Lawmakers are rushing to draft regulations in an effort to keep pace with the will of their constituents. In the U.S., where cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, the result is a hodge-podge of one-size-doesn’t-fit-all laws on everything from where cannabis can be grown, how it can be grown and where it can be sold. It’s confusing, and certainly not for the risk-averse.
Just ask Denis Palamarchuck. He’s the truck driver arrested in January at a routine weigh station check in Idaho while transporting hemp. Even though his cargo was legal under the federal Farm Bill of 2018, the state of Idaho determined it contained trace amounts of THC—the active ingredient in marijuana—and arrested Palamarchuck on the spot.
And then there’s the issue of quality and contaminants—perhaps the most challenging regulated area of all for growers. In addition to potency, cultivators may have to test for such things as mold, fungus, pesticides, bacteria, E. coli, terpenes, heavy metals, and mycotoxins.
There are testing labs, to be sure, but they often return conflicting results on the same batches of product. A batch of cannabis approved by one lab may fail testing at another. The inconsistencies are so significant that some cannabis companies are reportedly sending samples of the same batch to different labs, then sticking the lab results they like best—for example, the higher THC level—on the product label.
Beyond the quirkiness of lab results, the guidelines for what passes in Canada are different from California. What passes in Germany is even more stringent. The evolving regulations and lack of trustworthy, standardized testing can quickly lead to frustration, not to mention risk, from lost profits to, potentially, lost business licenses.
Cannabis Regulation: The Only Consistency is Inconsistency
The discrepancies are dramatic.
“In Michigan, for example, batches of medical marijuana have to be inspected for things like rubber shavings or hair and testing for pesticides and heavy metals like mercury and lead is required,” the online publication Circa reported. “But pesticide and heavy metal testing are optional for recreational pot in Washington state. A spokesman tells Circa the state doesn't currently have a lab certified to test for heavy metals. In Oregon, testing for something as scary as E.coli is done at random, while California requires the microbial tests that could uncover it with every batch.”
The growing pains of this new industry come with a cost. Thousands of pounds of California-produced marijuana products were recalled last December after a lab was caught falsifying pesticide test reports, and over a dozen strains of cannabis were recalled in Michigan earlier this year after testing found they were contaminated with the heavy metals cadmium and arsenic.
And, of course, the reports of illnesses—and even deaths—linked to vaping underscore the importance of ensuring we know exactly what’s in each yield.
Growing a plant like cannabis—whether for medicinal or recreational purposes–poses regulatory challenges previously only required with pharmaceutical-level products. Quality control is of interest to regulators, producers, and consumers alike, but it is particularly important in the case of medicinal marijuana, where cannabis is being used to improve a patient’s health. But unlike lab-produced pharmaceuticals dispensed in pill form, cannabis is a plant—a living organism—susceptible to environmental influences. It’s extremely difficult to get exact duplicate results.
While cannabis growers cannot avoid the gauntlet of regulations, they definitely can take steps to gain precise, repeatable results to ensure their harvests consistently meet and exceed the standards of the day. That leads us to software controls and automation to deliver consistency and repeatability.
A New Approach with Precision Automation – Cruise Control!
The obvious way to avoid problems with pesticides and other contaminants is to avoid introducing pesticides and other pollutants into the growing process. For traditional dirt farming, that’s easier said than done. Growers are at the whim of the great outdoors, with its wealth of pests and fungi. But move the operation indoors, and the effort becomes manageable with the aid of software automation and mechanical controls.
By bringing the grow operation under a roof, cannabis cultivators can avoid threatening contaminants –those found in nature as well as the ones created in chemistry labs. Depending on the approach deployed, growers can gain near-total robotic control over all aspects of their environment, from lighting to nutrient dosing. Just like your cruise control, automated software intelligence never needs a break and relentlessly follows your grow recipe directions.
The operative word is “control”—the more control growers have over the variables in their grow recipe, the more they can rest assured they’ll get squeaky clean cannabis that can be trusted to pass regulatory muster. And maximum control means hydroponic and aeroponic indoor farming.
In each case, no soil is needed, and just a fraction of the water used in traditional farming. The difference between the two is that, in hydroponics, exposed plant roots typically soak in a pool of nutrient-rich water, while, in aeroponics, the roots hang in the air and are sprayed with a nutrient-rich mist on a precise cycle. The infinite availability of oxygen gives aeroponics a significant advantage; it just requires consistent automation.
Once farming is moved indoors, it’s critical to have environmental controls to modify the environment as it drifts. Precision control of lighting, nutrients, irrigation cycles, CO2 levels, and the surrounding environment essentially eliminates the risks of external contamination. The result of automation and precision control of the complete grow process is predictable and impressive.
Consider the pros aeroponics can offer:
- No dirt is required—Plants get their nutrients from water that comes in direct contact with roots. Dirt is not part of the equation, and that eliminates the most common way harmful pests are introduced to the plants.
- No pesticides required—No soil eliminates the number one pest vector for a grow. And no pests mean no pesticides. With aeroponics, growers don’t have to worry about failing regulatory testing due to the contamination of potentially harmful pesticides.
- Cloning—By cloning their own plants indoors, cultivators can greatly reduce the risk of contamination that comes with bringing in young plants from other sources. Some cultivators are even engaging with genome editing services to ensure there’s no variance in the consistency of their genetics and harvests.
- Precision—Some indoor grow systems enable repeatable precision software-controlled dosing aligned with grow recipes. All key elements—from pH levels to the nutrients to the hours and intensity of light—are closely monitored and adjusted to optimize the growth plan and ensure consistent results. If a yield passed testing once, growers can count on it passing testing again and again.
- Automation Cruise Control —An automated system can cut labor costs while ensuring the grow recipe is strictly adhered to, delivering consistently high-quality and repeatable yields. A grow system that ensures correct monitoring and dosing through automated decisions, rather than manual labor, means fewer workers are needed to tend to the plants, again reducing the chance of pest introduction to the plants.
- Improving products—A tightly controlled grow environment enables easy experiments and A/B testing. Growers can easily change just one variable and see the impact it has on the quality of the yield.
Indoor farming with advanced technology presents a new approach to cultivation that meets the challenges of today’s highly regulated and competitive environment. Beyond regulatory issues, today’s automated intelligence and precision systems can deliver dramatic improvements in yield, quality, and consistency while significantly lowering operational costs. These automated precision systems are tireless and reliable. They will execute the complete grow recipe from start to finish without variance, 365 days per year and 24 hours per day without fail or complaint.
These new systems do entail significant setup costs, and there is a learning curve. But, as a growing number of cannabis cultivators are finding, today’s precision software-controlled tech-driven approach to growing offers great yields, immediate returns, and a smart way to stay a step ahead of the competition, and two steps ahead of the regulators.