Let’s Talk About Cultivation
By Noel Palmer, Ph.D, Chief Scientist, Evolab & CBx Sciences
Many of you have probably looked at the label of your favorite cannabis product and been surprised at the long list of ingredients present. Many might look totally out of place: citric acid, EDTA, calcium nitrate, neem oil, peppermint oil, rock phosphate, potassium sulfate – and the list can go on and on. What are all of these ‘Cultivation Ingredients’ and why are they used to grow your cannabis? Are they safe?
At first glance, it can be overwhelming. Even scary. But it’s important to understand exactly what these compounds are, why they are used, and how the folks that make these decisions have decided that they are indeed OK to use.
First and foremost - let’s distinguish between ‘cultivation ingredients’ and the actual ingredients that go into our products. With the exception of fruit extracts in our Colors line - the only ingredient in our vape products is cannabis.
But many elements go into growing cannabis.
Many people believe cultivating cannabis is easy. In theory, you get some good soil, seeds, water, light and VOILA, 12-16 weeks later, you have amazing cannabis. It’s a weed, right? Sometimes, this scenario might prove true. However, in large operations such as those in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California – there are numerous challenges that cultivation companies need to address to consistently, scalably produce high quality cannabis.
As many of you know, for any plant (or organism for that matter) to grow, nutrients are essential. In the case of cannabis, many cultivators believe they have figured out the perfect combination of nutrients to give to their plants in order to produce the best results.
In plant nutrition discussions, you will hear the words micronutrient and macronutrient. Micronutrients are generally considered to be different elements that a plant needs at low levels to grow properly, and these might include iron, boron, copper, manganese, sodium, zinc, aluminum, and selenium. Macronutrients can be derived from air, water, soil or added -- and these would include oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium and magnesium. Without these essential nutrients, plant growth cannot occur.
While it’s true that most healthy soil systems will have enough of the micro and macronutrients to sustain life, many growers prefer to control the input of each individual element throughout the lifecycle of the plant. It makes sense that a highly trained cannabis cultivator would understand that cannabis doesn’t need the same amount of phosphorus or nitrogen throughout the lifecycle of the plant and would thoughtfully introduce specific nutrients at various stages.
It is also true that when you put a lot of plants in the same room, there is an increased risk for potential contamination, microbial growth or pest infestation. This fact compounds when you have a cannabis cultivation that might be 100,000 square feet or more in size.
Pesticides, quite understandably, have a pretty negative connotation. People have been led to believe that pesticides are unnatural, dangerous and should not be used. However, from a chemistry perspective, a pesticide is simply any chemical - whether natural or human-made - that is designed to kill another organism. With that broad definition, there are countless pesticides in nature.
From a plant’s view, most insects are a threat that need to be repelled. So plants naturally produce insecticides, such as caffeine, nicotine and terpenes to protect themselves. So now that we’ve established that not all pesticides are bad, or avoidable, how do we determine which ones are OK - and which should we try to avoid??
Even ‘Organic’ plants are be grown with a variety of approved pesticides and amendments.
The state of Colorado has implemented a list of banned chemicals for the use on cannabis (e.g. abamectin, myclobutanol, etc), thus cannabis cultivators opt to use less aggressive chemicals to try to control outbreaks, and these might include neem oil, garlic, peppermint, etc.
In Colorado, and all states that have legalized recreational cannabis – there are ‘truth in labeling’ requirements, meaning that all ingredients used in the cultivation or processing of any cannabis plant needs to be documented on the ingredient list. The vast majority of the ingredients you see on these labels are utilized as nutrient inputs and/or control agents for pests or microbiological outbreaks. Just because the list is long and there might be chemicals with lengthy names, doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad or dangerous. It also doesn’t necessarily mean they are good. While most cultivators err on the side of caution with their practices due to regulatory oversight, there is still very little data on the relative safety of these ingredients.
That being said, the State of Colorado has developed a list of banned chemicals and compounds in the use of cannabis production. The state audits cannabis cultivation and production sites and if any of these banned chemicals are discovered in such an audit – there are significant consequences. Thus, as a cannabis consumer in Colorado – you should have confidence that the long list of ingredients on your favorite cannabis product is there for a good reason, and generally benign.
As the old saying goes, ‘Trust, but verify.’ While we have absolute confidence in our cultivation partners to use the most responsible and effective practices to produce their material, we also have invested in one of the most advanced analytical laboratories in the infused product industry to ensure that all of our raw materials, extracts and final products are subjected to exhaustive testing for contaminants, banned pesticides, mold and other impurities.
As further precaution against the presence of residual pesticides or other impurities in our products, our extracts are refined with a process known as 'molecular distillation' in which we focus on purifying the cannabis extracts based on molecular boiling points of the different individual constituents in the oil. The vast majority of other compounds do not have the same boiling point characteristics as cannabinoids, so this step further helps isolate the cannabinoids from any other undesirable compounds or impurities.
As the amount of technology and investment in the cannabis industry continues to grow, we’ll surely see new approaches to cultivation that utilize innovative nutrition and pest control processes. But in the meantime, we’ll continue to work with our cultivators to make sure we all understand what’s going into our plants, and why.