The Amblyseius andersoni, a tan-colored predatory mite, crawls out from a cup suspended below the canopy of cannabis plants and makes its way up the nearest stalk. Hunting for prey, it heads for an infested leaf and easily locates a group of russet mites. It gets to work, devouring the microscopic pests and quickly eradicating every unsavory mite – be it russet, broad, or spider – that plagues the plants. These tiny predators and others like them could be the key to eliminating the cannabis industry’s pesticide problem.
It’s no secret that possibly dangerous chemical pesticides are used in cannabis cultivation. Every legal state has endured recalls and controversy over pesticide residue on marijuana, and regulators have scrambled to patch up guidelines and enforce limits. These concerns are not new. While the problem has received a great deal of attention recently, labs are still finding pesticides in pot. For at least the past seven years we’ve been plagued with this issue including California’s medical market.
The implementation of stricter testing regulations in places like Oregon, which currently has the narrowest criteria in the country, has cast more light on the issue. Steep Hill, a cannabis testing and analysis firm, recently reported that 84% of samples in its Berkeley lab would not meet Oregon’s rigorous standards.
Some have gone so far as to say that Oregon’s cannabis is safer than the state’s food supply. And that’s probably a good thing! Studies show that “pesticide recovery,” or the consumption of pesticide residue, occurs at higher concentrations when inhaled. To worsen things, there are component chemicals such as myclobutanil that transforms into the extremely toxic substance cyanide upon combustion.
Still, many argue that these pesticide regulations are too stringent. But Shane Young disagrees. “This is what we need to do,” he contends. “It has to be strict because of the unknown of how it affects your body. Until there is enough federal money to document the effects of these pesticides, we must adhere to these guidelines.” In fact, Young believes there are better ways to manage pests than with chemicals.
This premise guides his work at Natural Enemies, the chemical free pest management company Young founded in early 2014. After spending eight years leading plant health and crop management programs for a major ornamental nursery and watching the aggressive and indiscriminate use of pesticides, Young started investigating alternatives to chemical applications. His experiments with biological control – a method of managing pests using other organisms such as beneficial insects and parasites – led him to launch Natural Enemies. He quickly saw a need for his critters in the cannabis industry.
People have been using beneficial insects for decades, honing the craft through trial and error. Biological control requires significantly more subtlety, patience, and monitoring than chemical pesticides. Because predatory mites are typically prey-specific, it is imperative to first determine the exact problem with the crop. For this endeavor, Young provides free consultations, guidance, and resources.
The first step often involves bringing in an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. “Pest identification is key,” says Young. “You need to know what we’re treating for. I might recommend a certain microscope or magnification so they can determine if the problem is pest or disease related. The last thing you want to do is treat a broad range without pinpointing the real issue.” Then growers can meticulously introduce appropriate types, quantities, and combinations of predator mites to either prevent or control a pest infestation.
The benefits of biological controls are vast. Besides destroying pests that could wreak havoc on crops, these methods typically produce bigger, stronger, healthier plants and larger yields. When chemicals, and even natural oils, are applied to cannabis, the plants’ stigmata become clogged, sending it into a brief state of hibernation, which halts growth. Additionally, biological controls do not release toxic chemicals into the environment, the soil, or the water supply.
Despite the apparent upsides, some people are still skeptical about the efficacy of beneficial insects, and some people are simply creeped out. “They ask me, why would I buy mites if I’m trying to get rid of mites?” Young laughs. “But beneficial insects have absolutely no negative impact on your plants.” He sees his role as that of educator, to inform and provide resources for cultivators so they can understand the impact of their choices on their plants and on consumers – and hopefully, opt for the safest processes and materials they can.
While the focus of pesticide regulations is the safety of consumers, chemical-free pest management is good for cultivators too. According to Young: “The business minded growers and companies are focused on putting good product on the market. The upswing is that it needs to be a clean product. In Oregon it’s pretty critical, and other states are going to follow. Growers tell me that beneficial insects have completely driven their stress level down because they don’t have to worry about failing a pesticide test.”
Certainly consumers appreciate the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their cannabis was not touched by chemicals, just a few friendly bugs.