Competing for Customers is the Next Evolution of Cannabis

Competing for Customers is the Next Evolution of Cannabis

Since 2021, there has been a 22% increase in global sales of cannabis, with some forecasting the U.S. market to reach $40 billion by 2030. As the market expands key forces are at play. Firstly, large companies often referred to as MSOs (multi-state operators), are outpacing the industry trends via mergers and acquisitions.

For example, the five largest companies more than doubled their revenue, cumulatively from 2020’s $1.8 billion to over $4.3 billion in 2021. This may come as no surprise as consolidation often occurs as industries mature.

However, a lesser followed but equally significant trend is that the number of licenses granted is also outpacing the industry’s average growth rate, and by a large margin.  In 2018 alone, the number of legal cultivation licenses increased over 113% from 4,106 to 8,701.

Furthermore, this pace is expected to increase as more states relax historically tight limitations on licenses in favor of open market models and, presumably, more tax revenue. The net effect is that the legal market for cannabis is increasingly competitive, and this is showing up in pricing.

Indeed, basic economic theory demonstrates that when firms must compete for customers, it leads to lower prices, higher quality goods and services, greater variety, and more innovation.

What does this mean to the MSOs, new entrants, and other producers? It will drive the need for new products, brands, and other ways to create differentiation and customer loyalty. But at its core, cannabis is a crop, and cultivation efficiency will likely be the key factor that separates the winners from the losers.

One of the most crucial concerns many growers face is pathogen pressure that can damage or destroy crop value. Even when growers can pass all microbial and pathogen tests for their specific regulators, they need to find ways to increase yields and quality and grow genetics that are unique and differentiated in some way. If not, they are left with crops that must be destroyed in the worst case or sold at bargain basement prices in the best cases.      

Critters Curtailing Crop Value 

Microbial diseases caused by fungi (e.g., molds including powdery mildew), bacteria, and other pathogens, may affect the seeds, flowers, foliage, stems and roots, or the whole plant – also known as systemic disease. These diseases may impact the growth, quality, and yields of cannabis plants, by deeming them noncompliant and unsellable.

This is complicated by the ever-increasing state-regulated lab testing requirements such as increased frequency of required lab pathogen and pesticide presence or absence testing. Yet when it comes to finding solutions to managing cannabis diseases, the average cultivator will know all-to-well the difficulties and challenges associated with controlling such pests and pathogens. 

A Hazard to Human Health?

Cannabis colonized by potential pathogens pose an increased risk to human health, so much so that several states in the U.S.A. with legalized cannabis markets require that products intended for consumption by inhalation be tested for key pathogenic species.

These human-disease causing pathogens include the Aspergillus species A. flavus and A. fumigatus, which are known to cause mild to life-threatening diseases. In addition to posing potentially significant health risks, many of these pathogens render cannabis crops unsellable due to visual defects and other quality concerns. 

Chemical Concerns

Despite ongoing efforts to attain suitable safety standards in the industry, the wide use of toxic, environmentally-persistent pesticides remains an unwelcome reality in the Caribbean. 

Use of such substances may result in chemical runoff from cannabis farms into streams and lakes, adversely impacting the ecosystem. Furthermore, many of these agents are not sustainably produced and result in adding widely used plastic bottles with toxic residues to landfills.

Safer Alternatives

Formulations that are deemed safer for workers and the environment, are of course the ultimate ‘Nirvana’ for all farms and their staff.

For example, the Terra Vera (TV) technology which utilizes the electrolysis of naturally occurring food-grade amino acids and salts to destabilize molds may potentially exhibit antimicrobial activity when sprayed or fogged onto cannabis (or related agricultural) plants during growth from cloning, to veg, as well as post-harvest. 

Such agents which may also be used to treat surfaces (i.e., wiped) in grow facilities, have proven effective without depositing highly toxic compounds onto the plant. This, in turn, has enabled minimal toxic exposure to workers, requiring personal protective equipment (PPE) or lengthy facility re-entry intervals (REIs) after the workplace is safe for workers and their surrounding environment.

For example, researchers at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica) saw that upon application of the TV treatment, despite a reduction in visible damage to food crops (determined by average hole size observed in cabbages caused by predators), the treatment appeared to have a minimal effect on the presence of commonly observed beneficial insects (preliminary data) further highlighting the propositioned safety of these alternative chemical agents. 

Figure 1: “Powdery mildew development on a mature leaf in Veg of strain Peanut Butter Crunch Bowl before and two minutes after treatment (and air drying) with 3:1 diluted TV and purified water that was foliar sprayed.

Better Plant Health?

In many cases accelerated rooting/root growth may be seen because of using these alternative agents, speeding-up propagation, and cloning rates, as well as enhancing the health of the plant and ultimately reducing production costs. 

Presumably, if the plant is not infected with pathogens or pests, and constantly ‘fighting them off,’ it can focus its energy on healthy growth.

Control = Sanitation, Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment … in That Order!

Elimination of visible mold infestations is an important and necessary quality attribute required to meet the rapidly developing consensus standards, in the ever-growing cannabis industry. This is achieved with TV chemistry as demonstrated in Figure 1.

Electrolysed, naturally occurring amino acids and salts may treat plant diseases such as powdery mildew and other molds on cannabis, resulting in healthier plants. Furthermore, application of these agents during practices such as cloning, may also be shown to support better root growth, by potentially reducing the occurrence of root-rot, a significant culprit of plant death or “damping-off.”

Conclusion

In the current economic circumstance, many cannabis production practices will prove unsustainable, until the safest procedures designed to maximize yield are developed, tested, and followed.

Obviously the first step in this process is to begin with healthy clones’ stock; well adapted and ready to thrive when transplanted and ready to enter the vegetative phase. Innovative practices such as cloning with electrolyzed, naturally occurring amino acids and salts to accelerate clone readiness for transplant will reduce time in the clone/seedling phase and, hence increase the amount of time spent in the vegetative phase, all other things equal.

The initial impact of increased vegetative or “veg” time has been found to increase harvest flower weight by 3% per day of additional “veg” time up to one additional week with diminishing returns thereafter. The above results were observed in a Southwest U.S. cultivation site.

Once viable, plants are further cultivated in “veg” and flower phases. Proactive management methods such as the steady application of safe and effective formulations for controlling pest and pathogen infestations on their cannabis hosts, will play a crucial role in filling the gap in quality control, to minimize crop loss, product recall, risk to human health, and the environment.

As the medical and recreational cannabis market continues to mature, the burden of the safest, most consistent production which demonstrates the lowest rejection rate, falls squarely on the shoulders of the producer.

Deviation from the aforementioned safety and consistency will consequently result in potential loss of permit or an increased presence of, or intervention from, regulatory agencies, as well as a negative market reaction from patients/consumers, due to the impact of social media and the tight-knit, communicative nature of the market.

  • Arnold J. Howard, Ph.D. has over 31 years of professional experience conducting research and development in various fields from materials and failure analysis, laboratory management, product qualification and readiness for mission work, biotechnology and bio-separations, atomic force microscopy, semiconductor processing and process engineering. He also has six months of recent experience in the Cannabis industry as the Director of Quality and Research & Development. He has Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees all in Chemical Engineering from the Universities of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida, respectively. He also has over twenty years of engineering management experience and has over 80 publications. Arnold lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife of 32 years, Robin. He has two sons and a daughter-in-law

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  • MSc University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica

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