groundwater regulation and water quality concerns are exacerbating tensions over local and statewide water supplies. In many areas of California, landowners can no longer rely on local water districts to meet their needs.
A robust investigation of the property must consider water supplies. Because a property’s water supply is dependent on water rights, local ordinances, state regulations, politics and hydrology, it’s important to consult a water lawyer (and in some instances a hydrologist) before closing. A bit of foresight can prevent a grower from being left high and dry.
The following checklist provides a roadmap to conduct water rights’ due diligence. While many of these details are California-specific, this type of due diligence applies throughout the West.
Step 1: Identify Available Water Supplies and Consider Potential Limitations On Irrigation, Including Potential Future Changes
Conduct a site visit to identify existing water infrastructure, natural water features and existing or potential water service options. Next, determine if the property is served by a public water supplier. If that’s the case, the California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) does not require any specific documentation to irrigate cannabis, but the water supply must be disclosed in the CalCannabis license application.
Groundwater is generally the best supply for cannabis, but the era of unregulated groundwater pumping is over. Many groundwater basins in California are now governed by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), which requires water agencies to halt overdraft and restore balanced levels of groundwater pumping from certain basins. As a result, SGMA may result in future pumping cutbacks or pumping assessments. It’s imperative to identify the local groundwater basin via the Department of Water Resources’ Bulletin 118, and determine whether the groundwater basin is adjudicated or governed by a groundwater sustainability agency. Growers should also test the local water supply’s pH and salt levels because cannabis plants are finicky and water treatment can be cost prohibitive. If a new well is needed, growers should consult with their local county before drilling a new well. In some areas, moratoriums and restrictions on drilling new wells are on the rise.
As a rule of thumb, cannabis cultivators should avoid using surface water to irrigate cannabis. Surface diversions are subject to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s permitting authority. And under the interim State Water Board Cannabis Policy, commercial cannabis cultivators cannot divert anysurface water during the dry season (April 1 through Oct. 31), even if they have a riparian right that can be used to irrigate other crops. During the dry season, cultivators may only irrigate using water that has been stored off-stream. And even during the wet season, cannabis cultivators must comply with instream flow requirements and check in with the state daily to ensure adequate water supplies are available. Cannabis cultivators are also required to install measuring devices and track surface water diversions daily. And buyer beware, a groundwater well that extracts water from a subterranean stream may be considered a surface-water diversion. So be especially cautious if the well is located close to a creek or river.Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency
Step 2: Identify Water Supplies Used On the Property, Including the Basis of Right, and Quantify Historical Use
Review information on historic and existing water use. This may include past water bills and assessments. If there is a well on the property, the seller or lessor may have metering data, electrical records and crop data that can establish historic groundwater use. Cultivators must submit a well log to CalCannabis as part of the cannabis cultivation application. If surface water is available, the purchaser should review the State Water Board eWRIMs database for water rights permits, licenses, stock pond registrations and certificates, decisions and orders. The purchaser should also identify surface water diversion structures and review annual filings to determine compliance with all terms and conditions of the water right. Lastly, the purchaser should request all documents and contracts pertaining to water rights.
Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes.Step 3: Confirm Ownership of Right and Assess Any Limitations On Water Right
Determine whether the right has been abandoned, lost to prescription or forfeited. Evaluate the seniority of the water right, availability of the right, adequacy of place of use, purpose of use (must include irrigation), season of use, and quantity of any permitted or licensed post-1914 right. Determine whether historical diversions pursuant to an appropriative right support the full amount of the claimed right, and whether any changes to the water right are needed to support the proposed new use. Cultivators in California who plan to utilize surface water also need to file for a “Cannabis Small Irrigation Use Registration” to store water during the wet season for use during the dry season.
Step 4: Reconcile Water Demand With Available Supply
Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes. Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency (drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, water monitoring, hoop structures) regardless of supply sufficiency. Many counties, such as Santa Barbara County, require that cannabis growers meet certain irrigation efficiency standards. Determine whether available supplies can meet all proposed demands, including plans for full buildout. If not, consider whether additional supplies are available for use on the property.
Step 5: Determine Water Supply Compliance Obligations
The rights associated with water supplies are defined by their source, the time frame during which supplies can be taken, the quantity of water to which the right attaches, and any limitations on the purpose of use of the water supply. There may also be reporting requirements associated with taking and using the supply—these can include requirements to report the quantity of water used as well as information regarding the end use of the water. Failure to timely report can have serious consequences. Cannabis cultivators are also subject to additional water quality regulations and restrictions, including waste discharge requirements pursuant to the State Water Board’s Cannabis General Order.
