The Organic Overview

Can the cannabis industry capitalize on the rising popularity of naturally grown consumer products?

Organic standards carry a great deal of weight in American culture.

It’s a buzzword that boosts the price of produce, implies the use of all-natural ingredients and gives consumers a sense of security that they’re doing right by their bodies and the environment.

Cannabis cannot be certified as organic, due to the continued federal prohibition of the wonder-plant. However, that hasn’t stopped hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses from capitalizing on the widespread recognition of the label. This has created one of the most convoluted, confusing and misunderstood subjects in the cannabis industry, both for consumers and businesses alike.

“That word, ‘organic,’ is understood by consumers, but the challenge is that it was being used based on that consumer understanding, but not actually being practiced,” Organic Cannabis Association chairman and co-founder John-Paul Maxfield says. “You wouldn’t accept this from your food, so why would you accept it from what you’re smoking?”

The organic food industry is valued at more than $40 billion in the United States and consumer demand has been on a steady rise since the USDA first introduced the Organic label in 2002. The global market is projected to surpass $200 billion by 2020, according to the California-based firm Grand View Research.

The average shopper may not know the first thing about organic farming, but most still perceive organic products to be somehow healthier than their conventional alternatives.

But in the cannabis industry, the word “organic” has been overused to the point of rendering it meaningless. Although state regulations are slowly squeezing out the phrase, it was at one point as ubiquitous as the simple green crosses that shined like medical marijuana beacons.

Ben Gelt, co-founder of the Organic Cannabis Association, says state agencies should play a greater role in upholding standards related to health and safety. The misleading use of the word “organic” can give marijuana consumers — particularly those using it to treat a medical condition — a false sense of security.

It’s as if the states are saying, “You figure it out, potheads,” Gelt says.

Gelt draws a comparison between shopping for cars and shopping for food. People have been taught to ask questions when they go to buy a car: How many miles are on it? What kind of gas mileage does it get? Has it been involved in previous accidents?

But at a grocery store — similar to a marijuana retail shop — consumers have become accustomed to believing everything meets an established standard.

“We are a society that has been trained to think things have been done for us,” he says. “Yes, robust standards are needed, but public education is equally important.”

As part of this new monthly section, Marijuana Venture will dig into the ins and outs of organic cannabis production, both from a technical standpoint and from the legal, financial and marketing ramifications.

What is Organic?

To start, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of organic farming in the non-cannabis sense.

Organic is essentially a legal definition signifying that a crop has been certified to meet specific standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program or the Canada Organic Regime.

In general, organic standards prohibit the use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and require crops to be grown in soil. There are separate standards for livestock and textiles, but the standards for food crops are most applicable to cannabis growers.

The movement to identify organic farming practices began nearly a hundred years ago, but started to gain national momentum in the 1970s, leading to a patchwork of state certification programs and independent certifying agencies. The national programs eventually unified these standards under one umbrella, but the process moved at the sluggish pace of government. In the United States, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, but didn’t implement standardized regulations until 2002. Canada’s national standards went into effect in 2009.

Considering how long it took for the U.S. and Canada to establish organic standards for fully legal crops, it’s easy to understand why cannabis remains persona non grata in the eyes of federal agriculture departments.

Certified Cannabis

Because there’s no way to have cannabis certified as organic, a small handful of private companies and non-profits have stepped in to fill the void.

For-profit companies like Clean Green Certified and Certified Kind offer endorsements based on the principles of the USDA’s National Organic Program. They’re often referred to as “the closest thing to organic” and more will surely follow as demand continues to grow.

Clean Green is the older and more widely used of the two certification programs. It was started in 2004 by Chris Van Hook, an attorney who was also the director of a USDA Organic certification program. In addition to certifying cannabis growers, Clean Green also offers an endorsement for processors and retail outlets that demonstrate their ability to keep organically grown cannabis separate from conventionally grown marijuana.

In total, more than a hundred companies have achieved Clean Green Certification in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Montana and Nevada. Each is listed on the Clean Green website, making it easy for vendors and consumers to verify a brand’s certification.

Certified Kind was started by Andrew Black, who has more than a decade of organic certification experience with Oregon Tilth, a non-profit certifier of organic agriculture for more than 40 years. The Certified Kind website lists about 20 farms in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado the company has certified.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, the non-profit Organic Cannabis Association take a slightly different approach. The trade group offers memberships to individuals and ancillary businesses (including law firms, accountants, etc.), but state-licensed marijuana businesses are not eligible to join. Gelt says this is done to prevent conflicts of interest and to remove the possibility of conflating membership with certification.

The Organic Cannabis Association does offer a Pesticide-Free certification, which ensures a cannabis grower’s final product has zero residual pesticides. Gelt is careful to point out that this does not necessarily mean no pesticides were used, but they have to be used “correctly and safely.”

The association offers three levels of Pesticide-Free certification: the Gold level means only OMRI Listed, non-synthetic products were used during cultivation; Silver and Bronze levels mean some synthetics may be used, but the finished product must not have residual pesticides.

Gelt admits the phrase “Pesticide-Free” doesn’t carry the same weight as “organic,” but in the wake of the Colorado cannabis industry’s widespread pesticide recalls over the past two years, it’s a crucial step in the right direction.

The Organic Future

In many ways, the organic cannabis movement resembles the organic food industry of the 1980s. There are a fair number of organic growers, but most have not completed any sort of certification process.

Without an official endorsement, consumers have no way to know whether phrases like “organic” or “all-natural” are accurate or just marketing ploys.

Plus, the few existing programs vary from state to state or from one certifying agency to the next, so Clean Green product might be slightly different from Certified Kind.

There are also a number of certification programs that are not necessarily based on organic practices, but geared toward sustainability or healthy products, including The Cannabis Conservancy, Patient Focused Certification and the United Patients Group Seal of Approval.

“This is how the organic movement started in food, with state-run organizations sort of fragmented and then coming together through the USDA and the NOP,” Maxfield says.

But it’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question: What comes first, demand for the product or the product itself?

Maxfield also believes marijuana could be the fuel needed to initiate a greater level of sustainability throughout agriculture.

“I truly think from the bottom of my heart that cannabis is going to go down in history as being this necessary catalyst that helps to rethink how we grow food and rethink agriculture,” Maxfield says.

Regardless, growers that have adapted organic standards in advance of any federal program will continue to be at the forefront of the push for clean, safe, standardized products.

“It’s not going to harm the early adopters,” Maxfield says. “If anything, it’s only going to strengthen them, because they’ll be more prepared to certify and move in that direction as it evolves.”

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