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June 24, 2024

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As drought spreads across our planet, as our oceans rise and our glaciers melt; with the prospect of ever more mouths to feed and food solutions few and far between, along comes medical marijuana. With its deep pockets and it’s heavily regulated environment, this brand new industry has the power to point the way forward. Will it follow through?

At this early juncture, few Canadian licensed producers want to trade secrets as they jockey into position, but the quality of the expertise they are seeking leads us to expect the best.

To meet the very stringent quality and environmental MMPR requirements, several licensed producers have turned to space agriculture programs, experienced climate controlled specialists, and the hard-earned wisdom of cannabis seed breeders for advice.

We spoke with Dr. Michael Dixon who heads the Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture (SALSA) program at the University of Guelph; Eric Labatte, the owner of Climate Control Systems Inc., a company that has been manufacturing greenhouse automation systems since 1985; and Thaddeus Conrad, the man behind the Med Man Brand who has been breeding cannabis seeds for over 23 years.

“Space is a very challenging environment to attempt to put food production systems into controlled environments,” says Dr. Michael Dixon, head of the University of Guelph, Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and its SALSA program. “The technologies required to achieve this are quite sophisticated in some respects, and they have to be extremely reliable. We put a great deal of creative energy and technical expertise into developing the sensor systems, the water recycling protocols, the liquid management issues because the technical challenge is extreme. And, as it turns out, the technical challenges in extreme environments here are on Earth are equally in line; the next worst place after a snow bank is the moon.”

“I have been approached by ten different licensed producers, some wanting technical advice, others looking for technology transfer,” says Dixon. “For example, if somebody wants to have access to some of the technologies we have developed for nutrient management or recycling protocol, we have licensed agreement that we can propose. It does not make us rich because we are a not-for-profit university, but it’s a cost recovery mechanism that allows us to further our research”

“We can borrow from the technological developments in life support in space applications and apply them to the challenges of controlled environments in cannabis production, especially for things like lighting, nutrient management and water recycling. Recycling is key in a lot of aspects because when you go to space you can't throw anything away you must recycle all of the oxygen, water, nitrogen, etc. And those sensor technologies and protocols are exactly what are required by the cannabis industry since the producers are not allowed to leak gases or liquids into the environment because of the legislative pressures.”

According to Dixon, the profit margins of the cannabis industry can accommodate the economic risks of exploiting the more sophisticated technologies far better than conventional food production.

“So, I am essentially taking advantage of the opportunities afforded in that particular industry sector to help fund the research into developing these technologies even further and ultimately they will become considerably more economical than they are at the beginning; but we still have to go through that transition phase, and develop the research and learn how to manipulate plant responses to these key environmental variables .”

Over in the private sector, Climate Control Systems Inc. has been manufacturing greenhouse automation systems for 30 years. The company has developed 3 flagship products - the Climate Manager™, Fertigation Manager™ and Fertigation Water Treatment™ Systems - designed to help growers maximize crop yields and help with water conservation and energy savings for commercial greenhouse operations.

“The process is completely automated and we have developed specific programs to control each aspect,” says Eric Labatte, whose expertise is sought after internationally and who has been contacted by several cannabis producers both in Canada and the United States. “Without the software programs it would not be possible to manage the nutrient feed program and all the water recycling, this is all computer controlled.”

Each type of plant needs a specific feed formula. For example, not every plant will react positively to 150 per million of nitrogen, some crops may only need 50 or 80 ppm or less. Each plant has its own specific recommendation for phosphorous, potassium, calcium, nitrogen and each has different micro-nutrient and PH requirements.

“So there's been a lot of research done especially for greenhouse growing,” says Labatte. “ And with medical marijuana in its infancy so to speak, a lot more research needs to be done to determine the specific elements that cannabis plants want. I am sure some of the medical marijuana growers know this already but until now they did not have the tools needed to be able to precisely control how much of each fertilizer element is put into the water. With our programs, we can give the plant exactly what it wants at any specific time during the day.”

Thaddeus Conrad, a long-time cannabis grower, has learned the ropes through many years of passionate research. While his main area of interest is sequencing the genome of cannabis and breeding seeds for specific ailments, he has developed his own efficient growing methods.

