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How Green Is Your Green? A Look at “Organic” Cannabis


pot_2In keeping with this month’s greener theme, we’re taking a look at just how green our favorite green really is. Cannabis has had a long and strong association with nature-loving hippies, at least since the first California city kids moved north to Humboldt and Mendocino counties to get back to the land in the middle of the last century. The global movement and industry supporting hemp focuses especially on using the plant as a way to produce resources from fuel to fiber to food with means and methods that will avoid taking the environmental toll that the petrochemicals we rely on inevitably do. So when we think about the idea of “organic” cannabis, it may seem a foregone conclusion, but in reality most of the herb grown and smoked in Colorado is anything but.


Organic Certification: The Green Guarantee Caught in Red Tape

Before we can understand the implications of organic pot growing, we need to take a look at what organic farming actually means. Thanks to the marketing efforts of retailers, most of us are led to believe that organic means better quality, or healthier produce—and while organic produce is usually more flavorful and concentrated in healthful compounds, the goal of the farming practice itself is specific and unrelated to the quality of the produce.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, “[o]rganic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” Specifically, USDA organic certification can be applied to foods grown “without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms”.

There are two key takeaways here: First, that organic cultivation is about the environment, not the produce—specifically the environmental sustainability of the growing method. Second, that USDA only certifies food crops, which smokable bud is not.

As American Spirits smokers will note, the organic certification process has been extended to smokable tobacco, but due to the very crop-specific standards this can’t be extended to cover our favorite herb.

The other variable to keep in mind with all organic produce is the certification body and their process. In the US, most organic produce certification is done by the US Department of Agriculture (aka USDA Certified Organic). The rub here is that the USDA Certified Organic program didn’t start until the 1990s, and there were already bodies like the Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) program that were engaged in a rigorous certification process. So when USDA Organic kicked off, they harmonized 90+ bodies under their set of rules and made them certification agencies under the USDA Organic banner. There is still some variation between certifying bodies—and some of these bodies, like Quality Assurance International (QAI) have been criticized for being more business-friendly than environmentally-friendly in their certification assessments and penalties—but the main point is that they all operate under USDA oversight.

Because the USDA is part of the Federal government, and because cannabis is still federally recognized as a Schedule I narcotic, the 90+ certification groups that operate under USDA oversight are handcuffed in the red tape of prohibition.


pot_1Certified or Not, What is Organic Cannabis?

Since no cannabis can actually be certified organic, it leaves room for ambiguity when growers and retailers call their jars “organic.” Depending on your understanding of the term and how important the specifics are to you, some herb that’s proudly labeled organic is anything but.

Recall that while most of us consumers interpret organic as representing the quality of the produce, from an agricultural perspective it’s all about the sustainability of the growing practices. As one organic farmer put it, “What organic really means is that we can keep growing this way for a hundred generations, and the Earth will keep its balance. If we try that with so-called conventional fertilizers, this soil will be dead and worthless before my great-grandkids plant it.”

When it comes to growing organic cannabis, there are two basic approaches: bottled organics or soil-based organics. While it seems every grower has their own acronym or catch phrase for their method, the difference boils down to whether the fertilizers are organically broken down and then bottled for retail sale, or they’re added to the soil in a raw state and broken down by the soil itself.

The debate rages between growers as to the relative effectiveness of the methods, but for the conscious consumer, the real difference is the sustainability factor that defines organic farming. For the most part, the flowers from bottled and soil-based organics are similar, in that they tend to be less swollen and more aromatic than their synthetically grown counterparts. For the true connoisseur, the depth and distinctiveness of terroir can’t possibly be matched by pre-mixed formulations, but the average consumer isn’t likely to notice a difference.

For tokers who care about the environment, though, the methods are worlds apart. Soil-based organics depend on attuning to nature’s principles and can be indefinitely continued because the cultivator doesn’t regularly add anything but water, and periodically refreshes the soil only in proportion to what it’s grown, modelling the way crops were grown for hundreds of thousands of years by our ancestors. Bottled organics are naturally sourced and use many of the same inputs at the start of their manufacture. However, they exert an ecological toll in their manufacturing, bottling, transportation, and disposal. By one estimate, if we had to grow all crops with this method, we’d run out of pure inputs to bottle in less than two hundred years.

But What About Pesticides?

Pesticide-tainted pot has been making local headlines this year as the State exercises holds and quarantines of contaminated crops, and a lot of folks turn to organics to avoid these concerns altogether. In theory, shopping for organic herb should steer consumers clear of these pesticide worries, but in these waning days of prohibition, things are rarely as simple as they seem.

Starting with the organic labeling issue we reviewed above, the regulators have made it clear to marijuana businesses that none of them is allowed to use the term ‘organic’, regardless of how they grow their product. For shops that go the extra mile and incur the added expenses of growing with soil-based organics, this rule prevents them from enjoying the marketing advantage their efforts deserve. Meanwhile, it leaves consumers entirely in the dark as to whether the product they’re buying meets their expectations.

Some of the unintended side effects of this gray area are even more harmful to businesses and consumers: because there’s no meaningful regulatory oversight or guidance on how to produce organically, or any government agency reviewing products marketed for organic cannabis cultivation, cannabis growers and their consumers are left at the mercy of product manufacturers. Manufacturers, seeing a gray area, are apt to take advantage for a quick profit.

