Issues Growers Face Today
Interest in growing cannabis for medical and recreational purposes is increasing worldwide. Growing marijuana takes vigilance, even when it’s legal. Unfortunately, when the cannabis legalization wave started, many naively believed legal weed meant clean weed.
For legacy consumers, many never considered how cannabis was grown or what it was grown with, as the simple act of buying cannabis was illegal. With legalization, “pesticide” may be the most controversial buzzword throughout cannabis.
Pesticides are everywhere. We breathe them in the air around us; they’re in the soil and even in our water. Although pesticide toxicity is relatively low in most circumstances, it can become a severe health issue when people combust and inhale them.
Thanks to recent recalls, state, and media investigations, and even a consumer lawsuit, public scrutiny is turning toward the pesticides used by many marijuana growers. Reports show that many cannabis products from dispensaries contain pesticides, herbicides, and all sorts of gross stuff. It’s seriously concerning because consumers begin to doubt the ‘regulation’ supposedly in place.
What’s the point of legalization if safeguards aren’t enforced?
Toxic and non-toxic chemicals are designed to protect plants from destructive pests, but marijuana is unique. The pesticides safe for fruits, vegetables, or other crops may be unsafe for marijuana, especially when inhaled. Unfortunately, far too often, growers prioritize yield over consumer safety.
Mold on cannabis isn’t a new problem, but commercial production and overcrowded grow rooms create the perfect storm for pathogens and a perceived need to use pesticides. Pesticide contamination isn’t always intentional. High-humidity environments and overcrowded grow rooms create the optimal conditions for pathogens to grow and easily spread from plant to plant.
Like any crop, cannabis plants are prone to pests and disease – from tiny leaf-sucking spider mites that spawn a new generation in less than a week to powdery mildew, a fungus that forms a talcum-like coating on leaves and spreads rapidly through greenhouses. Unfortunately, the environmental conditions in a commercial cannabis grow are naturally susceptible to molds and fungus.
In the competitive cannabis industry, every company vies for a spot in the crowd, and growers race to produce the most potent and exciting new strains. Yet, lessons must be learned from the process.
The birth of the marijuana industry has given rise to a deeper awareness of production pitfalls and potential health risks – not from the cannabis itself, but from unintentional microbial contamination. You don’t have to apply pesticides to have them in your plants. Pesticides in a mother plant can linger for generations in clones.
Legalization is turning marijuana into a commodity crop, but it’ll take a mix of policy, science, and industry self-regulation to develop standards and best practices. State regulators with little to no experience in toxicology often lean toward significantly limiting or banning pesticide use on cannabis plants because of a lack of research, especially on inhalation. In the meantime, growers skirt around regulations by applying illegal pesticides on the down-low and then using remediation technologies to remove the chemicals after harvest to pass inspection.
Protecting yields is hard work. That’s why many growers in states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana use chemicals. But in doing so, many cannabis products contain pesticides at levels higher than what’s typically allowed for edible or smokable products. While testing products for toxic chemicals and ensuring plants are grown in a clean and safe environment is necessary, without enforcing standards, the average consumer is often left with little assurance of safety—and limited knowledge of the uncertainty behind the scenes.
Preventing Molds Before They Start
Marijuana plants need protection from devastating diseases and infestations, especially in damp indoor conditions. This is why implementing protocols that protect the environment and plants is more important than ever.
Consumers also deserve protection from the effects of inhaling harmful chemicals and toxins. Preventing molds, mildew, and other pathogens starts with having and enforcing standard operating procedures for cleaning, disinfecting, and protecting the facility.
Growers can eliminate offending pesticides with remediation technology and biosecurity programs, yet many refuse to use these solutions because it raises suspicions that they may have used illegal pesticides. Biosecurity simply puts measures and activities in place to protect against the entry and spread of pests and diseases in the grow facility. Routine biosecurity checks ensure the health, development, maturity, and yields of cannabis crops by protecting the environment where they are grown rather than focusing solely on the plants.
Cannabis technology is fast-paced and ever-changing, impacting many sectors within the burgeoning market. One factor pushing the industry ever upwards is a surge in marijuana technology that helps produce better crops, ensures the highest safety standards, connects consumers with cannabis businesses, and provides new options for consumption.
Biosecurity is quickly becoming one of the most critical technologies in the cannabis industry. Testing standards are getting stricter, and the rate of tainted crops is skyrocketing, causing supply shortages and significant financial blows to cultivators all over the continent.
Crops with mold or fungus can be deadly to consumers—especially those with lower immune systems, like many medical users. The solution for many cultivators is to use chemicals like pesticides and fungicides to combat mold, but unfortunately, these still threaten consumers, placing cultivators in a catch-22 situation. Should you risk mold and fungus by avoiding chemicals? Or should you introduce potentially harmful chemicals to the plants to ensure against mold and fungus? Neither is a good option, as both put consumers at risk. Meanwhile, increased regulation puts cultivators at risk of significant profit loss from having to dispose of sub-par harvests.
Many growers are adopting Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a biosecurity strategy that is ecosystem-based and focused on the long-term prevention of pests and damage through biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and the use of resistant plant varieties. This approach is worthwhile but takes time, education, financial investment, and hard work. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs are holistic systems to manage pest pressures below the threshold of economic damage. Many growers have faced financial ruin due to catastrophic crop loss. Fortunately, it is possible to manage pest pressures and produce clean, compliant cannabis without systemic pesticides. As any grower will likely say, damage to the crop equals damage to the bottom line.
