Cannabis DNA Testing, A Weed Herbarium, and Label Fidelity with the CEO of LeafWorks
For this episode we interviewed Eleanor Kuntz, PhD, the Chief Executive Officer of LeafWorks. She has a B.A. degree in Biology with a focus in Botany from Smith College and a PhD in Genetics from the University of Georgia.
She is a trained herbalist, attending the Sage Mountain School of Herbal Studies under the mentorship of the “Godmother of modern American herbalism”, Rosemary Gladstar. She has spent her career using plant genetics to design and implement Best Agricultural Practices for natural product companies. She is skilled in improving medicinal quality, sustainability and transparency in the supply chain, to ensure the best possible product.
For this episode we covered the in’s and outs of Botanical Identification and how DNA testing cannabis works. We talk about the importance of Label Fidelity and how consumers can make the industry better by asking for COA’s. We also talked about the Canndor Herbarium – a non-profit dedicated to documenting cannabis species for and associated data for scientific study.
Can You Tell Us About LeafWorks?
Label Fidelity is a ubiquitous issue with a natural product. We have to make sure that what’s inside the product is consistent with what’s on the label. When you come to cannabis, you have all these beautiful, unique plants that have special attributes.
It’s important not only for the individual selling the plant or providing the plants for the community, but also the individuals purchasing those plants that they know what they’re getting and that they’re getting the same thing every time. What we do at LeafWorks is help establish cultivar’s (plant definitions) so that we can help translate that plant identity to the consumer and provide a way for your farmer or your grower to explain to their customer what they’re providing to them.
How Does DNA Testing of Cannabis Work? What Does That Process Look like?
So we are a genetic space company. We utilize DNA to answer all kinds of questions. The most fundamental question is probably, ‘I have this plant and I’m growing these regular seeds and I want to know which one of these seeds is a boy, which one of these seeds is the girl – male and female’ AKA gender testing.
We do that for cannabis. Utilizing DNA is a very efficient way of looking at a plant. Chemistry is super interesting, but chemistry varies not only across plants but within the same plant depending on how it’s grown. This is true not only in cannabis but all of our medicinal and culinary plants, which is why where something is grown is important because it adds to the final product.
That’s the quality of that final product. The way we utilize genetics is as a solid basis to gain identity and then translate that into either information or utilize it with some of our customers. Our customers are doing their own internal breeding projects and so we help utilize that information to push their own projects forward.
Can You Expand on How The Location Your Seeds are Grown Affects The Final Product?
We look at the variation of how the environment affects the genetics. We have a wonderful thing in genetics called G x E (genetics times the environment) and D x E which dictates the phenotype of the plant, what the chemistry is going to be, how tall it’s going to be, what color the flowers will be.
Depending on what plant you’re talking about. We look at that genetic component, which is stable, and then can understand how much the environment influences the outcome or the phenotype that you’re interested in or not interested in.
If you’re looking at ‘hot plants’ or too much THC when you’re trying to grow hemp, we can help guide that process so that you not only are looking at genetics that work within your environment, but also best agricultural practices that help you get those genetics to the place you want them to be.
Tell us More About Label Fidelity, What exactly does that mean?
Within the natural products and supplements world, if you’re buying powdered plants in pill form at your local food store and on the label it says that there’s Gingko inside that bottle – you want to know that when you’re taking those pills, you’re actually eating Ginko and you’re not eating something else.
Label fidelity is looking at substantiating the claim that’s made about the product on the label. There’s been a lot of evidence of fraud in the natural products world and we know this is also true within cannabis. Just because the jar at the dispensary says it’s one thing doesn’t mean that that’s the plant that you’re actually purchasing.
Label fidelity is a way to honor transparency in the system and actually get the consumer what they think they’re purchasing.
How Pervasive Would you say The Label Fidelity issue is?
It’s a huge deal. I think it’s multifaceted. If you look at the CBD world you’re really just looking at hemp. We’ve worked with quite a few farmers last season and they’re purchasing pounds of seed for X number of acres that they’re going to grow.
The first issue is they think they’re buying homogenous seed and when we test their seed, we find that the seed is in fact not homogenous. So you have a mixture of different kinds of seeds in that seed lot, which is never a good thing if you’re aiming for a consistent product and consistent growing in your field. So it starts there.
Then once you get through the gender issue the THC Content is next.
