HESIC experts help companies navigate the cannabis industry with research trials


The mantra in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is to start clean and to be pro-active, says Sebastian Jacob, Faculty at Niagara College’s School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies and Research Lead at Niagara College’s Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre. This includes good sanitation practices and starting crops from cuttings that are free of pests.

As he explains to students, over the past 10 years, Canadian researchers at institutes like Vineland Research & Innovation Centre, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs, and the University of Guelph, have tested both the phytotoxicity, and efficacy, of dipping incoming pest-infested cutting material into various products to start on a good foot. Following the success of these trials, the labels of some pest control products have been amended to include dipping as an approved method of treatment, says Sebastien.

Such replicated studies are lacking in commercial cannabis, where crop failures are not uncommon due to infestation of clonal material with arthropod hitchhikers when arriving at new facilities.

BioWorks partnered up with Plant Products to continue this research in cannabis and test a novel insecticide, tapping into the specialization of Niagara College’s Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC) cannabis research skills.

The ideal result for a novel biopesticide product would be to have better efficacy against target pests, while having little to no phytotoxicity in cannabis plants. Taking examples from the ornamental industry, dipping incoming cannabis cuttings in such a product could kill the pests without having any negative impact on the plants, which would drastically improve pest management in the cannabis industry overall.

Using robust scientific protocol, Plant Products, BioWorks, and HESIC combined their efforts to evaluate the phytotoxicity risks of dipping cuttings from multiple cannabis cultivars into various concentrations of this novel product. Results showed mild phytotoxicity to certain cultivars, but on the other hand showed promising reduction in powdery mildew.

Michael Brownbridge, Senior Technical Services Manager at BioWorks said, “Cannabis isn’t just like any other plant.”

Michael, along with Kelly Davaere from Plant Products, knew they were going to need a specific skill set and team of experts to help understand their product and how it works on cannabis.

“Cannabis has its own challenges, peculiarities and there’s lot of varietal differences in terms of sensitivity to certain treatments,” Michael said. “Having a group like Niagara College’s HESIC team who understand the crop, how to grow it, is and was critical in my view – not to mention they had access to different genetics so we could trial our product on two, three or four different cannabis strains,” Michael said.

“BioWorks’ products are sold into cannabis operations in both Canada and the U.S., so it’s important that we have reliable, certified research partners like HESIC who can substantiate claims before they bring any product to market,” said Michael.

Research, like the project that the HESIC team completed, helps to inform and develop a company’s understanding of their product.

“A result is a result. Whether the outcomes are positive, or a potential negative, knowledge is power, and you can position the product accordingly. That’s what research does for you; you don’t do research just for the sake it – there’s always an end purpose. We need to know either way what the product does, how it’s going to react under certain conditions, and how we can move forward to improve it or get it to market, and that’s why we turned to HESIC to run these trials for us,” said Michael.

HESIC specializes in growth and horticulture technology or innovation trials, integrated pest management strategies, and cannabis cultivation.

As it relates to cannabis, the team can conduct research trials led by experts in the biological and cultural practices of cannabis production. Trials may include plant nutrition, media amendments, environment, lighting, climate control, pest control and cultivar selection.

The other reality is that when it comes to cannabis, there’s are lot of governmental processes, rules, and regulations that companies must follow. The beauty of working with HESIC is that the controlled environment agriculture cannabis research facility, affectionately dubbed the ‘CannaResearchBunker’, is fully licensed by Health Canada and set up to run research growth trials.

“Having worked with Niagara College before, I knew that the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre is one of the very few certified research labs in North America that specializes in cannabis, so it’s a great connection to have for a company that produces biological products.” – Michael Brownbridge, Senior Technical Services Manager, BioWorks

In the US, the regulations are even more complicated than in Canada. “There’s no federal / national plan, so every state has to come up with their own regulations around cannabis, so it makes navigating those waters, getting any sort of licensing or performing research in the US extremely difficult to coordinate,” said Michael.

“So having a place like Niagara College so close is really useful, and that’s the beauty of the HESIC facility,” said Michael.

With the research trial results in hand, BioWorks and Plant Products now have a better understanding of the product, and plan to launch the product in the U.S. in the next few months for cannabis use. Once they understand how the product performs there, they can then take that data (since cannabis is grown indoors and is the same wherever that is) and position it properly for a Canadian release.

Not only did BioWorks and Plant Products find the experts at HESIC great to work with, but they were also impressed by the students. “With this project, it’s a positive that students are exposed to another aspect of the cannabis industry – it adds to their breadth of education, and they get a little bit better grasp of what research is and by the same token perhaps what it isn’t and what it takes to do it,” said Michael.

As an innovation centre, the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences team offers a unique go-to place for applied research. “For industry partners, working with HESIC’s medium-sized controlled growing research facility is the perfect step after smaller-scale academic research,” Sebastien noted.

As a teacher, Sebastien always puts his students’ experiences at the forefront when he conducts research trials. “For the students, it’s the best experiential learning experience that links up the knowledge acquired in the classroom with the actual challenges and up-to-date research in this industry. It is also a unique opportunity to network with trailblazing researchers and specialists in the industry,” he added.

All faculty members and researchers at HESIC are well-respected and connected in the greenhouse industry, as well as cannabis, and those networks provide value to the students and industry partners alike. The biocontrol knowledge they have gathered from all greenhouse backgrounds, whether its floriculture, fruit, or vegetables, is valuable when trying to understand how cannabis plants react to biocontrol agents. The reality is that across the board, from faculty to students, growers to industry, everyone is trying to work together, come together and find solutions to start clean with their IPM strategies. 

Michael said he will be keeping HESIC at the top of his contact list for future projects, as they have a few coming down the pipeline.

This project was made possible by funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), through the Applied Research and Technology Partnerships (ARTP) program. 

If you have an innovation challenge, we have the solution at HESIC.
Explore our website, and contact David DiPietro, Research & Innovation Manager, Business Development, at [email protected].