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Dr. Allison Justice

What Does it Really Mean To Be Organic in Cannabis?

By Dr. Allison Justice
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Dr. Allison Justice

If you ask an organic chemist, it’s any molecule with a carbon attached. If you ask a consumer of USDA Certified Organic vegetables, they might say it is food produced without chemicals pesticides, that it is safer and cleaner and even more nutritious. Possibly another consumer will say it’s just a hoax to pay more for food, but what does the USDA Certified Organic Farmer say?

Most will agree it is a very rigorous process of record keeping, fees, rules and oversight. The farmers have limited choices for pesticides and fertilizers; they incur higher labor costs, suffer potentially lower yields and generally have higher input costs. However, at the end of the day the farmer does get a higher price point.

With so many misconceptions about organic food, it is difficult to know what is actually organic by definition. First let’s think about what the word pesticide means. A pesticide is “a substance used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants or to animals.” By definition, a vacuum used to suck off spidermites is a pesticide, so instead we should say that no synthetic pesticides are used. These are pesticides that enter and reside for long periods of time within the plant, which are potentially harmful to the end consumer. Though organic food does not contain synthetic pesticides, the perception of the food being healthier is also not always accurate. Growers often use foliar applied teas or manures, which increase the chance of the product containing E. coli or other harmful microbes. In addition, certain sanitizing agents or gamma irradiation is not allowed, so the post-harvest cleaning is not always as thorough as for conventional foods. When cannabis is sold as a dried product, the consumer cannot wash the flower as they might do before eating an apple. As growers, we should make sure we are disinfecting the flower before harvest and keeping the plant/processes clean throughout curing.

I often hear cannabis growers saying they are producing an organic product, but this simply cannot be true. The term “organic” is a labeling term for agricultural products (food, fiber or feed) that have been produced in accordance to the federal government’s USDA organic regulations. Due to our (cannabis growers) ongoing disagreements with the federal government, this is not a term we can put on our product. However, we can still grow to the same standards as USDA-certified farmers. How can we do this? By using OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved products. OMRI is a third-party, nonprofit organization that lets growers know if a product can be used in certified Organic production. You can find this seal on many fertilizers or pesticides.

Next, if it is a pesticide product that is not OMRI approved, check to see if it is registered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The EPA will provide ingredients and crops that are approved, amounts which can be used safely and storage/disposal practices on the label. Products that are put through the EPA registration are evaluated for their environmental, human and residual risks. Companies pay a hefty fee for this process, and much research goes into providing this information – ALWAYS READ THE LABEL!

A couple of exceptions to an EPA registration are pesticides that are 25B-exempt and biological control. 25B-exempt pesticides are pesticides that pose minimal or no risk to humans. A complete list of these products can be found here. Examples of these pesticides include rosemary, garlic, spearmint, etc.

Biological control is a method for controlling pests by the use of natural enemies. Biological control agents are allowed in organic production. If you are still wondering which pesticides or fertilizer are OK to use in cannabis and you do not live in a state with already enforced regulation, check out allowed lists in states that do.

So we know we cannot be considered a USDA organic cannabis farmer, but we CAN strive to meet the same standards:

  • Follow your state’s regulations; they are there for a reason!
  • Use OMRI products, 25B-exempt products and BCAs.
  • Keep an eye out for upcoming third-party certification companies, such as Clean Green or MPS (beware of the ones that want you to only use their products), because we need more than the state to regulate what we put onto our crop.
  • Finally, always think about the microbial load you’ve put on your plants. Although many can be very beneficial and help to produce high quality crops, many species can be harmful to the end user.