The Supply Chain of Hemp - And Its Impact on Quality and the Environment
Consumers are choosing hemp as a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals. However, many hemp products are ironically pharmaceutical-ish in nature yet don’t follow the science! Taking a CBD isolate is akin to taking Vitamin C, instead of eating an orange. The market is dominated by these mass producers who use environmentally destructive factory farming practices, industrially extract, heavily process and then market as a natural. First we will define quality, then compare how artisanal producer’s supply chains differ from mass producers, and the impact to the end product.
Leading hemp researchers (Dr. Mechoulam, Dr. Russo) and practitioners (Mr. Leinow and Dr. Moskowitz) support The Entourage Effect, a notion that synergy occurs between the natural interaction of the over 400 identified compounds found in hemp, thereby making the whole plant more effective than any one component1. These phytocompounds primarily include cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids2, but also include chlorophyll, fatty acids, waxes and other naturally occurring compounds. From a potency perspective, hemp that is rich in these phytonutrients would be the first facet of quality. Secondly, contamination is a dirty secret in the hemp industry, and is why many CBD products are processed, clear or yellow and don’t look, smell or taste like a plant. So, being naturally clean of contaminants and unprocessed is the second facet of quality. The third is a product that is grown sustainably, or even better regeneratively, to have a positive environmental impact on our planet. As a supply chain expert, I researched from seed to shelf how hemp products are produced, and how the different modes impact both the final product and our environment. The focus should be on the plant and planet first.
Broadly, there are two approaches to farming hemp, agriculturally (field cultivation) and horticulturally (garden cultivation). The philosophies are different in that agriculture focuses on creating one habitat; the meadow or “field” is used to lower costs, increase yield and compete on price. Alternatively, horticulturists provide a little more “TLC”, using strategies to promote ecological succession, diversity of landscapes, and are more focused on quality and preserving the environment.
Agricultural hemp operations produce commodities (similar to corn and soybeans), and it’s all about size and scale. To accomplish this, farmers look for seed genetics that are easy to grow, pest resistant, cheap and drought resistant, which makes GMO appealing. Since hemp can grow just about anywhere, and agriculturally grown hemp will ultimately go through a number of processing steps, plant quality, potential contamination and location are not priorities. Growing indoors avoids contamination and increases the number of harvests / profitability. However, there is a tremendous carbon footprint to growing indoors due to the energy requirements.
Just as some grapes produce jelly, others produce a fine Bordeaux or Brunello wine. Horticultural farming is part science and part art, and it all begins with seeds. Early flower initiation, high resin content and complex flavor (robust terpene and cannabinoids) are all plant genetics that produce a quality plant, and in hemp’s case, The Entourage Effect. Location is paraount - great sunlight, moderate temperatures, rich soil and distance from heavy industry and contaminants. Outdoor hemp plants are part of the local ecosystem, and grow naturally under the cycles of the sun, moon and stars. Organic is a good place to start, but sustainability and regenerativity are key to saving our planet. (Many organic farmers will lay plastic down on beds to retain water, prevent weed growth and avoid using pesticides. Micro plastic particles can then leach into the soil and pollute the environment.) The best hemp is hand planted, weeded and harvested- without plastic or pesticide- leaving the earth’s soil richer for the next season.
The choice of extraction material and method usually follows the farming practice. Large scale agricultural producers focused on cost will harvest using machinery which cuts the plants at the ground level, and then grinds up the stalks, stems, seeds and flower into “aerial parts." CO2 is then passed through the aerial parts under pressure and temperature to extract the terpenes and again at a higher temperature to extract the cannabinoids. CO2 is great for selectively extracting parts of the plant. But, keep in mind, It is also used to remove the caffeine molecule to decaffeinate coffee and to dry clean clothes. It is cheap to run and easy to scale - ideal for mass production.
Horticultural growers are more focused on plant quality, and want to preserve that quality through to the final product. Hemp flower (bud) grows sticky glandular hairs
caled trichomes, and this is where most of the precious cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids are located, not the “aerial parts”. It is also why marijuana consumers smoke the flower / bud, and large, sticky smelly buds are prized. To preserve the trichomes / quality, the delicate flower should be hand harvested. Some solvents (butane or hexane) shouldn’t really be used, but organic alcohol is instead a natural and highly effective solvent, produced by the plants and for the plants.