Sometimes it’s not even intentional, you have a plant that in Colorado is a hemp plant and it’s under the threshold of the THC limit, then you take it to another location and when grown in that new environment the chemistry shifts and you have something that no longer qualifies as hemp.
It’s not always intentional, but it is exceptionally important to start tracking these things so we can understand where the lines are and help to move the entire industry forward in a productive way.
So Basically, It Comes Down to Transparency and Honesty with Your Consumers?
Yeah, I mean the quickest way to get someone not to come back to your brand is to have an inconsistent product. Definitely. Every time you buy something of the same nature you want it to be within a window window of the same thing. If it’s radically different, it’s going to mean you’re going to be hard pressed to come back a third time.
Can you tell us about The tests and services that you offer for growers, cultivators, and manufacturers?
Our primary test is our gender ID. That’s a grower test – if you’re on the ground level germinating seeds and you want to know what they are or you want to verify that your feminized seed are in fact all feminized, that’s a very important fundamental test for us.
We also are launching a supply chain certification. This is where you as an organization would take your plants and define them like a cultivar registration program. You register those cultivars and then we can track them. Much like you would any other plant through the supply chain to prove that you have a COA from a third party, that the plant you say that you’re selling is in fact the plant that you’re selling.
This becomes very important for organizations that are distanced from the actual cultivation of the plant and/or just purchasing material or purchasing secondary byproducts like trim. It’s a way to vet – not only are they getting the trim from the plant that they are being told, but also that there’s no admixtures eg. there’s not two or three different plants that are mixed together at varying ratios.
This becomes very important for product makers because if you have an inconsistent input product, it’s going to be very difficult to make your end product consistent. This is something we see in natural products, in tea makers, tincture makers, testing the incoming material is of critical importance so that their manufacturing practices stay consistent and they can produce a consistent product themselves.
What if you have a home grow or, or even you want to test a product maybe you bought at the store. What are tests and services you might offer for consumers?
We have a lot of home growers that have seeds and don’t know what they are. That’s a really fun one that we get quite a bit verifying the identity of unknown or mystery plants. We also really do have a few times when people will test store-bought products. That’s coming more and more as people become more savvy in their product purchasing. We can test and verify that the products are in fact comprised of the components that are listed on that label.
It depends what you’re using those products for. Not all of us are in this recreational market. A large number of individuals have particular ailments or issues where certain plants really have a positive effect on their outcome and other plants are not effective. In that realm there’s a lot more interest in consumers themselves driving the knowing and consumers themselves testing their own products for consistency. It’s of critical importance to make themselves feel happy and healthy and fight disease. Having that consistency is exceptionally important.
You Are Coming Out With A Seal Consumers Can Look For When Purchasing, Can you Tell us More About That?
The LeafWorks certified seal is something that’s launching in the market in the coming year. If you see a product with that LeafWorks certified seal on it, you are guaranteed that the label claim has been substantiated by a third party.
You can be sure that the input materials are in fact consistent with the label. This is something that we do for all other botanicals. If you go to your health food store, it’s the same thing with that Gingko example, you trust that there really is ginko in that product. So if you see the LeafWorks seal, you can rest assured that the product has been tested and those claims are in fact verified.
To Drive the Legitimacy of The Industry, Consumers Should be Asking for Seals Like This?
If you don’t ask for it, it’s going to be a lot harder to receive it. There are so many cultivators, operators, and manufacturers. They have so much on their plates right now that there are almost too many things to do. So the voice of the consumer and the qualifications and the needs of the consumer as they become more refined will definitely dictate the practices that the manufacturers and cultivators adhere to.
Demanding transparency and demanding label fidelity will become more and more important as consumers become more educated and more savvy about what they do and do not want to see in the market.
Tell Us About the Canndor Herbarium?
Herbariums are the most fundamental way that we define plants. So if you find a new species of plant, one of the first things you’re gonna do when you write that species description is you’re going to press some of these plants. Kind of like what we all did as kids when we found a four leaf Clover, put it in that telephone book and smush it. Then that four leaf clovers gonna last forever.
We do this as a way to document our plants in our herbarium. When we are looking to make tests, identify Gingko, echinacea, or dandelion the first thing we do is we go to an herbarium reference verified material in order to make a test that’s accurate to the material. When you come into the cannabis space and the hemp space, resources are completely lacking.
So we decided, well we need to start one. So we started a nonprofit. It stands on its own, it’s just an herbarium. It’s a beautiful and wonderful thing where individuals can document their own plants right there and see descriptions of what those plants are.
