As Health Canada’s medical cannabis access program, the ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations) evolves in fits and starts, one of the recent casualties has been the ability of licensed producers to use foliar-based nutrient applications.
For those unfamiliar with the process, foliar feeding is a way of applying nutrients directly to the leaves of the plant via a spray. This allows for a more rapid uptake of nutrients than through the soil and roots, and can allow for minor corrections in nutrients beyond the basics (NPK: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) to strengthen the plant.
This process is not uncommon for plants of all kinds, and cannabis is no different. And prior to a recent pesticide scare, it was not an uncommon practice for some licensed producers of medical cannabis. But after the recent pesticide scare with Mettrum and Organigram, Health Canada has taken a new interpretation of their rules around foliar feeding, saying it’s considered an ‘additive’.
In response to request from Lift earlier this year, Maryse Durette, Senior Media Relations Advisor for Health Canada explained:
“Recently, Health Canada has received a number of questions from licensed producers requesting clarification as to what fertilizers may be used in the production of medical cannabis, and how they may be applied. The department has confirmed that fertilizers and supplements can be applied to plants via their roots, provided that the fertilizers and supplements are used as labeled, and are not applied as a foliar spray. Section 18 of the ACMPR specifies that marijuana must not be sold or provided with any additives. Foliar sprays are not permitted to be used in the production of medical cannabis, as the use of a foliar spray is considered an additive under the regulations.”
This point, however, is disputed by some within the industry.
Section 18 of the ACMPR states that marihuana and cannabis Oil: ‘must not be sold or provided...with any additives…” and defines ‘additive’ to mean: “...anything other than marihuana, but does not include any residue of a pest control product or its components or derivatives unless the amount of the residue exceeds any maximum residue limit specified for the product, component or derivative under section 9 or 10 of the Pest Control Products Act.”
However, since foliar feeding was not an uncommon practice before Health Canada’s recent concern with the use of unauthorized pesticides, this has caught at least some producers off guard. Because the source of the pesticides myclobutanil and bifenazate at Mettrum and Organigram facilities is still officially unknown, and is normally applied via foliar feeding, it’s not unreasonable to conclude the regulator has simply reacted to this unknown by putting a blanket ban on any kind of foliar feeding (except water) to prevent this possible loophole.
"It’s to be expected. We should have those regulations. But it's a new industry, so we don’t have the infrastructure in place to regulate this yet." -Joel Twaites, Vice President of Marketing and Operations at Remo Brands Ltd.
Someone, for example, could put unapproved pesticides into a container for foliar feeding under the guise of it being only previously-allowed nutrients. In response to this concern, Organigram publicized that they installed security cameras in mixing areas. A former worker at Mettrum claimed they kept an unauthorized pesticide in the ceiling tiles to avoid detection from the regulator.
One nutrient company that has been directly affected by this is Remo Brands, based in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. Remo Nutrients produces a line of plant and soil products specifically formulated for commercial cannabis growers.
In 2016, licensed producer 7 Acres announced a deal with Remo brand nutrients and spoke highly of the product in company messaging and branding. However, after the Mettrum and Organigram recalls related to unapproved pesticides, 7 Acres released a statement saying that, as a precautionary measure, they would be working with Remo Brands to “provide reasonable data” that the products comply with safety guidelines.
“In light of recent events facing the industry relating to certain licensed producer's purported use of unapproved pesticides, Health Canada has increased its focus on the cultivation methods and cultivation inputs used by all licensed producers not only with respect to pesticides but also nutrients and fertilizers. Supreme has always been transparent with Health Canada regarding its cultivation methods and the use of cannabis-specific nutrients, recording all such use in its Standard Operating Procedures which are subject to ongoing audit by Health Canada.
“The Nutrients used by 7 ACRES are a specialty brand of cannabis-specific fertilizers developed and manufactured in Maple Ridge, BC by Remo Brands Ltd. As part of the ongoing review process, Health Canada has asked Supreme to work with Remo Brands Ltd. to provide reasonable data that the Nutrients comply with all relevant safety guidelines and applicable law.”
Joel Twaites, Vice President of Marketing and Operations at Remo Brands Ltd, says all of the ingredients in their products are already approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) CFIA exempt, or deemed safe by CFIA. The issue, he explains, is that the regulator now wants to see evidence to approve not only the ingredients, but the combination of those ingredients.
“We’ve been in communication with both Health Canada and CFIA and have been requested to submit lab documents to pretty much all of our products relating to heavy metal testing and bacterial contaminants,” says Twaites.
“We use a whole bunch of ingredients that are registered through the CFIA, but the fact that we mix them all together kind of complicates the situation, and that’s why they’ve been putting this red tape in front of everything.”
Despite some rumours circulating that have speculated that the Remo products used by 7 Acres contained a disallowed product, Twaites points out if that had happened, their products would be banned entirely, which has not happened. Such an un-labeled product from a different manufacturer was found in use at Mettrum last year—and in the US prior—which triggered a cascade of recalls related to other unauthorized products.
“I share the same frustration that I know a lot of other Licensed Producers and their quality assurance people have, which is it’s an incredibly broad definition of additive, to simply say that anything applied to the plants in a foliar manner at any point in their life cycle potentially constitutes an additive in the finished product.” -Chris Stone, Director of Quality Assurance at Broken Coast
“We’re just trying to be as compliant as possible and provide as much information as possible,” he continues. “We have nothing to hide. We designed our lines specifically for these large facilities so it would be kind of pointless for us to try and design it so that these guys can clear everything and then turn around and have to be stopped over something that really would have restricted us from getting into these facilities anyway. If anyone found something in our product that was banned, then it wouldn’t have been allowed to be used.”
Twaites says he understands where Health Canada is coming from. They are being overly cautious as this is an entirely new area for them, and it’s an overwhelming task.
"It’s to be expected, ” says Twaites. “We should have those regulations. But it's a new industry, so we don’t have the infrastructure in place to regulate this yet."
Chris Stone, Director of Quality Assurance at Broken Coast, a Health Canada-licensed producer on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, says they in the past had at times used a seaweed-based foliar spray to provide nutrients for clones prior to them taking root.
Although they have since discontinued the process, Stone says plants ultimately grown from these cuttings were part of samples isolated by Health Canada in a recent surprise round of spot testing. The plants all passed the testing, but Stone says it was still an unknown for him until the results came in, even after so much time had passed since the small cuttings had grown into much older plants. The interpretation of this as an ‘additive’ under the existing rules seems confusing, he says.
“I share the same frustration that I know a lot of other Licensed Producers and their quality assurance people have, which is it’s an incredibly broad definition of additive, to simply say that anything applied to the plants in a foliar manner at any point in their life cycle potentially constitutes an additive in the finished product.
“For us, even when we did apply (a seaweed-based foliar spray), we only applied at the stage when the plants were clones, and that plant material is not really even left at the end-point, so it’s an incredibly broad definition I think for LPs to work within.”