Grow Basics
Go Back

Don't Panic It's Organic

What is organic cannabis?
By Colin Gordon & Ben Owens

What is organic? What is organic cannabis? To me, the term is subjective, and often meaningless.

"Organic" holds meaning in that its presence on a label signals something to the consumer, but the meaning of that signal itself is subjective; organic is defined differently based on industry, geography, and use.

For example, the USDA defines organic as:

"Certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible." (emphasis added)

"Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment...As with all organic foods, none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which the organic standards expressly prohibit."

In other words, the categorization is flexible if you have a specific purpose to use synthetic substances (and an approved exception to the rule), so long as you aren't using any genetically modified organisms.

Due to the federally illegal nature of cannabis, state certification authorities like the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) can only offer "organic-comparable" certification.1

"As a certifier, we find ourselves in the middle of a states' rights versus federalism conflict. As a federal program, CCOF is accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), which is answerable to the Justice Department and federal law and policy. As a result, at this time, CCOF cannot issue an NOP certificate to any product that is not federally legal. As a broad organization with many stakeholders, CCOF cannot risk negatively impacting all clients until the federal/state conflict is resolved or we receive clarification from the USDA."1

Other certifications and organizations exist in different states, regions, and countries, and some are more accepted than others.

This begs the question: where do we draw the line with what is and is not considered "organic cannabis" since there is not yet a nationally—or globally—recognized definition?

The USDA's list of allowed and prohibited substances, methods and ingredients2 explicitly allows certain "synthetic substances in organic crop production" without it affecting the "organic" status of the product.

When it comes to cannabis nutrients, what qualifies as organic?

Do organic-certified bottle nutrients count? Do certified organic substrates (coco, peat, soil)? What about tilling the soil vs. no-till? What if you are running completely organic inputs but have to supplement with mineral salts (like calcium)?

What is the difference between an organic nutrient and a salt nutrient?

In short, the main difference is availability; organic inputs rely upon an ecosystem of microorganisms that process these inputs into bioavailable mineral nutrients. During this process of breaking down, it is plant material, but when the nitrogen breaks down from bat guano, that nitrogen nutrient is identical to a salt-based nitrogen nutrient. Salts are those mineral nutrients in their processed form, and are immediately available upon input.

The only difference is in the initial form of the nutrients in the inputs; the plant uptakes the same compounds.

Salt (mineral) nutrients are not "synthetic"; they are mined from the ground as naturally-occurring minerals. These are nutrients that have already been broken down in nature, and, instead of being a bone, it is now calcium. No one is synthetically producing nutrients; these are all found in nature.*

If you are mining the phosphorus used for nutrients, how is that not organic?

Sure, there are potentially nitrates that are made synthetically. Like, with nitrogen, they combine something with that element to stabilize it; nitrogen alone is explosive, and is usually mined attached to something. There are a lot of different sources of nitrates, but elements are elements; phosphorus is phosphorus. Nitrogen is an ingredient that is often combined with calcium and magnesium (i.e. calcium nitrate, magnesium nitrate), but this only affects the availability of the element itself.

The benefits of compost and living soil are all of the different additives that they bring to the rhizosphere that aren't nutrients themselves, but supplement your system's inputs. Fungi, microbes, microorganisms, they all support terpene production and other “qualities" of your final product.

The important distinction as far as the nutrients themselves is that they are chemically the same at the point of uptake.

It is the process, the breakdown, the availability, the micronutrients, and microorganisms that accompany them that differentiate where those nutrients are coming from.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic applications, such as IPM?

Can you have an organic IPM process if you are using salt nutrients? Can you have an organic crop if you are using synthetic IPM applications?

What about hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol? According to the USDA list, they are labeled as synthetics, but are approved for organic use.

Consumables vs. Combustibles

It's not only about what has been researched as safe or non-toxic for consumable products. It is about what happens to those residual compounds if they combust. There is a big difference between a tomato that gets rinsed off before you eat it, and a smoked bud that retains whatever compounds it was sprayed with. We learned this in cannabis with the common fungicide myclobutanil (known as Eagle 20), and the harmful byproducts it creates when combusted. Conversely, a product like Zerotol breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen, innocuous, naturally occurring compounds. 

Personally, I feel that organic cannabis starts with analyzing your applications. What are you using for pest and pathogen controls? The most toxic things that I know of in this industry come from IPM and pathogen prevention. For that reason, I feel being organic starts with the foundation of having no chemical applications.

Back when the industry started, people were just using the word "organic" casually, and few were attempting to actually be organic by any definition of the word.

There is no stated definition of what organic cannabis is, so regulatory bodies don’t want you making that claim. But there's also no agreed-upon definition in this country or this world that I have seen for what organic cannabis is.