Then the plants are held in a repository at candor. LeafWorks interaction with candor is that anytime LeafWorks takes in a client and they’re doing their own breeding or they’re making their own plant definitions entering into a supply chain certification or a cultivar registration, we require them to also make herbarium pressings and submit them to candor.
So we donate/submit a lot of samples to Candor. It grounds their genetic data in something real. The herbarium itself is a separate entity that holds those vouchers or those plant pressings.
It’s really important for the community itself because it’s a way to establish precedence. If a group has had plants for a really long time, people have wonderful collections of a lot of really diverse plants, they can then document that through the herbarium. They have a way to reference the history of their collections such that they can prove ownership, where they can prove that they’ve been stewarding plants.
This protects growers in various ways from outside organizations coming in and claiming that these plants are uniquely theirs. The herbarium serves a lot of functions, but it’s separate from LeafWorks in the sense that it’s a nonprofit, it does its own thing and has its own projects. It was just something we knew we needed to start because it’s a resource that explains the plant material and you can’t do good botanical identification without that kind of resource.
It’s not the job of a geneticists to make those definitions. That’s absolutely absurd. Those definitions need to come from the community, the history. It’s complicated because people have been stewarding these plants under such difficult conditions – prohibition. Honoring all of the work that has been done and letting those individuals that have done the hard work make the definitions of the plants that we all now get to benefit from is exceptionally important to us.
Candor gives them that platform. To press plants and to make descriptions and claim the history that is theirs.
Are Mainly Larger Growers Participating in the Herbarium?
We get samples from everyone. There’s definitely a lot of large growers because they see the economic value of land claim to their material in a neutral third party. But we have a lot of growers that have fascinating collections and have been collecting for a long time. A lot of plants that aren’t necessarily commercially viable but are interesting either for their flower, their smell, or their medicinal properties. It’s really an amazing and diverse group of individuals that contribute to the herbarium.
Can The Plants Come from Anywhere in The World?
The way the herbarium works is local chapters hold the material. So if the material’s from Oregon, a local chapter in Oregon will house the material. If they’re hemp plants from North Carolina that were vouchering, those plants are held in North Carolina. There are herbariums in various States, California by far has the most, just by our presence in the history of the cannabis community in this state and the importance of the genetics that have been developed here.
California has the largest chapters and the most numerous chapters, but they are all over the place at this point, which is really nice.
Is there any Community Access if you wanted to see it access the database?
Right now when we are fundraising to digitize the accessions. That’s in the future plan, it’s not currently available, but is absolutely one of the goals that we’re all working towards.
One five and 10 year cannabis, cannabis industry predictions?
The one year is definitely easier. I think that there will continue to be a lot of movement of players, a lot of new players and individuals that are in the market now falling out. It’s really hard to grow as a business when everything is changing. It’s very hard financially, it’s very hard mentally and emotionally to keep up with the shifting sands of regulation. I think that’ll continue in the next year.
I think within five years we’ll start to see a little bit more stability.
I’m curious about the hemp hype and how that’s going to shake out and how we’re going to view hemp in five years. As a botanist, it’s all the same plant. I find it kind of amusing the bifurcation that we see in the hemp cannabis spaces. I think in the next five years they will come together a little more, especially depending on how federal federal laws play out.
10 years, I think we’ll have a slightly more mature market. I’m really looking forward to the time when we just view cannabis as another medicinal plant. And so when we go to the store and we’re dealing with echinacea or dealing with metals, we’re also dealing with cannabis and we realize that it’s just another one of our amazing botanical resources.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I really am excited about the growth that’s happening in the industry and the destigmatization that’s happening around cannabis and the amount of interest it can generate in the botanical world.
Looking at our farming practices through the lens of cannabis. It’s not only the plants we grow and the plants we consume, but also how we grow them and how those practices affect our health and the health of our entire environment and our communities.
One thing I am hopeful about cannabis in the next five to 10 years is how the lens of cannabis can shift how we view a lot of the ag tech, bio ag tech and just farming practices in general that we’ve taken for granted as normal when they’re really not. Shifting to a more holistic and longterm vision of healthy ecosystems and healthy farm life within those ecosystems.
The Cannabis community has really held a torch for a lot of the regenerative farming practices and that shift in mindset that you can be profitable and make a beautiful product without having to conform to big industrial ag.