Once the hemp has been extracted it is ready to use, either in a concentrated state as RSO4 (Rick Simpson Oil) for acute conditions, or more commonly diluted with a carrier oil such as organic MCT coconut oil.
However, depending on the quality, condition and intended use, it may be taken through multiple post-processing steps to break down the plant’s components and remove contamination: Winterization - is used to refine the hemp extract by mixing it with ethanol and taking it down to a sub-zero temperature. The intention of this step is to remove the waxes and lipids, but chlorophyll and some of the terpenes are often lost as well. Distillation - is a process for separating different compounds based on the differences in boiling and condensation temperature. It’s used to selectively concentrate desirable compounds while removing impurities. Chromatography - is a way of further separating and purifying chemical compounds. In the case of hemp, it further isolates the cannabinoids, primarily the CBD and THC. The plant has now been broken down into single molecule(s). At this point you would think there is nothing more we could do, but some have found ways to “enhance” this molecule. Nanotechnology uses ultrasonic therapy that in theory shrinks the CBD molecules making them more available to your body. These products are rumored to have a very quick onset but a shorter duration of narrower effect.
Isolates usually appear clear and only contain CBD. Taking a CBD isolate is akin to taking Vitamin C, instead of eating an orange. The Entourage Effect is lost because all of the other beneficial compounds of the plant have been removed by a laboratory technique called chromatography. How or where the plant is grown is irrelevant, so it is often farmed as inexpensively as possible.
Broad spectrum products are becoming popular and are often marketed as Full Spectrum without the THC. This is true, but what they really are is a combination of cannabinoid and terpene isolates. Anyone without training or oversight, can purchase isolates and create their own concoction. Cannabinoids do not have a lethal dose, but terpenes do. In concentration, terpenes come with a pretty scary safety data sheet (SDS). Terpenes are also added to “enhance” poor quality hemp. When terpene and/or cannabinoids are listed on the ingredients label, it means the manufacturer has “enhanced” the product with an isolate. These products are potentially dangerous and should be left to regulated companies with very strict quality assurance programs.
Factory Full Spectrum appears off yellow and may have a faint cannabis smell. Anything that has not gone through the isolation process can be called full spectrum, even industrially farmed, extracted and processed hemp. Cannabinoids and terpenes are limited. If available, you need to check test results, as some products are “fuller” than others. Often much of the plant's compounds have been lost.
Unprocessed Artisanal Hemp Extract - These products are from smaller farms sourced from high quality flower, or “A” buds. They contain a robust profile of cannabinoids, terpenes and other phytonutrients. Plants that are naturally free of contaminants do not need processing. Fufluns' products fall into this category. We proudly follow leading practitioners and pioneers, work with passionate farmers and artisanal extractors, not big business.
Testing is paramount to quality and safety, and should be performed multiple times throughout the supply chain. Cannabinoids and terpenes represent quality. Contaminants include pesticides, heavy metals, microbial, mycotoxins and in most cases solvents. Typical testing points include flower, crude, mother oil and finished products. Contamination tests should be performed at the crude/concentrated level. However, very few farms’ hemp can pass at this level (which is why there is so much processing).
Ensuring quality, safety and transparency in the hemp industry is for the most part as simple as defining product classes, requiring all manufactures to provide complete test results for their class at certain points within the supply chain, and within set guidelines.
Hemp has been consumed for over 5000 years, and has the potential to help heal both humanity and our planet. However, strong demand and loose regulation has incentivized mass production, and science to isolate and “enhance” hemp’s compounds. Education is paramount to increasing consumer consciousness, and avoiding both the environmental and quality mistakes of the factory food industry.
About the Author
Perry is a veteran of the supply chain industry and an expert in distribution. The majority of his time was spent implementing solutions for Fortune 500 companies in the food and beverage industry. He received an MBA with honors from DePaul in 2007. His passion for health, natural foods and the environment led him to question why all of these plant (hemp) products are clear or yellow instead of green. His background in supply chain found the answers - big business, mass production and profiteering. The mission became clear. Pay close attention to the science and supply chain to provide optimally grown, nutrient dense products, never compromising quality or the environment. Perry is married with three children and resides on the north shore of Chicago. FuFluns donates 1% of all revenue to environmental causes through 1% For The Planet, and provides flexible pricing to businesses and individuals with special needs.