When I worked at a hydro store, we used California's regulations as our standards: if CA says it's ok, it's probably safe.

California is among the most strict when it comes to product claims and allowable applications in agriculture. They were the first to ban PGRs, and are always the first to ban other applications that they believe to be harmful. So, as far as adhering to what chemicals are believed to be safe, I would always check to see if California would allow it. If the California Ag department deems something safe, to me that is best reference. When there's humans and money involved, there's always some bullshit, but they are pretty strict and reliable. 

Even the organic community gets into arguments as to what "organic" means.

No-till growers with soil that was 100% made by them with no other amendments than compost that they composted themselves will claim that their methods are organic. Then, you have someone who is using certified-organic plastic bottle nutrients who will also make that same claim. That’s just not the same thing.

If I'm inquiring as to whether a cannabis product  is organic, my #1 concern is what IPM practices were used.

“It tastes organic.”

I don’t care if cultivators are using mineral salt-based nutrients; that doesn’t concern me. 

Now, if you're in rock wool and only feeding six macro nutrients and no micronutrients, the bud won’t have a great flavor or wide spectrum of terps, and it won’t taste as good as something with the full spectrum of micronutrients. But it isn't the salt-based nature of the nutrients that's to blame, it's the lack of micronutrients.

True organic soil is still the best substrate for delivering the widest variety of micronutrients.

Often, what people believe to be an organic flavor is just a full spectrum of nutrients that's not solely macros.

I've had many people tell me that my weed is organic (nutrients) when it's not; it could be a General Hydroponics base but I'll be using seven different micronutrient supplements. From my experience, if you have a substrate that can support your rhizosphere's microbes, and you have micronutrients in there, properly using salt nutrients will yield similar results in quality if you understand how to get the plants what they need without overfeeding. A large part of that art is not overloading your macros. It's not just about giving your plants a bunch of PK booster in hopes of bigger yields.

When growing in organics, calcium deficiencies can be common, and many will use a salt-based calcium supplement when needed because calcium is too difficult to quickly introduce into your plants in organic form; it breaks down very slowly. So, if you're completely organic—you're using compost, and super soil, and natural amendments only—but you need to use calcium, how do you handle the situation?

The nutrients themselves are identical at the point of uptake. 

As it is broken down organically or as it is introduced in readily available form, the plant sees no difference between that calcium or nitrogen or phosphorus in that particular molecule. The plant ingests it and uses it just the same. Because of that, we need to look at what other processes are happening that are having dramatic effects on qualities like terps, color, and distinction.  I believe the determining factor is more about your micronutrients and your microbes than your inputs; those are the actual culprits.

"Nute shaming."

Nute shaming, that's what I call it. Believing your philosophy is better than other growing philosophies is a feelings-based argument, and feelings-based arguments aren't classically the most airtight.

Always ask “why.”

What is the difference between an organic and salt nutrient? Once it is in a nutrient form, it is identical. Organic implies that there’s still some process left in the breakdown of a nutrient from organic matter.

The biggest issue with supplemental inputs is excess; in commercial agriculture, most of the nutrients end up as runoff and end up polluting rivers.

No doubt that worldwide, the use of salt nutrients creates a huge waste and runoff problem that is causing blooms and algae and all sorts of issues like red tide. Monocropping has led to nutrient deprivation and salt-based inputs have led to super-saturation. But we don't want to conflate that issue with the analytical understanding of what is actually affecting the cannabis plants themselves.

This is not an argument for one or the other, rather a clarification of the different ways of cultivating cannabis.

I'm not making a case for anything; I honestly think that people are just drawn to different systems and ways of growing. If you are dialed in, you are dialed in.

I have seen genuinely great results from every type of growing.

Dialing in your process is a long commitment. I feel like it's important that you go with something that works for you. Some people love irrigation and setting up drip systems; some people love making soil, and grow conditions may dictate your choices. If I was growing under the sun, I would be using mostly soil and organics because the efficacy is so much better, whereas indoors, I'm using a combination of organic and salt inputs.

End Game Dictates Approach

If you're growing to make seed, your approach will be different than growing for smokable flower. Similarly, if you are growing for distinction of flavor and boutique quality, your approach will be different than if you are chasing potency and yields.

If you're going for potency, I have found that minerals crush it indoors; outdoors, I’ve seen both mineral and organics test extremely high.

If you are just looking for THC alone, minerals do fine for that end game. But if you are looking for additional qualities like higher terpenes, these are dramatically affected by the spectrum of your inputs, specifically the inclusion of organic supplements. If you are feeding your plants these water-soluble salt nutrients, then it is the amendments that you are adding to your substrate (worm castings, microbes, teas) that are where your full spectrum comes from.