Biosecurity should influence the design of grow facilities. Protecting marijuana plants, cuttings, and seeds from pests and pathogens might mean building special quarantine spaces for employees to clean off street clothes before entering the facility. Other architectural designs include specialized soil or built-in equipment to regulate and protect cannabis growth without pesticides or other harmful chemicals.
Given that the financial stakes of indoor cultivators’ operations are primarily rooted in the grow room, adequate biosecurity measures are essential to protect plant investments and harvest profits. Biosecurity practices protect the operation from unwanted pests (insects, diseases, rodents, and weeds) and prevent transmission of contamination.
Biosecurity programs differ from security because the threat doesn’t come from people but rather from pathogens, molds, or pests. Control measures should include evaluating existing processes, reviewing cleaning practices, limiting site access, and managing inputs like growing media.
When All Else Fails, Remediate
Grow facility sanitization is more important than you might think, and there is more to it than simply selecting effective products. Pests, mold, mildew, fungus, and other such pathogens can ruin plants, but there are ways to stop an infestation or reduce its damage by taking a proactive preventative approach. Consideration needs to be given to specific protocols suitable for your cleaning, disinfection, and protection program.
Much has been said about how important it is to clean, disinfect and protect a cannabis grow facility to keep problems at bay. Astute growers always have one eye on the grow house and the other on the future. This helps them to discover new markets, seize novel opportunities, and gain a competitive advantage.
Cannabis growers don’t need to reinvent the wheel when identifying processes, equipment, and technology that can help protect their environment and plants. A biosecurity program makes perfect sense for cannabis by eliminating the need for chemicals on crops. Plus, it’s affordable, works, and can be incredibly successful.
In the best-case scenario, a plan should be in place before you have plants in plugs. In the worst-case scenario, you need to persevere until things have been cleaned up and then implement a proactive and preventative approach rather than a reactive approach which is the mode of operation for most growers today.
Biosecurity is a primary concern for many cultivators due to the impact moldy or tainted crops can have not only on consumers but on the operation’s bottom line. Unfortunately, it is a complex issue—constantly moving from one input to another—making it hard to get right.
Biosecurity is a more significant process than a typical sanitation program. Biosecurity looks at controlling sources of disease both outside and within a facility rather than simply cleaning up equipment and work surfaces.
Pests and pathogens are present in the outside environment and can enter cultivation areas where they may find a protected niche to infest. Cross-contamination from tools, staff clothing, and personal electronic devices can introduce spores, and contamination into a cannabis grow room.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Proper disinfection practices work within a growing facility, and biosecurity needs to be seen as an extra ring of protection. Whatever can be done to keep pathogens at bay within your facility will save you from tremendous headaches and loss.
The best biosecurity programs usually consist of multiple layers designed to evaluate the current conditions of a facility, starting with testing to determine the level of pathogen contamination and where it is most prominent, and then the right processes and products to do proper cleaning, disinfecting, and protection of the entire environment. Humidity, warm temperatures, and poor circulation can encourage the growth and spread of pathogens, so every aspect of a facility, from hard surfaces to air and water, must be considered when looking at complete remediation.
The main areas to protect include site access, cultivar sourcing, growing media selection, air and water quality, and the human element. Remediation addresses anything that could potentially harbor destructive organisms, thereby reducing yield and quality and potentially limiting trade and market access while increasing the cost of production.
Improved health and well-being of consumers and increased revenue for growers should be the ultimate objectives of any biosecurity program. The environment in which plants are grown, including the cleanliness of the facility, strongly influences the outcome. Once biosecurity and proper disinfection programs are established, it is vital to train employees on the systems and mandate protocols.
While the cannabis market has seen innovative ideas changing how facilities grow their crops and how consumers find and consume cannabis products, there has also been a steady stream of concepts that simply didn’t have staying power. For every technological advance that’s caused a seismic shift within the industry, hundreds of other products have arisen and disappeared without a trace.
While it’s impossible to know what the next big change will be, cannabis technology continues to be a driving force in a market that shows no signs of slowing down, and there is a considerable focus on the adoption of IPM concepts and the implementation of a proper biosecurity program. The global cannabis market is expected to grow tremendously, and well-positioned companies could capitalize on this.
The benefits of a more harmonized and integrated approach to biosecurity with indoor environments are already apparent with many greenhouses and grow facilities in the U.S. and worldwide. Here are just a few of the most important:
- The entire environment is now protected, eliminating the potential for cross-contamination.
- Improved safety of personnel
- Reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous/toxic products on plants.
- Reduce financial investment with less costly and environmentally friendly cleaning/disinfecting products.
- Greater efficiencies in crop yield leads to more profit.
- Safer products reach the hands of consumers.
The over-arching benefits of a good biosecurity program are apparent. Yet, more emphasis must be placed on adopting a proactive approach to address the root cause of cross-contamination. Too often, we see a reactive approach using harmful or hazardous pesticides and cleaners that contribute to long-term health issues for staff and consumers.
With adequate biosecurity, we believe growers will see a dramatic decrease in issues across the board, leading to fewer issues with testing and ultimately providing consumers with products they can trust will not harm them. Moreover, a more holistic approach to biosecurity will enable these benefits to be achieved in a manner that avoids inconsistencies, fills gaps, and prevents the creation of unnecessary barriers to trade.
The Ohio-based company Safety Net offers consulting services in biosecurity and the proper implementation of products and services for complete facility remediation and enhanced plant irrigation concepts. If you want more information to help you understand the benefits of implementing an effective biosecurity program, you can contact Ron Romano with Safety Net at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive your free biosecurity implementation guide.
About the Author
Jim Harris is Director of Business Development for Safety Net and owner of High Point Mobile Services, amongst other ventures. Jim works to expand Safety Net’s suite of highly effective products into new markets.