Cannabis quality: Israeli tech companies see potential for better bud

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Not so long ago, cannabis quality control seemed like a foreign concept. Cannabis growers operated in the shadows, and reliable production was far from the most pressing concern.

As the cannabis market starts to outgrow its fly-by-night roots, demand for a reliable product has grown in the United States and abroad.

“In general, when cannabis is grown outdoors it is grown in imprecise conditions: varying humidity, temperatures, weather settings and often with an interrupted dark cycle,” said Moshe Maroko, chief executive of Agam Energy Systems. “These conditions are okay for someone who smokes cannabis because the quality can vary. Sometimes it will be really good and sometimes less so, sometimes the marijuana will have mold and the smoker will need to throw it out, and sometimes the marijuana plant will get sick. It’s not a big deal because it’s not a commercial product.”

Cannabis is legal for recreational use in nine states, plus Washington, D.C., and medical cannabis is legal in another 29 states. In this competitive marketplace, cannabis cultivators have more to worry about than ever when it comes to their plants. Most states now test cannabis for microbiological impurities or pesticide residues.

“The minute you turn to commercialization…there are certain regulations that must be met: no contamination, no pesticides, and a consistent product whereby every flower is the same as the next flower,” said Maroko, who designs, develops and manufactures dehumidification systems for indoor cannabis-growing facilities. “Medications cannot comprise fluctuations in their potency. Pharma companies need to know they are getting one specific product, every time.”

In other words, high-end crops demand high-tech agriculture tools. Medical cannabis, in particular, needs to be grown in precise conditions.

Cannabis cultivators understand the shifting industry, and most are interested in innovation, according to a State of Indoor Farming report released in 2017 by Agrilyst, a management and analytics platform for indoor farming operations.

Small wonder that Israel’s leading agricultural technology industry is tweaking its technologies and applying them to the cannabis market.

AGAM Energy Systems exemplifies this trend. The company is known for its energy-conserving cooling, heating and dehumidification systems. Its solutions first targeted the industrial and agricultural sectors, including greenhouses, indoor cultivation, and seed and grain warehouses.

Maroko said his company “took technology that is good for all plants and improved on it for growing cannabis.” In the month of June, according to Maroko, the company will install 29 units around the U.S.

A new report by IVC Research Center concludes that nearly three dozen agricultural technology companies in Israel are either adapting their technologies to the cannabis industry or are considering it.

Dehumidifier systems are installed in cannabis greenhouses. Photo via AGAM Energy Systems.

“The medical cannabis industry is unique in that the upstream end of the supply chain is firmly set in the world of agricultural technology, while the downstream products are medical. Both arms of the industry require specialized expertise to navigate intellectual property and regulatory opportunities and avoid pitfalls,” write Dr. Joe Wyse, an American who now leads the patent department at an Israeli law firm, and Dr. Keren Hagai, head of life sciences at Bressler Patent Attorneys in Israel.

Israel’s agricultural technology arena is largely comprised of scientists and agricultural economists. Just as they famously made the country’s desert “bloom,” these figures are now using their know-how to help cannabis take root in Israel.

Here are a few examples of Israeli agricultural technology companies entering the cannabis space:

  • CanOmix is developing science-based solutions for cannabis growing and breeding.
  • EdenShield uses plant-based solutions to increase crop yield and reduce pesticide use in cannabis cultivation.
  • Canndoc, in a joint venture with Canada’s Croptimal, specializes in decision-support tools for continuous measurement of nutrients in soil, water and plant tissue to provide accurate fertilization recommendations for cannabis plants.
  • Netafim sells dripline products for cannabis irrigation.

“Israel is known for its agro-tech innovation,” said Boaz Wachtel, a cannabis entrepreneur and founder of the Green Leaf Party, a political party for cannabis legalization, human rights and ecology. “The most famous of these innovations is drip irrigation. Israel is known for being able to produce crops in very arid regions and under severe weather conditions. Israel is also a leader in understanding the importance of roots.”

But Wachtel says Israel’s strengths in agriculture don’t yet match up with the cannabis industry’s demands. Local agricultural technologies mostly cover outdoor or greenhouse farming.

“We are not leaders in indoor growing. In Canada and the United States, most of the high-end crops are grown indoors, especially medical cannabis,” said Wachtel. “The only thing [indoor growers] can manage is root-zone temperature.”

Root-zone temperature is the focus of Wachtel’s latest venture. Instead of worrying about air and temperature management, the Roots Sustainable Agricultural Technologies system “cools and heats the roots” in an environmentally sustainable way.

Wachtel’s company is also transforming agriculture with its Irrigation by Condensation (IBC) system to provide water for irrigation from moisture in the air and soil. NASA Tech Briefs featured the IBC system — which relies on energy from the sun or wind — in its magazine.

This system seems to help reduce the electricity challenge plaguing indoor cultivation, plus related challenges with irrigation.

“It has the potential to revolutionize agriculture,” said Wachtel. “IBC enables us to provide water for irrigation from moisture in the air and soil. And this is especially relevant for California, the largest cannabis-growing state, because of the environmental regulations. Many growers in California are facing water access issues, and our solution could help the industry there to grow outdoors.”

Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond.