Organic vs. Natural Hemp; Why hemp is awesome, naturally.
Here at Blue Sky we are all about sustainability. That's why we got into the business of hemp and that has been our driving force ever since.
And while today's hemp consumers are driving incredible demand for organic hemp - we feel a need to firmly and convincingly make the case for natural - or conventional hemp. There are definite benefits for organic farming practices for a wide range of products, but we would argue that hemp is a bit of an exception. Hemp is an exceptionally ‘green’ crop, naturally.
There is an illusion that certified organic farming practices always deliver a more sustainable, higher quality and cleaner product. And while we are strong proponents of organic farming methods and clean, healthy food, we're also huge advocates for sustainable and productive farming methods that will get the most hemp to the most people, and do the most good for our planet - which can be achieved with sustainably farmed, natural hemp.
To get a deeper understanding of this subject, we 'zoomed' with Devin Dubois, Blue Sky’s VP of Legal and Regulatory (by way of the farm) and Wilson Johnston, Blue Sky’s Chief Agronomist, to discuss the perceptions & misconceptions of organic vs. conventional hemp farming. And to argue that hemp is pretty awesome, naturally.
Q: What are the main differences between organic and natural (or conventional) hemp?
Wilson: The biggest differences are price and soil. There are definite benefits for organic farming practices. But we would argue that hemp is a bit of an exception. It is naturally an exceptionally “green” crop.
Hemp is a weed after all. It grows deep, tall and aggressively meaning that both natural and organic hemp can be grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. They are both non-GMO and gluten-free and unlike other agricultural products, conventionally grown hemp is very clean, natural and sustainably farmed, with or without the organic badge.
While our organic farmers must limit the use of certain fertilizers in the soil for three years, Organic methods are generally less productive, which makes them up to 40% more expensive and may even have a more substantive carbon footprint than conventional production, based on frequent tillage of the soil and related methods.
Here at Blue Sky, we proudly grow both organic and natural hemp products and we are meticulous in our commitment to safety and sustainability of our products from seed to sale. We also truly believe that the more farmers grow hemp, the more industries use hemp and the more accessible hemp products are to the people - the better the world will be.
And to deliver on this, hemp really needs to be abundant and affordable. It can’t stay as a luxury organic niche food item in Whole Foods. It needs to go mainstream.
Q: What about the quality of the food. Should consumers be concerned about heavy metals and toxins in the foods they consume?
Devin: Of course they should be, but organically farmed hemp is certified based on certain production practices, not based on any quality measurement of the crop. Food products from both Certified Organic and conventional production at Blue Sky must pass precisely the same quality standards to be released for sale. All of our food products are GFSI certified (by Primus), Non-GMO & Kosher... naturally.
Q: What about farming practices? What are the main differences and how do they stack up in terms of sustainability & safety?
Devin: There are 4 main considerations when comparing organic and conventional farming for hemp.
Water use: Most of our hemp is grown on broad acres without irrigation on minimally tilled land. Those production practices use and conserve existing soil moisture and don’t draw on any underground aquifers or the like. The very small number of irrigated acres we use consume a very small amount of water compared to most irrigated crops, and all irrigation uses apportioned surface water from existing surface-water irrigation projects in AB and SK, which have plentiful, well-managed water sources from Rocky Mountain melt-water and surface run-off in AB and SK.
All hemp requires little water, however the more extensive tilling required for organic production can lead to soil moisture loss and more soil erosion.
Crop Protection (pesticides): As mentioned above, hemp does not generally require pesticides - it is a very hardy weed after all. What’s more, there are very few registered pesticides approved for hemp and of those that are - they are not widely used. Furthermore, our finished products are tested to ensure they meet objective standards for toxins and contaminants.
Fertilizers: Organic status generally requires the grower to use very specific, qualified products to fertilize soil and treat growing crops. Organic production will limit the application of more widely available commercial fertilizers and pesticides, using, instead more soil tillage, and the application of organic waste (manure, other compost materials) to fertilize and manage crops. While Organic farming may limit the use of certain compounds that might concern people , Organic methods are generally less productive (they generate less produce with similar inputs), require more tillage, more water, and more resources - making them substantially more expensive.
Soil / Tillage: Hemp is an extremely good rooting crop. It improves microbial activity in the soil, reduces soil erosion and enhances soil health by shading out weeds—reducing the need for synthetic herbicides - naturally. Organic farming often relies on tilling — stirring up soil to kill weeds in place of conventional pesticides and herbicides. The resulting loss of topsoil, the most agriculturally productive component of soil which contributes to lower yield and more run off. Tilling itself is also labour and energy intensive.
At Blue Sky, where possible, we look to employ a low-till/no-till method. This can increase the plants’ water absorption, while fostering the perfect organic material in the soil to grow robust, healthy plants year-over-year.
Wilson: It’s worth noting - we are not advocating a return to the dirty thirties where farming practices were completely unscrupulous with what they would put in the soil and on their plants. Luckily for farmers, people, and planet, we’re anticipating some pretty incredible scientific breakthroughs with new biological crop protectors and fertilisers coming to market. Biopesticides and microbial fertilizers are derived from biological ingredients rather than chemicals and can be classified as Organic. We truly believe that these will change the game, helping farmers achieve sustainable farming practices and sustainable productivity levels, while supplying the market with accessible priced organic and natural hemp products.
Q: What about the seed genetics?
Wilson: Both organic and natural hemp derive from the same small range of pedigree hemp seeds in Canada. Where hemp is concerned, quality, and consistency is extremely important given that Health Canada mandates that no hemp variety may possess more than 0.3% THC. Each spring at Blue Sky, we plant a range of seed varieties that are best suited for our practice of whole plant utilization; hemp that grows tall and strong for fibre, with quality seed for food and a perfect ratio of leaf and flower for CBD extraction. This applies to both our organic and natural crops. Also, all hemp seeds are non-GMO.
Q: How does this apply to CBD production?
Wilson: The organic standards for CBD are still developing. Hemp is regulated by Health Canada and is held to a higher standard than any other agricultural product on the market. Regardless of an Organic certification, the biggest determinant for the sustainability of a CBD product is how it is grown. While many CBD producers grow indoors, in greenhouses, or orchard style, Blue Sky’s CBD is grown outside, naturally with sun, soil and rainwater. We also use the entire plant for food, fibre and CBD, while many just harvest the flower with the rest of the plant going to waste. And while we fully appreciate the control and quality of indoor grown cannabis for producing highly-concentrated cannabinoids - it’s not necessary for CBD extraction - making it difficult to justify the astronomical carbon footprint intensive growing operations occupy (the whole environment requires constant control through mechanical systems). At Blue Sky, we use our own natural refined hemp seed oil as the carrier for CBD products - which can be Certified Organic - or natural.
Hemp is an excellent crop of C02 sequestration. Are there any differences for Organic vs Natural in this process?
Wilson: Both Certified Organic and natural hemp are excellent crops for carbon sequestration. In fact one acre of industrial hemp can absorb 10 tonnes of CO2. Hemp's rapid growth makes it one of the fastest CO2-to-biomass conversion tools available, more efficient than agro-forestry. Today, Canada grows roughly 92,500 acres of hemp which equates to just under a million tonnes of C02 absorption. This includes Organic and natural hemp. However - we would suspect that the lower price point from natural hemp will result in more acres planted and more C02 sequestered!
Q: Final verdict?
Devin: Depending on the geographic region and immediate climate conditions, it’s difficult to say one form of production is more or less “sustainable” than the other, although there is growing evidence that, from purely a net-carbon impact analysis, conventional production might be more carbon-friendly than Certified Organic. All-in-all, both methods of production meet the same quality standards to make delicious, healthy and safe food and cosmetic ingredients.
Wilson: Look, as a fourth generation farmer on this land, I want the land to keep producing - and that means looking after the soil to ensure we’re able to deliver safe, quality, sustainable food ingredients, fibre and cbd - today and long into the future.
I strongly believe we can deliver the biggest benefits of hemp to people and our environment by growing in a way that makes hemp accessible, affordable & ubiquitous.