I sat down with Paul Rushton, President and Chief Scientist at LPC Naturals, a Buffalo-based lab to talk about fungi, and how it can improve plant health and yields for commercial and homegrowers alike. We also touch on the future of the medicinal industry, and cannabinoids beyond CBD and THC.
When it comes to growing cannabis, there’s a few crucial decisions every grower has to make. The strain of cannabis, whether to use soil or hydroponics, and what type of lights are the basic questions of any grow.
Paul Rushton wants to add another question: what kind of biologicals are you using?
Rushton is the President and Chief Scientist of LPC Naturals, a Buffalo-based laboratory that specializes in the sale of fungi. But we’re not talking the kind that devastate a crop. We’re talking the kind of fungi that increase the appearance, quality and yield of your cannabis plant.
Let’s back up a step here.
Rushton got his Ph.D in Plant Biochemistry from the University of Manchester, but his path to cannabis wasn’t a straight line. He spent several years teaching at universities across the country, back when moving into cannabis meant career death in higher education. But in 2015, an opportunity arose to leave the teaching world and join a biotech lab, where he would work on manipulating the cannabinoid levels in cannabis. He’s never looked back.
LPC Naturals is the latest and greatest extension of his interest in cannabis, formed in early 2021. Here, he and his team specialize in the production of Beauveria bassiana, a strain of fungus that helps create a living soil environment for indoor grown cannabis. The fungus creates a symbiotic relationship with the plant and the soil, and the result is a healthier plant that is more resistant to disease, drought, and stress while producing higher quality yields.
Talking to Rushton, I was reminded of discussions on regenerative agricultural practices, which center around creating a living soil. He and his team have taken an ancient practice down to its most molecular components to make it accessible for all levels of growers. While modern cannabis growing practices treat the soil as a sterile medium for outside nutrients, regenerative agriculture practices center the importance of a healthy, living soil to work symbiotically with the plant. These conditions help the plant resist stress, drought, insects, and disease without the assistance of chemicals or pesticides.
For indoor growers, creating a living soil can be challenging. But with the addition of one simple fungi, Rushton has seen even experienced growers produce healthier plants with bigger and better buds. While the conversation around adding biologicals to the growing process is still foreign for many growers, Rushton and his team are trying to change that.
With the expansion of recreational legalization, more hobbyists will be digging in the dirt for the first time, trying their hand (or green thumb) at growing cannabis. So when you’re deciding which strains to plant, what soil to use, and which lights work best, don’t forget the biological element. One fungus can make all the difference.
What’s something in the industry that you’re really excited about?
PR: I think that one of the most exciting things is what we’re doing. We’re doing things with biologicals that no one else is really thinking of in the same way. I think that’s going to be something that in the next 5-10 years will become mainstream. If you talk to people in the produce areas; we take our products in and they say “oh yes we’ve been using biologicals for the last 5 – 10 years.” So you have a conversation with them which is why our biological is at least as good as the others, maybe better. The conversation with cannabis growers is completely different- it’s like “what’s a biological and why am I supposed to be using it?” So I think where the produce people are now is where the cannabis people will be relatively soon. It’s be “oh yeah I use this biological” rather than “what’s a biological?” I think that’s very exciting because we’re right at the beginning of that.
What’s one thing in the cannabis industry you think needs to change?
PR: It’s worried me for some time that there is a huge reliance on CBD. Someone else asked me this a while ago, and I said “well it’s half a mile drive from my work to the nearest Wegmans. Two years ago there were no CBD stores and now there’s three.” I think the problem is everybody has CBD, everybody can grow CBD. About 95% of the people with licenses to grow hemp in the state of NY grow for CBD. And the price is going down. So that’s not sustainable. It worries me that there’s a scenario in the near future where 90% of people will stop growing hemp because CBD is not worth growing for
I think the future will see it slightly differently; you’ll see a much bigger reliance on the minor cannabinoids and I think that’s where the big change will be. CBG, CBC, those sorts of things. That’s what I was working at in my previous job. There are ways of manipulating pathways to increase those. I think that’s something that people should be doing; I’m surprised they’re not.
Particularly for the medicinal area, people say CBD does so much more and it doesn’t. The reason that CBD is known to do more is because it’s the most common. It’s been used in the most trials. Actually, CBC and CBG could be just as good, if not better at certain things. And you need a good source of those to be able to do those clinical trials and other experiments to sort that out. So as the medicinal side becomes more regulated and more like a drug industry, it’s going to be very important to have those individual ones, find out what each one does and work out how you can make a nice mix of those to have the effect.
Does incorporating biologicals [for indoor grow] make it a more efficient system?
PR: Yes, in the sense that if your yield goes up, your yield per unit of electricity is going to go down. It’ll cost less per ounce to produce. In that sense, yes. The plants are still going to need water and lights, there’s still going to be an input. Not much you can do about that. It does help because it increases yields of the materials, and yields of the cannabinoids and terpenes. It also increases the root mass and such.
For outdoors, anything that’s a biological that takes the place of chemicals is an important step. One of the things we’re very proud of is we’re part of the green movement. Biologicals themselves that we sell only have to do as well (and they can do much better) than the chemicals people have. One of the things that is particularly good is we are taking the place of chemicals. you don’t need to wear personal protective equipment to use our product. It’s safer and it’s the future.
Where do you see the future of the industry?
PR: I think one of the things that [agriculture] would benefit from is a hemp 2.0 set of varieties that had zero cannabinoids and zero THC. It would never test hot. People in the supermarket with hemp seed oil know there can’t be trace amounts of cannabinoids. That’s something I was working on in my previous job. That’s something that can be done and should be done.
Medicinal has quite a long way to go and so does the agricultural. The agricultural shouldn’t take as long, but you need things like facilities, you need to have the right way of harvesting. You need the right type of equipment to harvest it, and to ret it if it’s going to fiber, or press the oil. Setting up a crop to be the next soybean isn’t as easy as you think, because you need all of those things.
What do you think a consumer walking into a dispensary in 10 years will see?
PR: If it’s recreational, it won’t be that different. Slightly better-defined varieties, where they tell you the levels of things are and people know what does what in a better way.
The big differences will be in the medical side. It will look more like pharmaceuticals. They will be defined. You will have separation like ibuprofen and aspirin; this is CBG, this is what CBG does. You’ll go in and have a personal talk. They’ll say you want 75% CBG, 25% CBC, no CBD, no THC and that’s what you need for say, your back. The medicinal is going to be more like personalized medicine, like a drug, and more defined. It’ll be an input based on [endocannabinoid] receptor occupancy. Which receptors do you want to touch and what cannabinoids act on one or more?