As recently as December 2015, organic cannabis growers were enthusiastically endorsing a miticide called Guardian. According to the bottle, it was 100 percent natural and all of the ingredients listed on the label were plant-based, but the stuff was uniquely effective, especially compared to other organic options. By mid-January, it was revealed by a cannabis testing lab in Oregon the claims were too good to be true: Guardian secretly contained a synthetic pesticide that accounted for its effectiveness, and the manufacturers—never intending to actually disclose the active ingredient in their product—shut down their website and phone lines and effectively disappeared.

While pesticides are scary on any produce, because we burn cannabis (and whatever chemicals on or in it), we risk a much more serious exposure to any compounds than we would by eating fruit treated with the same pesticide.


So is There ANY Clean Cannabis?

Fortunately, the answer is yes, but you need to do your homework. Ask your budtender for a sample ingredients label, and don’t hesitate to Google anything longer than three syllables. Feel empowered to ask questions about the business’s cultivation practices at the dispensary. If the staff can’t answer them, don’t feel bad about walking out and calling around for a place that can. If you had peanut allergies, you wouldn’t dare to eat at a restaurant that couldn’t tell you if your dinner was cooked in peanut oil—it’s good practice to apply the same level of scrutiny to what you smoke, and to hold the same expectations of any business offering product.


And What About Sustainability?

In an ironic twist on flower power, it takes about 285 times more energy to grow a pound of herb indoors than it does to mine and process raw minerals into a pound of aluminum.

Indoor pot growing was unheard of before the late 20th century, when law enforcement surveillance and defoliation efforts drove growers inside to hide. In the decades since, breeders have honed in on varieties that would flourish under high power lights strung in basements and garages, and a lot of modern strains available in Colorado were never intended to be grown outdoors. While legalization removed the necessity of stealth, the state and local regulations on grow environments—from security to surveillance to odor control—lend themselves to the massive warehouse grows the state is becoming known for.

Energy consumption in these facilities is astronomical for the lighting, but every light demands even more energy for cooling: each 1000-watt lamp produces about 4,000 BTUs of heat, while the ballast (power supply) adds about another 3,000 BTUs. Colorado is home to facilities with hundreds, even thousands of lamps, and hundreds of tons of AC.

For perspective, the average 200-light Colorado grow consumes over 21,000 kilowatt hours of energy every week. Meanwhile, the average American household consumes less than 11,000 kilowatt hours in an entire year.

While large-scale indoor grow operations are burning through our dwindling fossil fuel supply at record rates, the growing media and fertilizers the industry uses often come with their own ecological toll.

Sphagnum peat moss, for example is the primary ingredient in nearly every commercially available brands of soil, but it’s a slow-forming resource that stores 110 million tons of loose carbon each year. The carbon that peat moss stores is prevented from building up in the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect, but harvesting peat for use in soil releases all of carbon it’s sequestered.

Given the popularity of peat moss in everything from commercial blends to Miracle Gro, the rate of peat mining is accelerating and we may soon see the last of the peat bogs (and the release of all that carbon to the atmosphere): peat deposits that take over three millennia to form are completely drained and harvested in just months or years.

Bat guano is another popular organic fertilizer, prized because it has an ideal nutrient mix for flowering cannabis plants. While guano is undeniably effective in growing great herb, and is noted by some cultivators for achieving the most excellent flavors possible, the industry that supports its mining and export is nothing short of ecologically disastrous. Guano mining harms not only to plant, animal, and insect species, but their surrounding ecosystems, not to mention the indigenous populations that are often enslaved and forced to mine the highly profitable fertilizer.


So Is Greener Cannabis Even Possible?

Before you boycott our favorite herb to save the Earth, there’s the good news: eco-friendly cultivation methods, fertilizers, and pest control measures grow in popularity each year, and are the most promising avenues for the plant’s industrial-scale future.

While overpowered warehouses are the production model of today, tomorrow’s herb will increasingly be sun grown in greenhouses, using only supplemental powered lighting to maintain the garden’s light cycles. The short-term cost savings alone have encouraged businesses to aggressively pursue these alternatives and to develop technologies to increase their production capabilities and efficiencies.

Although tons of peat moss and guano are still sold every day, renewable plant-based organic fertilizers are producing buds of stunning quality, and increasingly being implemented in commercial scale environments. These efforts result in cleaner herb, more ecologically friendly supply processes and more modest cultivation budgets as bottom lines only have to account for locally grown plant species rather than exotic fertilizer components.

With the state’s increasing no-nonsense attitude on pesticide use, the pressure has been on for cultivators to adopt pest management systems that incorporate multiple layers of natural protection to keep gardens clean. While the organic-inspired integrated approach is much more labor intensive than spraying chemical pesticides, it assures a clean, healthy crop without the risk of residual poisons.

And, though the Federal government still hasn’t flinched from its Schedule I classification, policy experts and Washington insiders unanimously observe that the prohibition model’s days are numbered. The rescheduling or descheduling of cannabis is all but assured within the next decade. This would thaw the regulatory freeze around the plant in all aspects, including USDA Organic certification, and could pave the way for true standards of cleanliness, purity, and sustainability in cannabis agriculture.

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