“I invented a proprietary hydroponics system over 15 years ago. The thing about hydroponics, is that it’s really easy to judge the amount of water from seed to flower. It depends to a certain degree on the strain and how big the plant grows, but typically how much a plant uses can be equated to the dried flower weight. So once the plant is processed and dried and manicured what's left over, lets say 10 grams, chances are it used 10 to 40 litres from propagation to fruition.”

Each of their approach and ultimate objectives may vary, but all three of these growing specialists agree when it comes to the need for clean water.

“Water has to be extremely clean especially if you are recycling it as licensed producers are required to do, “says Dixon. “There are quality control issues directly related to the quality of water and you have to level the playing field so that you are always dealing with the same quality of water, and that requires some treatment upstream. While there are all kinds of filtering systems, ultimately you have to standardize the treatment of the water and the nutrient management that you apply afterwards.”

According to Labatte, it all depends on the quality of the water you are using.
“For instance if water has high elements in it, such as iron, sodium, magnesium or even sulfur in some cases, some of these elements are not acceptable at the root zone of any kind of plant, whether medical marijuana or tomatoes. So the water has to be filtered. There are special filtration media you can use that target specific elements and remove them from the water. If the water is really in bad condition, sometimes reverse osmosis is the best option.”

For Thaddeus Conrad, reverse osmosis is always the best option.
“To get the best control over any crop that you're growing you really want to use reverse osmosis water. Because with a typical RO system you get 50 per cent pure water while the other 50 per cent is essentially the salts you took out of the water. It makes the water that much more valuable, he says”

Another of the key components of growing is lighting. This is especially true when it comes to closed growing environments such as those designed for space, which several of the licensed producers are emulating.

“Our main focus is our completely closed environments because that’s how it would be on Mars, says Dixon. “ We need to address those specific technical requirements and those are the ones that transfer really well to the cannabis industry because of their requirement for producing plants reliably and systematically. “

According to Dixon, while the jury is still out, the advent of LED high efficiency and high intensity light emitting diodes in the last 5-10 years could be the best candidate for artificial lighting in a fully artificial production system.

“However the recipes on how to manipulate the light quality and intensity for cannabis are still outstanding. We have a good educated guess, based on the literature and 100 years of plant physiology, but now that we have the power to manipulate the spectral quality of light so precisely, it gives us an unprecedented opportunity to investigate some really subtle responses. Every plant is different, every species is going to be different," he says.

This is where the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of long-time cannabis growers come to play and where Thaddeus Conrad’s worst fears lie. Caught in the gap between the old MMAR rules and the new MMPR rules, many growers such as Conrad worry that the knowledge they acquired will be lost.

“I believe that both systems should still be allowed to operate in unison with each other, “ he says. For the last ten years in Canada, people have been growing in their homes for personal use, and there's a ton of research and development that happened throughout this period. There were over 38,000 growers in Canada and all of them isolated plants that were good for different ailments and they developed strains that were perfect for what they were using them for. There was just a 4-month cross-over period where these people were allowed to keep growing and offer these strains to the MMPR growers. Essentially a lot of that blood, sweat and tears has been lost to history. As far as I a concerned, it was all rushed too much. Nature does not rush.” In the hope that all will not be lost, Conrad, who now sits on the Board of some licensed producers, is working to establish a seed bank and continue researching the genome of cannabis. “I am North America's most awarded breeder and producer and, because I deal for medical marijuana, I have 8 flagship streams in my medical marijuana genetic line. Probably my most popular one is called conkushion; that one was bred for migraines and post-concussion head pains; there’s rock star kush which is an all around painkiller; but my most awarded is the silver skunk which is reminiscent of a deep rich blueberry cheese cake palette and aroma.”

So the rules are clear, the lines are drawn and the stage is set. Either this new brand new green pharma industry soars and shows us the way to more efficient food production or it falls prey to its own greed.

“I think you’ll see a little bit of both because that’s the nature of human nature,” says Dixon. “There will always be people who'll try to get as much as they can for as little as can get away with. Nevertheless this is an industry sector that has tremendous promise.”

Related Medical Marijuana Articles
MED-MAR - Part 1 -: How to do business in medical marijuana like big pharma
MED-MAR OP/Ed: a looking glass into the future
MED-MAR - Part 2: The art of legally prescribing an illegal drug
MED-MAR - Op/Ed: Isn't it ironic?
MED-MAR - Part 3: Medical marijuana, food, and the final frontier

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