Jessica McKeil   |   August 23, 2022

Fire Season is Here: Testing Cannabis for Smoke

Exploring severe smoke and wildfire exposure, smoke-taint testing, and crop insurance for cannabis cultivators.
Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer based in British Columbia, Canada. She has a passion for cannabis tech and scientific breakthroughs, which has led her to work with some of the industry's biggest brands. She is the owner and lead-writer…

Last year, in 2021, 7.7 million hectares were lost to forest fires in the US, with 2.6 million lost in California alone (The Guardian). And, as cannabis cultivators are quickly learning, smoke taint in cannabis flower can be nearly just as devastating as the fires themselves.

Beautiful, sun-grown flower in California, Oregon, Washington State, and elsewhere turned sulfurous after significant smoke exposure events, leaving these crops almost unsaleable.

Increasingly, cannabis cultivators need the same resources and support as other farmers following severe smoke and wildfire exposure, including smoke-taint testing and crop insurance.

The Effects of Smoke on Cannabis

Smoke doesn't just blow over plants—it changes them. Over the last few years, Josh Wurzer, Chief Operating Officer of SC Labs, has been trying to determine these changes and how to test for them.

SC Labs is currently one of the few — if not the only — laboratory attempting to pinpoint the compounds involved in cannabis smoke taint. However, as SC Labs has quickly discovered, although related to smoke-taint testing in other crops, like grapes, cannabis poses unique challenges.

As Wurzer explains, "Immediate impact is directly on the crop. But then, certainly, there has been a lot of interest on what kinds of effects does the exposure to significant smoke events or significant fire events, and the smoke that comes with them have on the cannabis crop."

Wurzer details how flowers exposed to thick wildfire smoke develop an off-flavor. The terpene profile changes in response to smoke taint and is infused with the smoke's sulfurous contents.

Following smoke exposure, even premium flower becomes undesirable for consumption unless sold for biomass. Most extraction processes cannot completely clean up the smoke compounds, and some extractions concentrate these unwelcome compounds even further. The only option cultivators have at this point is to distill the smoke-tainted biomass.

Premium flower sent for distillation is not an ideal situation, especially in a depressed market. Smoke taint means "farmers are getting pennies on the dollar, and still not getting the money they should be getting for the rest of the biomass," according to Wurzer.

Crop Insurance Not an Option for Most Cannabis Cultivators

Natural disasters can wreak havoc on any agricultural commodity. In the wine industry, wildfire smoke is also an incredibly destructive force. Grapes rapidly absorb smoke's sulfurous compounds and bind to the fruit's sugar molecules, rendering them useless for winemaking.

Although SC Labs started exploring smoke-taint testing for cannabis last year, they also began serving the wine industry. As a result, they've become the only US-based lab offering an accredited smoke-taint test. Now, US wineries can test their crops for smoke and use those results to file an insurance claim — something that remains a pipe dream for cannabis cultivators.

Unlike vineyards, which have a bit of financial recourse should wildfire smoke destroy their crops, cannabis producers have no financial support system. With ongoing differences between state and federal regulations on all aspects of the cannabis industry, there are few (if any) cannabis crop insurance options available.

The insurance industry is slowly evolving to cover legal hemp cultivators and, in some areas, indoor cannabis production. Most outdoor growers are on their own should disaster strike.

Cannabis Smoke Taint Testing and Crop Insurance Desperately Needed

Outdoor cannabis cultivators face increasing wildfire risk, not just the fires themselves. A future filled with wildfire events means growing issues with smoke-tainted flower and concentrates. Without crop insurance covering outdoor growers, does the risk become too great to face year after year?

Cannabis producers, just like vineyards, need tools to test their crops for contamination against the natural background levels. According to Wurzer, SC Labs should be ready to publish their findings on testing for cannabis smoke-taint next year, which means finally a smoke-taint test the cannabis sector desperately needs.

Hopefully, cannabis smoke-taint testing will serve every stakeholder in the industry: first, the cultivator who filed an insurance claim following a season of thick wildfire smoke; then, a large processor who wants to test a sample of biomass before purchase; and finally, the consumer, as a means to prove the integrity of the terpene profile and the safety of the products they purchase. In a world increasingly impacted by the effects of climate change, it may even become a mandated part of the regulatory system.

 

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