You don’t have to search very far these days to have your pick of the stories regarding cannabis products being contaminated with pesticides. Just today, a colleague sent me a bunch of articles that we’ll be writing about soon, but they include wording like “Over 40 percent of pot tested by the state showed illegal amounts of pesticides. Is it a public health emergency?”. Or “The federal government announced it would fine licensed cannabis producers as much as $1 million per violation for using banned pesticides.”
That last one was out of Canada, since US feds being able to fine licensed cannabis producers would mean that we legalized! Considering the penalty, however, it’s easy to acknowledge that the world is watching. We’ve heard enough horror stories. I used to think these were fuel for the modern Anslinger, but he’s since proven to be a quitter, or incompetent, or both. Forgot him and all cannabiscynics, though. There are multitudes of everyday people needing what cannabis can provide, that are dependent on growers to ensure the cleanliness of their plants used as-is, or in creating various concentrates, extracts, or other infused products.
Organic farming has been resurrected after decades of complacency with chemicals and cheap, processed foods. It’s different with cannabis, though, since it seems like it was traditionally those aforementioned feds who sprayed crops. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been cases where unethical or uninformed growers used toxic substances in growing their plants. But organic products are touted as being more expensive to farm, and with the increasing demands of the cannabis industry, current contamination issues seem to stem right out of the need for larger harvests and reduced costs.
So, it’s even more fortuitous that entities like Marrone Bio Innovations(MBI) are thriving by way of their bugs. I spoke with Dr. Pam Marrone, CEO and Founder of MBI, a California-based company with a manufacturing plant in Michigan who currently has seven products, six of which are designed for use in agriculture. Five of those six products are also registered through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Our natural products are based on extracts of plants and microorganisms. They’re designed to control things like diseases, insects, mites, and nematodes, and to increase overall plant health and production,” Dr. Marone added.
“We were showcasing our product line at farmer trade shows, and we started getting a lot of inquiries about how our products would work with cannabis,” she continued. “We were even told that our Regalia® product was been talked about in an online chat room about cannabis!”
Dr. Marrone and her team developed Regalia® much like cannabis processers craft their concentrates. The giant knotweed plant is extracted with ethanol. Interestingly, the biochemical resveratrol, which has been advertised as having benefits for heart health, was a co-extracted molecule, along with several others.
Regalia®is known for increasing plant immunity, as well as enhancing desired organoleptic properties in specific plants, like increases in phenolic content in grapes, or leading to a higher brix in sugarcane, citrus, and strawberries. “The product works by induced systemic resistance (ISR) and systemic acquired resistance (SAR),“ Pam explained. Plants possess a range of active defense apparatuses that can be actively expressed in response to pathogens. SAR and ISR are two forms of induced resistance wherein plant defenses are “turned on” by prior infection or treatment that results in resistance against subsequent challenge by a pathogen. SAR involves increase in salicylic acid and ISR acts on the jasmonic acid pathway. Pam explained, “Basically, when you spray Regalia®on the crop, a cascade goes on within the plant. Some compounds get increased, like PR proteins, flavonoids and flavanones. We’ve seen increases in chlorophyll through digital imaging over treated fields.” MBI is currently evaluating whether Regalia® results in improved cannabis chemistry, from the analysis of cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid contents.
“Regalia’s also great for powdered mildew [PM]. You can just spray it on the foliage. Really, it’s the best in its class [for PM],” Dr. Marrone added. And that’s been a theme for other MBI products, as cannabis farmers have repurposed them for enhanced cannabis plant health, whether to control PM, mites, or aphids.
Two other productsin the MBI portfolio, called Venerate® and Grandevo®,have been adopted by some cannabis growers for controlling insects like bud mites or aphids. Venerate®is made predominantly from two new species of non-livingbacteria microorganisms. Venerate essentially works by stopping the pest’s development and Grandevo by stopping feeding and reproduction. “Venerate, which is from a new species of bacteria, was actually found from a garden near a Buddhist temple in Japan by one of our workers while vacationing,” Pam excitedly added. “We’ve actually isolated over 18,000 microbes, and have USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] permits to collect samples from across the Earth.”
For these MBI products based on microorganisms, “we ferment in 20,000-liter fermentation tanks in Michigan,” Dr. Marrone provided. “We first create a starter to help our microorganisms proliferate, and add that starter to our tanks, which contain food for the microorganisms. The length of time spent in the tanks varies for some of our products (36-72 hours), but we harvest the microbes and chemicals produced during the fermentation when they’re at their peak.”
The interest from cannabis farmers in MBI products has resulted in Pam needing to hire cannabis sales specialists. “Our products have been used for other crops, so we extended the uses on a state by state basis for states that already have legal cannabis. Michigan recently approved recreational cannabis and Missouri, medical, so we will add those,” she explained.
In states with legalized cannabis industries, however, the often patchwork regulations can be difficult to navigate when trying to ensure that a product can be compliantly vended. “It’s tough to get an approval in California, and they really haven’t kept their ‘approved’ list updated,” Pam commented. “They leave the decisions up to each county Agriculture commissioner, which is a nightmare for growers. We have been working with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, who are looking to ensure that safer, less toxic chemicals are being used.”
And in an industry that seemingly changes daily, all eyes and discussions, for that matter, often migrate to visions of the future. For MBI, the future involves several different directions. One of which is their creation of Regalia CG® and Venerate CG®, the “CG” indicating that the product is formulated for cultivated gardens, so specifically smaller grows (although Pam advised that the product can be applied to large grows too).
Another upcoming accomplishment for MBI will be the culmination of their efforts to vend their product in Canada, current leader in progressive cannabis law and regulation. “We’ve been working with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture who helped shepherd the product through Canada’s regulatory agency PMRA (Pest Management Regulatory Authority),” Pam replied. “Getting pest management products approved in Canada is a slow process, but by sometime early next year, cannabis growers should be able to use Regalia.”
Dr. Marrone also sees the need for refined cannabis testing regulations. “Just testing for all microorganisms on cannabis makes little sense since some microbes are good, including biopesticides based on bacteria and fungi. As part of the EPA process, we are already required to test for human pathogens and unwanted other microbes.”
Although the word “pesticide” might bring negative thoughts to most people, it’s increasingly important to differentiate between beneficial, biological pesticides and toxic pesticides that could harm the health of the end user. And as those cannabis users continue to take their health and well-being into their own hands, for lack of any other option, look for them to continue to demand the healthiest cannabis plants possible from like-minded farmers, who, at the end of the day, are consumers themselves. The identification and adoption of effective biopesticides and other organic products designed to increase plant health and productivity will help assure those counting on the medicinal aspects of cannabis that their chosen products have been designed with their health in mind.