Farmers of Cannabis sativa, as well as agriculturists in general, face a serious dilemma when it comes to protecting their crops from pests, diseases, and fungi. One option is a highly aggressive approach that’s somewhat reminiscent of chemotherapy, using chemicals and synthetics pesticides that are extremely effective in warding off unwanted intruders. But the destructive powers of these chemicals aren’t reserved only for pests and can jeopardize human health, such as their being carcinogenic.
Natural products are safe and benevolent alternatives, but may not be effective enough to even scare the pests away, leading to widespread crop losses. In other words, farmers must choose between risking the health of their consumers or their crop, and respectively their financial wellbeing.
Canadian agricultural biotech company MustGrow believes it has found a solution to this perplexing dilemma — one that maximizes the best of both worlds of crop protection. And that solution may be somewhat surprising to many, as we’re generally used to seeing it in slightly different contexts – mustard. If you wonder how they stumbled upon this discovery, it’s a case of making lemonade with lemons, as “Canada produces 28% of the global mustard crop and is the world’s largest exporter of mustard with 57% market share,” the company reports.
There are two components of mustard seed that are pillars of mustard’s highly effective natural defence mechanism: the enzyme myrosinase and the glucosinolate called sinigrin. Breaking the seed apart causes a chemical reaction between these two compounds that generates allyl isothiocyanate (AITC), which fends off predators and is also responsible for mustard’s distinctive burn and bitterness. And it’s AITC that MustGrow have captured and recreated on a much grander scale.
“We’ve come up with a technology that extracts and reconstitutes sinigrin and myrosinase in both a granular and liquid form, which then can be commercialized as a biopesticide for use in high-value crops such as fruit and vegetables and cannabis,” Corey Giasson, MustGrow’s CEO, explains. “The AITC is the active ingredient of our technology, and as a biopesticide, it’s very effective at controlling soil-borne pests and diseases such as fusarium and nematodes through direct contact.”
Mustard’s protective properties might be particularly relevant to cannabis for three reasons: the limited options for crop protection, its growing conditions, and the way it’s consumed.
In terms of crop protection, cannabis cultivators face the aforementioned dilemma that, in certain countries with stricter regulations, is almost a straight-up catch-22.
“In highly regulated jurisdictions such as in Canada, pesticide use in cannabis production is banned and currently there are only approximately 26 approved natural products that cannabis producers can use – many of which don’t work,” Giasson explains. “In fact, none of these approved natural products have the same level of efficacy as synthetic pesticides, so growers are losing very valuable crops to disease and pests with limited options to protect them.”
Since MustGrow’s products have shown they can give synthetic pesticides a run for their money, the company’s goal is to use their biopesticide to treat soil for pests and disease before it’s brought into the greenhouse or planting occurs, which can happen once Health Canada gives the green light that’s expected by quarter 3 in 2020.
Furthermore, cannabis’s growing conditions create openings for various fronts of attack from pests and mildew, which are hard to stay on top of simultaneously, especially when cultivators’ protection options are limited.
“In indoor production facilities, plants are grown in closed environments that are warm and very humid, making them a prime target for pests and disease. Pests can come from water, the soil, the air, and more, and with no viable solutions to date for control, the plants have no chance,” Giasson says. “These complicated growing conditions, combined with a lack of products that are effective at controlling pest and disease provides an opening for natural products such as MustGrow’s to potentially make a large difference in the cannabis industry.”
And if pesticides weren’t dangerous enough already, they might be particularly dangerous when combusted, posing a serious problem for cannabis users since smoking is still a popular method of consumption.
“Heating pesticides can change their chemical composition,” Giasson adds. “When some pesticides like myclobutanil are heated, they decompose into very dangerous, carcinogenic toxics.”
It may seem strange that natural remedies for pests are generally at such a power disadvantage compared to synthetics, while also costing more, but that’s just a product of the historic development of this industry, or the lack thereof of the natural niche.
“Over time, synthetic chemicals have had lots of money put into their development by very large organizations,” Giasson explains. “As most organizations put their efforts toward harmful chemicals, it has become extremely challenging to produce an effective natural product that has a long shelf life or accepted level of efficacy. As a result, there are few natural products that work currently on the market today.”
However, he believes MustGrow’s products have all the makings to set a new trend, as they’re not only powerful and cost-effective enough to compete with the synthetics, but also being at the right place at the right time.
“We know there are roughly 60 to 65 billion dollars spent annually on pesticides globally, and only an extremely small portion of that goes towards natural solutions. However, recent news revealing the harm that chemicals can cause has increased the public outcry for more natural alternatives that can save crops without harming people,” Giasson says.
Besides protection, MustGrow also seeks to channel the combined power of nature, technology, and cannabis expertise into improving crops from yield and terpene standpoints. Their product, TP1000, which has already been approved by the Canada Food Inspection Agency for sale in Canada as a bio-fertility product and as such doesn’t need to be registered, , “works by applying it with a fertility regiment in order to increase yield by approximately 5% and terpenes by approximately 20%.”
We’re excited to see if mustard can make another popular name for itself and pave the way for more natural alternatives to pesticides in the process.