Some growers complacent about using irradiation on cannabis #GROWYOUROWN

Cannabis with white spots may contain mold.

By Tom Flow |

Imagine coming home from a grocery store and opening a bag of fresh bread, only to find it covered with mould. There’s a bright green symbol on the bag, and the words “treated with radiation.” The bread has been run through the equivalent of an X-ray machine and the mould, while clearly visible, is now dead. The baker provides confident assurances that the fuzzy slice is safe to eat, albeit not as appetizing as usual.

Still want a bite?

Perhaps not, and yet that’s what Canadian cannabis consumers are being asked to do. Which is why the Dec. 6, 2018 article in The GrowthOp—Mould on cannabis? Here’s how licensed producers eliminate the health risk—arguing that irradiation is “benign and far better for consumers than ingesting mouldy cannabis”—was so disheartening.

When food is irradiated, it is never touched by the radioactive source itself. The food is briefly exposed to alpha or gamma rays that may kill E. coli, salmonella and other microbes, as well as some parasites and moulds.

Irradiation is also used to increase the shelf life of produce by slowing down the sprouting and ripening processes.

Some licensed producers are using irradiation—or non-radioactive gamma rays—to kill mould, bacteria and other contaminants to meet Health Canada’s safety requirements for cannabis. Check out the FAQ page for licensed producers who irradiate their plants and one will find language that touts irradiation as the best and cleanest way to eliminate mould and satisfy testing requirements. Respectfully, I disagree.

When it comes to food, Health Canada allows only five products to be irradiated to make long-term storage easier and safer: potatoes, onions, wheat, fresh and frozen ground beef, and dried spices. This is because the safety of irradiation has been a source of scientific debate for decades.

On the one hand, safety studies fail to demonstrate negative effects that can be linked to the consumption of irradiated food by humans. On the other hand, studies in animals have demonstrated that consuming irradiated food can provoke genome instability.

The science is also unsettled as to how irradiation affects the nutrition, flavour, smell and texture of food. While it is agreed that irradiation changes the chemical and molecular structure of foods, there is disagreement about the impact. Some scientists report that vitamin loss from irradiation can be substantial while others find that it is only slight.

Switching from food to cannabis, irradiation diminishes the presence of terpenes. Terpenes are organic compounds that are believed to work in tandem with cannabinoids to affect the user. Research suggests that they play a significant role in the medicinal effects of cannabinoids. So to simply dismiss the potential effect of irradiation on the efficacy of a complex plant like cannabis is as laughable as eating mouldy bread.

Bread moldy on a white background.

Yet despite the absence of conclusive findings about the safety of irradiation and its impacts on the efficacy of the plant—and even though irradiation has been green lighted for just a handful of specific foods—the practice seems generally accepted, even heralded, when it comes to cannabis.

Increasingly, this industry is buying into the idea that irradiation is a necessity when it comes to protecting crops from mould and other contaminants and ensuring the delivery of a safe, clean product to consumers. But I see it as more of a crutch that can mask poor growing practices.

Irradiation is not an inevitability; it isn’t the only safe, efficient way to ensure cannabis is free of mould and bacteria. That argument only stands if a producer is reliant on poor growing practices or badly designed and ventilated facilities that allow mould to flourish in the first place.

I’m concerned that reliance on irradiation has created a culture, in some cannabis companies, of, “We don’t have to grow clean plants because we can irradiate the product in the end.” As cultivators, the goals should be to always strive for better, and consumers should demand this.

There are, however, measures that cultivators can take to produce a healthy, clean product without relying on irradiation. These include, among other things, achieving true control over growing conditions through indoor facility design and rigorous and repeatable standard operating procedures. This level of craft means pathogens, bud rot, potential mould and similar contaminants have less chance of proliferating.

At the end of the day, cannabis is a plant; the better conditions it is grown in, the better the quality of the buds it will produce. A lot of skill and effort is required, but that time and investment is preferable to X-ray machines every time.

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