With recreational cannabis sales slated to begin in California after the New Year, pesticide use remains a major concern as growers transition from the Golden State’s largely unregulated market to one with mandated lab testing and strict limitations on chemical residues, microbial contaminants and heavy metals.
The standards, coupled with expectations that most cultivators will not be able to meet them, have dramatically increased the demand for organically grown cannabis.
“Manufacturers are pulling their hair out because we have such a desert of access to clean cannabis,” says Ian Rice, the co-founder and vice president of Envirocann, a third-party certifier of marijuana producers.
While several companies offer third-party certifications based on the principles of organic farming, Envirocann takes the process one step further by incorporating a lab-testing component that ensures beyond a shadow of a doubt that no banned pesticides were used.
“There’s such a thirst for qualifying clean cannabis, a lot of these farms that we certify are able to command premiums, especially in the trim world,” Rice says. “It’s nice for the farms to be able to capture ROI with us.”
Envirocann offers three levels of certification.
The basic certification reflects the facility’s farming practices, standard operating procedures and compliance with state and local regulations. Farms that receive the basic certification can use the Envirocann logo on some of their marketing materials, but not on their product packaging.
The second-level and top-tier endorsements address not only the cultivation techniques and regulatory compliance, but the final product as well. On-site inspections and laboratory analyses verify that no toxic pesticide residues can be detected on the final product.
While the second-level Envirocann certification allows farmers to use synthetic inputs (provided they’re permitted by state regulations and best practices are followed), the company’s top-tier EnvirOganic certification has the most stringent guidelines and mirrors the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.
Producers that receive these certifications are allowed to use the corresponding logo on their product packaging.
The company based its EnvirOganic standards on those of the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit, California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), which, due to federal restrictions, cannot certify cannabis.
Rice calls CCOF “one of the industry leaders in the accredited Organic certification world.”
“They continue to be very encouraging of us doing what we do,” he adds.
So far Envirocann has certified about 30 farms totaling about 1 million square feet in California and other states with legal cannabis.
Rice notes several primary reasons to support organic farming practices in the cannabis space. Environmental concerns and the health of consumers are the most commonly talked-about factors. But Rice says it’s also important to consider the health of farmworkers who can be exposed to toxic chemicals at facilities that use pesticides — a benefit that’s often overlooked in the conversation of organic production techniques.
“We have a chance to do this better,” Rice says. “Why not?”
Rice also believes laboratory data will eventually confirm the long-standing theory that organic practices produce a superior crop.
“We’re starting to get the analytics that back this, but what I’ve seen as a connoisseur is better cannabis,” Rice says. “Better cannabinoids, higher terpene profiles, healthier plants.”
For the most part, EnvirOganic follows the same standards as the National Organic Program. All inputs must be OMRI Listed and all plants must be grown in soil. The company will certify indoor, outdoor and greenhouse operations. Green Bodhi in Portland, Oregon recently became the first indoor farm to receive EnvirOganic certification.
“It’s not the easiest to accomplish, but it can be done,” Rice says.
There are certain elements of the National Organic Program that are not included in the EnvirOganic protocol. For example, the National Organic Program mandates a three-year transition period to certify farmland.
“We do not require that, and one of the reasons I feel confident in not doing that is the rigorous lab testing that we require,” Rice says.
Envirocann’s lab-testing component makes it significantly different than most other cannabis certifiers — and also fairly unique within the entire Organic realm.
Rice says only about 5% of certified Organic producers are audited each year, compared to 100% of EnvirOganic certified farms that undergo lab testing.
For every crop that carries the Envirocann or EnvirOganic logo, inspectors take a leaf sample from every 1,000 to 2,000 square feet of canopy to confirm via lab testing that no banned pesticides were used.
“We’re confirming the documentation, all input materials, how the cannabis is being produced, sending eyes to verify that documentation, then going above and beyond and making sure nobody’s slipping through the gaps,” Rice says.
The lab work is aided by a partnership with California-based SC Laboratories. Rice co-founded SC about seven years ago and now acts as the company’s business development director.
However, Envirocann also works with other labs that have been vetted, particularly in terms of pesticide testing capabilities.
“We’re more than happy to work with other labs and our inspectors can conduct inspections,” Rice says.
One of the most frequent calls Rice receives is from people who are looking to source organically grown cannabis for the production of concentrates and edibles. Oftentimes, retailers and extraction companies are testing raw materials multiple times to ensure the products are free of chemicals.
The EnvirOganic certification helps streamline this process and eliminate the need for testing products multiple times.
Future of Organic
In all likelihood, cannabis will eventually qualify for either a state or federal “organic” certification. Organic foods followed the same path, with a variety of independent certifications emerging first, followed by state certifications and eventually transitioning into the National Organic Program.
Although a federal endorsement could take decades, several states have entertained the idea of a state certification program. In May 2017, Washington took the initial steps toward creating the nation’s first state-run organic marijuana certification program.
Even in lieu of a state or national program, allowing accredited organizations like Oregon Tilth or CCOF to certify cannabis would be a step in the right direction, Rice says.
Although that eventuality might put a damper on companies like Envirocann, Clean Green and Certified Kind, Rice welcomes the concept.
“Personally, I love competition, so it could be fun,” he says. “When it comes down to it, it’s all about best practices. I’d be happy to step away if all the cannabis was clean and grown with the environment and other aspects taken care of.”