As the wave of legalization advances, a budding industry is adopting the high standards of consumer-product makers to meet regulatory requirements.
For years, the popular image of cannabis growers has been scruffy hippies getting high on their own supply in a disorganized underground economy, rather than shiny white industrial agriculture facilities. Even larger-scale operations involved minimal quality control or lacked formal record keeping.
But as legal medical — and increasingly, recreational — cannabis becomes more widespread, the cannabis industry is becoming more professional. By adopting the methods and rigour of plant science and analytical chemistry, it is ensuring that it can produce safe, consistent and high-quality products for a fast-growing and lucrative market.
Although small-scale growers of illicit cannabis can get away with vague descriptions of strains and considerable variation between batches, commercial producers have to meet the same standards as they would for other consumer products. They need to produce a reliable product and follow the stringent rules and regulations that apply to product labelling and safety in their country.
Many of the challenges of large-scale cannabis production can be solved by drawing on the experience of the commercial greenhouse industry.Growing crops commercially requires a homogenous soil and consistent irrigation. Small variations can mean that parts of the crop dry out at different rates, which leads to the spread of pathogenic agents and root rot, and to an inconsistent product. But the tomato industry, for example, has experience of growing tens to hundreds of hectares of produce at a time, and that expertise can be transferred easily to cannabis growers.
Zheng’s laboratory is one of many that are working with cannabis producers to support and guide this effort. He is studying how the amount and wavelength of light used in growing can affect the plant’s cannabinoid composition. Increasing the amount of ultraviolet light, for example, can increase levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of cannabis. “We want to create a lighting recipe which will help producers get a consistent product,” he says.
Cannabis companies are quickly adopting techniques and technologies that were pioneered by commercial agriculture and horticulturalists. Organigram, a cannabis producer in Moncton, Canada, stringently controls its growing operations, says Jeff Purcell, vice-president of operations. “The growing environment is standardized, and we have full control over the air, light, temperature and fertilizer,” he says. “It’s all highly automated and computer controlled.”
Organigram’s operation is in stark contrast to the image of an illicit farm hidden in the woods. It is entirely indoors, with 52 identical growing rooms on three floors. Plants are propagated by cloning, rather than grown from seed, so the crop’s genetic identity remains the same from generation to generation. The growers track and log all growing parameters, and then tweak them as needed to maintain consistency. Purcell sees the company’s operation as a ‘manufacturing facility’, rather than a garden or a greenhouse. “There are quality checks like you would see in any manufacturing facility, whether it was producing food or tyres,” he says.
The large-scale, controlled environment enables Organigram to conduct systematic, controlled trials and to produce huge amounts of data — with 5 cycles of growth per year in each of the growing rooms, it can generate more than 250 generations’ worth of growing data each year, says Purcell. The company can use those data to determine what works best for the plants, and then replicate those conditions at scale. “That’s the big difference with the black market,” he says. “When you scale up, you have to take a data-driven approach.”
To run these advanced facilities, cannabis companies need researchers who are experienced in plant science, microbiology, chemistry and other scientific disciplines — and they are turning to academia to find them.