Step 6: Negotiate Deal and Draft Conveyance Documents
After obtaining an understanding of the water supply associated with the property, the property conveyance documents may be drafted to incorporate the transfer of rights associated with the property’s water supplies. These may include the assignment of contracts pursuant to which water supplies are obtained, the transfer of permits or licenses as to the water supplies, or the transfer of water rights arising out of a judgment or decree.
Step 7: Consider Unused Water Supply Assets That Could Be Monetized
To the extent the water supply rights associated with the property exceed the cannabis plants’ water demand, it may be possible to monetize unused or excess water supply assets through transfer of the rights to a third party.
If you have any questions about water rights related to cannabis cultivation it’s always in your best interest to contact an experienced water attorney early on in the process.
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.
Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.
Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.
The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.
Yeast & Mold
Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.
Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.
Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.
What is TYMC?
TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.
Why is TYMC Measured?
TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators.
The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.
Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4
Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11
For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.
Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, believes there are a number of opportunities for cannabis growers to scale their cultivation up with micropropagation. In her presentation at the CannaGrow conference recently, Dr. Jones discussed the applications and advantages of tissue culture techniques in cannabis growing.
Dr. Jones’ work in large-scale plant production led her to the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) where she worked to propagate a particularly difficult plant to grow- a native orchid species- using tissue culture techniques. With that experience in tissue culture, hydroponics and controlled environments, she took a position at the Kennedy Space Center working for NASA where she developed technologies and protocols to grow crops for space missions. “I started with strawberry TC [tissue culture], because of the shelf life & weight compared with potted plants, plus you can’t really ‘water’ plants in space- at least not in the traditional way,” says Dr. Jones. “Strawberries pack a lot of antioxidants. Foods high in antioxidants, I argued, could boost internal protection of astronauts from high levels of cosmic radiation that they are exposed to in space.” That research led to a focus on cancer biology and a Ph.D. in molecular & cellular biology and plant sciences, culminating in her introduction to the cannabis industry and now with C4 Labs in Arizona.
Working with tissue culture since 2003, Dr. Jones is familiar with this technology that is fairly new to cannabis, but has been around for decades now and is widely used in the horticulture industry today. For example, Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company using genetic analysis and tissue culture to help food crop growers increase speed to harvest, screen for diseases, store genetic material and secure intellectual property. “Big horticulture does this very well,” says Dr. Jones. “There are many companies generating millions of clones per year.” The Department of Plant Sciences Pomology Program at the Davis campus of the University of California uses tissue culture with the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) to eliminate viruses and pathogens, while breeding unique cultivars of strawberries.
First, let’s define some terms. Tissue culture is a propagation tool where the cultivator would grow tissue or cells outside of the plant itself, commonly referred to as micropropagation. “Micropropagation produces new plants via the cloning of plant tissue samples on a very small scale, and I mean very small,” says Dr. Jones. “While the tissue used in micropropagation is small, the scale of production can be huge.” Micropropagation allows a cultivator to grow a clone from just a leaf, bud, root segment or even just a few cells collected from a mother plant, according to Dr. Jones.
The science behind growing plants from just a few cells relies on a characteristic of plant cells called totipotency. “Totipotency refers to a cell’s ability to divide and differentiate, eventually regenerating a whole new organism,” says Dr. Jones. “Plant cells are unique in that fully differentiated, specialized cells can be induced to dedifferentiate, reverting back to a ‘stem cell’-like state, capable of developing into any cell type.”
Cannabis growers already utilize the properties of totipotency in cloning, according to Dr. Jones. “When cloning from a mother plant, stem cuttings are taken from the mother, dipped into rooting hormone and two to five days later healthy roots show up,” says Dr. Jones. “That stem tissue dedifferentiates and specializes into new root cells. In this case, we humans helped the process of totipotency and dedifferentiation along using a rooting hormone to ‘steer’ the type of growth needed.” Dr. Jones is helping cannabis growers use tissue culture as a new way to generate clones, instead of or in addition to using mother plants.
With cannabis micropropagation, the same principles still apply, just on a much smaller scale and with greater precision. “In this case, very small tissue samples (called explants) are sterilized and placed into specialized media vessels containing food, nutrients, and hormones,” says Dr. Jones. “Just like with cuttings, the hormones in the TC media induce specific types of growth over time, helping to steer explant growth to form all the organs necessary to regenerate a whole new plant.”
Having existed for decades, but still so new to cannabis, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up. In the next part of this series, we will discuss some of issues with mother plants and advantages of tissue culture to consider. In Part 2 we will delve into topics like sterility, genetic reboot, viral infection and pathogen protection.
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