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Americans are in love with organic products. To confirm this fact, look no further than your grocery store produce section. The organic produce islands and displays continue to grow, competing with non-organic fruits and vegetables. The price differential is changing, too, with many organic foods priced competitively. The number of people opting to go organic clearly is on the rise as shoppers seek out the healthiest and most natural food – and cannabis.
Organic produce and other organic products are labeled as “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic,” but what exactly does this mean? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires the following criteria for a product to be “USDA Certified Organic”:
- Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
- Produced using allowed substances.
- Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
The USDA further states that organic farming must “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
But can organic certification apply to cannabis? The short but incomplete answer is no. Since the USDA is a department of the U.S. federal government, which does not yet recognize cannabis as a legitimate and legal agricultural product, it is not eligible for certification at this time. But that doesn't mean you don't have some viable alternatives.
Alternative Organic Certification
This creates a dilemma for cannabis cultivators, sellers, and consumers, the majority of which strongly desire organic cannabis for its superior flavor and non-synthetic production methods. Because a very high percentage of cannabis growers already implement organic farming methods and shun synthetic soil additives and fertilizers, much of the cannabis on today’s market already meets or exceeds the standards for “organic.” The desire to obtain organic cannabis is already ingrained in cannabis culture. Clearly, there should be a way to reward these practices and concerns about cannabis consumer health and satisfaction.
To bypass USDA certification, a growing number of legal cannabis states began their own organic certification guidelines and practices. Washington, California, and Colorado were a few of the first states to develop organic certification programs. There are programs that even certify on the national level.
National Organic Cannabis Certification
One such program is the Clean Green Certified program, which opened its doors in 2004 under the leadership and direction of Chris VanHook. In 2003, VanHook had a vision to bring organic cannabis to consumers. To make this goal a reality, he founded the Clean Green Certified Program, which was the only nationally recognized third-party organic cannabis certification company. As with many worthwhile endeavors, it posed its own set of unique challenges.
“In 2003, I was asked by the Cannabis industry if I could certify its Cannabis as organic,” VanHook explained. “California said yes, the USDA said no. The industry came back with ‘Can’t you develop a certification program for us, it is sorely needed?’” With that, the ball was put in motion to deliver a service to an industry deeply in need of compliance, organization, and regulation. VanHook developed Clean Green Certified using a variety of models. His background as an attorney no doubt proved useful when creating an organic cannabis program requiring compliance and cooperation from an appreciative group of cultivators.
Those who participate in the Clean Green program want to go above and beyond typical cannabis production and join an elite category to serve discriminating consumers. “[Clean Green] is based on the USDA National Organic Program as well as International Organic and Sustainable programs,” VanHook said. “We have a combined 100-plus years in both conventional and organic farming just in our main office staff alone.”
Meeting a Demand
There was a strong desire for an organic cannabis alternative. VanHook recognizes that fact. “The crop producers and processors who come to the program are the ones who are well ahead of the regulations and current state of Cannabis farming,” he said. “They are seeking to differentiate their product from the bulk of products out there.” Clean Green fills the needs of those cultivators and takes their certification a few steps further. The program goes well beyond the USDA organic program. There’s a fair labor component, a carbon footprint reduction component, a legal water source requirement, as well as water conservation methods that must be in place. Every Clean Green Certified farmer gets a soil sample run through a federally licensed lab to test for more than 150 brand-name pesticides each year. The USDA program requires testing of 5% of farmers each year. Clean Green tests every farmer every year.
“[Clean Green] confirms that their Cannabis is grown legally in the state in which it is grown,” VanHook explained. “It confirms that the produce is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It is very easy—and of no great value—to say ‘I grow organically,’ but it’s entirely different to have a qualified third-party program come to your farm and confirm that it is.”
VanHook remains in step with an industry serving individuals with strong opinions about a clean environment and healthy living. Products licensed to carry the CGC logo are reviewed using national and international standards for quality and sustainability. The Clean Green review staff follows the recent guidelines of the California Department of Food and Agriculture as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide use on Cannabis. Displaying the CGC logo on your label is an excellent way to differentiate your product from the many already on the market. VanHook sees a successful future ahead of him.
“We continue to adapt the program to the developing regulations in each state and bring existing agricultural and food-handling regulations into the cannabis industry,” he said. “As these regulations develop, the program will adapt and continue to assist the cannabis farmer to move into the legal emerging markets.”
Elite Advantage Over Competition
If you’re a cannabis cultivator—or plan to be one soon—Clean Green Certified and other certification programs exist to help you attain the “certified organic cannabis” status you desire. Organic certification is one more way you can set yourself apart from your competition and achieve special recognition for your superior farming methods.
From a marketing perspective, organic certification is something to use to your advantage. Competition in the cannabis market continues to grow, and companies that want to produce the best quality need to set themselves apart. Progressive cannabis companies want to stay in step with mainstream agriculture and meet a proven demand.
If a high percentage of consumers prefer organic pears, apples, and strawberries, it stands to reason that there’s a similar demand for organic sativa and indica strains as well. If your cannabis company doesn’t currently practice organic horticulture, it may be time to re-evaluate your strategy and see what changes would be necessary to gain a competitive edge through selling certified organic cannabis.
Selling organic Granddaddy Purps, Trainwreck, Bubba Kush, and other strains has a nice ring to it and will attract customers and increase repeat sales. Rather than ask why organic production should be a part of your business plan, ask yourself why not. Now is the time to act!
Luis Cordova is a distinguished author, and renowned expert in cannabis cultivation, who possesses a Master's degree in Plant Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Science. As a valued contributor to highly esteemed publications such as Cannabis Training University and Maximum Yield Magazine, Luis has emerged as a trusted source of guidance and knowledge in the cannabis industry. Having written thousands of informative articles, Luis is widely recognized for his comprehensive expertise on cultivating cannabis, both indoors and outdoors.