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Cannabis, Soil Science and Sustainability

By Drew Plebani
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The average commercial cannabis cultivator seems to be following the modern agricultural paradigm. That model is based on questionable and, one might say, ineffective soil systems management.

In the high-yield cannabis world, amidst decades of prohibition, following the lead of the modern agricultural model has resulted in the adoption of cultural practices that go something like this: Use and destroy the soil, then dispose of it once it is rendered lifeless and useless due to repeated heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other poisons.

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(Left) unimproved site soil next to (right) improved site soil. Notice the root mass developing on the right

Certainly conventional agricultural food production and the soil management systems underpinning them are faltering, evidenced by soil systems deteriorating many times faster than they are being improved. This qualifies as a failure in my book.

What will be the fate of profit margins, sustainability and medicine in the cannabis industry if we continue to follow blindly in the footsteps of chemical agriculture? Perhaps it is time to turn over a new leaf.

A little context for the discussion: scientists say the Earth has lost a third of arable land in the past 40 years, and some say soil erosion is the number one challenge facing the world today. Why? How?

Well…world agricultural production accounts for about three-quarters of the soil erosion worldwide. This steep decline in arable soil is occurring during a time when the world’s demand for food is rapidly increasing. It is estimated that the world will need to grow 50% more food by 2050, and it is important to note that, the total volume of food necessary, remains relative to the nutrient density of the food.

Time for a radical solution, and cannabis can lead the way.

Currently, cannabis is the most profitable crop per land area and very likely the most resource-consumptive crop grown (due to the current legal and regulatory climate and thus limited supply vs. demand).

As the cannabis industry continues to grow, now more than ever we have the opportunity, and I believe the responsibility, to cultivate in ecologically mindful ways, improve the end product and it’s positive impacts, increase both short-term and long-term profits, decrease or eliminate waste and lower the carbon footprint of cannabis cultivation operations.

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A cover crop under trellis’ with cannabis plants

Most importantly, we have the opportunity to fund, implement and lead the way in research and development of sustainable, medical, phytonutrient-dense crop production methodologies.

Only by implementing more rigorous scientific methods to cannabis cultivation can we hope to provide truly meaningful improvements in and contributions to the fields of agriculture, science, medicine and human health.

While dumpsters of potting soil continue to roll off to the landfill, complex health and human science and the cultivators truly engaged in science will continue to provide meaningful data regarding plant compounds and what factors influence the best outcome for the desired end product.

commercialcultivator
The same crop pictured above, now two weeks into flowering, using cover crops

I am willing to bet that what is best will not be coming from the business models employing antiquated, wasteful and destructive cultivation strategies, and that in due time these models will fade into distant memories.

This is the first in a series of articles, in which we will explore topics related to the pursuit of high yield, phytonutrient-dense “high brix” cannabis production.

The next article will provide a historical and geologic context to the cannabis plant, as viewed from the scope of soil biology and the progression of ecosystems and soil types, and how maximized genetic expression, through maximized soil and plant health influence the production of high quality cannabis.

CannaGrow: Education on the Science of Cultivation

By Aaron G. Biros
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The CannaGrow Conference & Expo, held in San Diego on May 7th and 8th, educated attendees on the science of cannabis cultivation. The conference brought subject matter experts from around the country to discuss cannabis breeding and genetics, soil science and cultivation facility design.rsz_img_5038

Discussions at the conference delved deep into the science behind growing while providing some expert advice. Drew Plebani, chief executive officer of Commercial Cultivator, Inc., gave a comprehensive review of soil ecology and how understanding soil fertility is crucial to successfully growing consistent cannabis. “Soil fertility is measured by laboratories in terms of soil minerals, plant-available nutrients, percent of organic materials, pH levels and most importantly the balance of the soil’s chemical makeup,” says Plebani. “There is no silver bullet in soil ecology; increasing your soil fertility comes down to understanding the composition of soil with analytical testing.” Plebani went on to add that soil systems for cannabis need to be slightly fungal-dominant in developing an endomycorrhizal system, which is optimal for cannabis plant growth.

Plebani notes that growth and viability are reliant on maximum root mass.
Plebani notes that growth and viability are reliant on maximum root mass.

Tom Lauerman, colloquially known as Farmer Tom and founder of Farmer Tom Organics, kicked off the conference with an introduction to cultivation techniques. Lauerman also delved into his experience working with federal agencies in conducting the first ever health hazard evaluation (HHE) for cannabis with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Through the HHE program, NIOSH responds to requests for evaluations of workplace health hazards, which are then enforced by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Lauerman worked with those federal agencies, allowing them to tour his cultivation facilities to perform an HHE for cannabis processing worker safety. “I was honored to introduce those federal agencies to cannabis and I think this is a great step toward normalizing cannabis by getting the federal government involved on the ground level,” says Lauerman. Through the presentation, Lauerman emphasized the importance of working with NIOSH and OSHA to show federal agencies how the cannabis production industry emerged from the black market, branding itself with a sense of legitimacy.

Attendees flocked to Jacques and his team after the presentation to meet them.
Attendees flocked to Jacques and his team after the presentation to meet them.

Adam Jacques, award-winning cultivator and owner of Grower’s Guild Gardens, discussed his success in breeding CBD-dominant strains and producing customized whole-plant extractions for specific patients’ needs. “I find higher percentages of CBD in plants harvested slightly earlier than you would for a high-THC strain,” says Jacques. “Using closed-loop carbon dioxide extraction equipment, we can use multiple strains to homogenize an oil dialed in for each patient’s specific needs.” As a huge proponent of the Entourage Effect, Jacques stressed the importance of full plant extraction using fractionation with carbon dioxide. He also stressed the importance of analytical testing at every step during processing.

Hildenbrand discussing some of the lesser-known terpenoids yet to be studied.
Hildenbrand discussing some of the lesser-known terpenoids yet to be studied.

Zacariah Hildenbrand, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at C4 Laboratories, provided the 30,000-foot view of the science behind compounds in cannabis, their interactions and his research. With the help of their DEA license, he started the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative, where they are working with Dr. Kevin Schug at the University of Texas-Arlington to screen various cannabis strains to discover new molecules and characterize their structure. “Secondarily, we are using gene expression profiles and analysis to understand the human physiological response and the mechanism through which they elicit that response,” says Hildenbrand. “As this research evolves, we should look to epigenetics and understanding how genes are expressed.” His collaborative effort uses Shimadzu’s Vacuum Ultraviolet Spectroscopy (VUV), and they use the only VUV instrument in an academic laboratory in the United States. “Pharmaceuticals are supposed to be a targeted therapy and that is where we need to go with cannabis,” says Hildenbrand. Him and his team at C4 Laboratories want to work on the discovery of new terpenes and analyze their potential benefits, which could be significant research for cannabis medicine.

Other important topics at the conference included facility design and optimization regarding efficient technologies such as LED lighting and integrated pest management.