Cannabis growers are no strangers to organic farming methods. In fact, small-scale and artisan growers have been developing and perfecting sustainable, environmentally-conscious cultivations methods for decades. But now that cannabis is a legal multi-billion dollar industry with regulatory and licensing requirements, there’s a growing movement to recognize famers who grow organically with an official certification.
There’s only one problem: federal prohibition. It’s the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to certify agricultural products as organic. And since weed is an illegal controlled substance under federal law, there’s no way for state-legal cultivators to obtain a USDA organic label. But the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) wants to change that. And in consultation the industry, the CDFA is working on developing its own standards for classifying cannabis products organic.
California is Developing “O Cal” Standards for Organic Certification
Throughout the year, the CDFA has been holding meetings with a group of California cannabis farmers to work on developing a statewide “almost organic” standard. At first, the plan was to model the “almost organic” standards, which the CDFA is calling “OCal,” on the USDA organic standards. Bringing “OCal” standards as closely in line with USDA certification requirements would potentially make it easy for growers to obtain the federal classification down the road, should the federal government ever legalize cannabis nationwide.
But farmers and members of the California cannabis industry saw a chance to do something more. To go above and beyond USDA organic standards to include criteria like fair worker treatment, respect for civil and human rights, environmental sustainability and community engagement. Some in the industry even proposed setting standards for things like pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants to the much stricter levels required for organic certification in the European Union. The idea being to make sure that cannabis grown in California might one day be eligible for export to EU markets.
Simply setting “almost organic” standards is only part of the equation, however. There are also market forces to consider. In the first place, there’s the cost of the certification process. To obtain a USDA organic certification, for example, farmers have to invest time and thousands of dollars submitting an Organic System Plan and paying fees to USDA certifiers and inspectors. Currently, there’s no clear picture of what an “OCal” certification might cost growers.
Small-Scale Growers Can Be the Most Organic and Sustainable—But They’re Usually Unlicensed
On top of that, there’s the additional costs of the organic farming methods themselves, which can cut into farmers’ profit margins, especially if they keep prices low to remain competitive against non-organic growers.
Both forces tend to reduce the incentive to cultivate organically. Large-scale growers who prioritize profits aren’t likely to adopt new methods that will raise costs. And small-scale growers with slim margins aren’t likely to fork over the cash to obtain a certification. As a result, much of the cannabis that farmers already produce organically doesn’t have an official label.
Indeed, many of those small-scale and caregiver-growers haven’t yet made the transition to the licensed, regulated market—precisely because of costs. In short, farmers most concerned about sustainable grow methods tend to be in the illicit market. And cannabis consumers who care about how their weed is sourced tend to take their business to unlicensed growers.
Interestingly, in lieu of official organic standards, the cannabis industry in California and elsewhere has developed several unofficial certifications for products. These seals and labels, such as the Sun+Earth certification, apply standards that are very often stricter and wide-reaching than USDA organic standards.
As it develops its own standards for “OCal,” the industry is encouraging the CDFA to adopt those extra standards like sustainability and worker treatment. Setting a high bar could be important down the road, as the USDA will likely look to established state markets for cannabis cultivation standards.