Compliance Horticulture Safety

The Growing Fields of Cannabis Can Be Organically Cultivated

Regardless of whether a cultivator is growing or wishes to grow organic cannabis, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification is unattainable. This, of course, is because the US federal government, still, in 2020 (!), despite the proven medicinal science that’s stemmed from cultivating the plant, does not recognize cannabis as an agricultural crop. It’s rather stunning, isn’t it? But that lack of federal attention to the brightly burning, unwavering, guiding cannabis star shouldn’t discourage any grower from going organic.

The Cannabis Certification Council (CCC) has created a much-needed standard simply and yet elegantly called Organically Grown Cannabis. CCC evolved from the Organic Cannabis Association (OCA) and was founded by Ben Gelt and John Paul Maxfield (see John Paul at Maxfield’s for organic soil, or Waste Farmers). I recently spoke with Ben about the document’s evolution.

“I’ve been in the cannabis industry since 2011,” Ben began. “One of my first clients was the University of Colorado Toxicology Lab. We were looking to do a better job for cannabis pesticide testing and to bring quality control measures to the industry. Unfortunately, we lost that battle.”

Ben said this because, to date, Colorado only requires a screen of 13 pesticides for cannabis, and given the state’s tenure with legalization, other states may look to Colorado for guidance. Despite legalizing recreational cannabis in 2012, this paltry test of 13 pesticides just came about in 2018. While Ben says that Colorado has taken forward steps on sustainability and environmental issues, quality control issues still aren’t being addressed.

So, it was back to the drawing board for Ben and company to try to help evolve the industry.

“We believe there needs to be market-driven certification for cannabis cultivators,” Ben added. “We developed a pesticide-free standard, and while people believed in it, it just didn’t generate traction since company owners and chief financial officers wanted to know what premium they’d get for having a pesticide-free product.”

A pesticide-free standard isn’t really a thing (yet) in the US, as it is in Europe. So, OCA went back to the drawing board, merged with the Ethical Cannabis Alliance out of Portland, Oregon, and rebranded as CCC.

“Organic is by far the number one market driver,” Ben explained. “Fair trade gets around a 1% premium. Organic berries, however, get a 55% premium; organic eggs get a 110% premium. The smallest premiums for organic food are in the 30% range. And the demand outpaces the supply.”

The organic certification offered by the USDA is a multi-tiered approach as there are three levels. A simplified version of this is essentially a low, medium, and high bar. There are variations in the allowable concentrations of synthetic ingredients, and Ben reported that even the top-of-the-line certification has a 5% allowance for synthetic imports.

But, as mentioned, organic certification is just not on the table for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-rich, federally illegal (> 0.3%) products.

While there are certifications for this type of cannabis — Ben reports several dozen of varying technical rigor and quality — some have vested financial interests in the certification, flagging potential conflicts.

The ones that Ben identified as some of the top performers include Sun & Earth (regenerative, outdoor, self-sustaining cultivation; only applicable to a small percentage of global market), Dragonfly Earth Medicine (regenerative), and Certified Kind. “We keep a list of leading certifications on our website,” Ben added, “and will have at least one panel on certifications at the upcoming Cannabis Sustainability Symposium.

“But all fail to immediately communicate to every stakeholder (consumers, cultivators, etc.) the explicitness of the organic stature,” he continued. “None explicitly say organic. None of them speak to everybody. Our certification cuts through the noise. We need a baseline standard for organic certification in cannabis,” he added. “Once established, higher bar standards can find traction.”

“We’re presuming that 1% to 3% of the cannabis market will be organic, and that’s enough to get us going,” Ben continued. “We’ve intentionally gone conservative such that the numbers only go up. Even a 5% or 10% premium would mean dollars versus cents compared to food premiums.”

Interested growers and industry professionals can provide feedback to CCC as public comments are being accepted until October 5th, 2020. The document is meant to be concise and simple.

“It’s time for some transparency,” he concluded. “We’re looking to help create more meaning regarding the spectrum of price and quality in the market.”

As the industry continues its exponential growth, it’s becoming increasingly important to remember our Earth and how we treat it. It would be rather irresponsible to only allow hemp to be organically certified based on a suspect classification centered around THC.

Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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