I like using amended coco and watering several times a day using mineral nutrients; I unequivocally believe organic amendments are necessary to achieve the best product as far as effects and terps.

People often ask what they should use and the answer is that it doesn't matter; what matters is the dedication and time you’re going to put in. 

I've grown indoors, in greenhouses, and outdoors. I’ve run General Hydroponics, New Millenium, RxGreenSolutions, CYCO Nutrients, Botanicare, Advanced Nutrients, Green Planet, Roots Organic, Nectar of the Gods, NPK Powders, Mills, ROCK, Fox Farm, Super Soil, and even basic powdered nutrients that I would get at the local hardware store or find leftover in the grow closet. They all work. 

Healthy roots, healthy nutes, healthy plants.

Growing for Flower vs. Seeds

When I'm phenohunting, I might add more organic amendments to the substrate.

Sometimes, I'll use less perlite and more amendment to improve that rhizosphere retention. Then, I might have a couple teas that I wouldn’t normally use in seed making that add a wider spectrum of micronutrients. I might feed at a lower EC, at lower temperatures, maybe even at a slightly lower uMole as well so that I'm not forcing the plants as much. When I'm aiming for quality, I try to allow for 20-25ºF in temperature variance to bring out the colors of each plant.

With seed making, I'm pushing the plants to the max.

Especially because you need the maximum amount of growth in the least amount of time because the window for seed development is limited. With seeds, I'm going for biomass, so that's a different approach than growing for buds. During flower, I'm running higher phosphorous and higher potassium feeds, higher CO2 levels, and warmer temperatures than if I was running for flower. I'm also only allowing for a 10-degree total temperature difference between night and day.

Organic Seeds

To me, all seed made through selective breeding is organic seed.

I've never personally seen what I would consider inorganic seed. My definition of such would be some sort of digital manipulation; genetic modification of an organism through means other than classic breeding methods. I've still never had anyone come to me and say, "This is a GMO cannabis seed." I assume this will eventually change, but then how will you know? How do you tell when GMO seeds enter the market? It will be insidious when it happens.

Any time that something can effect the genetic we are talking about epigenetics, and the potential of altering a plant's genetic coding moving forward.

I don’t see the possibility of mineral vs. organic nutrients affecting the genetics or epigenetics of a plant; I don’t see how that would happen, but anything is possible. 

Plants will go through reactions to everything, especially when they have pests, and when they are treated with pesticides. By treating your plants, you are soliciting a reaction from your plant and, technically, you could be activating something epigenetically. I haven't seen it, and it's unlikely, but it's possible.

The world of epigenetics is in its infancy; we are just beginning to understand them. 

Terminology is often misused, and this is one of the better examples of it.

I'm not saying that you can’t have organic cannabis; you definitely can. I'm just saying that I think that most people who market the term are misusing it, don’t fully understand it, and use it disparagingly against mineral nutrients when the reality is that there is still a significant amount of subjectivity when it comes to determining what is organic.

If all applications are soil-grown and nontoxic, and a grow is not using any sort of chemicals, that could be organic.

I am fine with the argument that the nutrients should be organic. There’s a lot of valid arguments. Significant further discussion needs to be had. 

What if the substrate has to be organic? Well, coco technically comes from the Earth. Is that organic? How much amendment would I need to add to the coco before it is considered soil? 

The only true organic method is sun grown in feral soil, letting the seeds drop naturally at the end of the year and letting the crop come back as it may.

Until there are actual stated regulations, I think people should use the word “organic” less, or, if it is a big part of who you are, really clarify the message and what you mean by it. Explain it thoroughly: What does organic mean to you as a company? As a grower? As a consumer? – even if it doesn’t comply with standards state to state.

It's more important to be open about what organic means to you.

To say cannabis is organic is a bit bold; if I were a cannabis brand, I would specify.

I would say, “We are no-till.” I would say, “We use compost." I would say, “We don't use any IPM applications in flower."

No-till and other types of farmers believe what they do to be best practices. I’ll continue to encourage anyone to follow good practices. But that doesn’t clarify what organic is when it comes to cannabis and what benefits it offers.

This is a microcosm of a bigger problem in our industry.

There is a constant misuse of terms. People regularly pretend to understand things that they don't. And while this plays out, retail companies are using verbiage that has no real meaning.

Be specific with your language. Try to understand the terms that you’re using. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.


  1. CCOF Now Offers an Organic-Comparable Cannabis Certification. (2021). CCOF.
  2. National Archives and Records Association. (2022). Code of Federal Regulations. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
Let’s match.
Search for the strain that suits you.
You’ll know it when you see it.
Flowering Time (Days)
Life Cycle (Days)
Cannabinoid Profile (TAC)
Terpene Profile
Height / Vigor
Internode Length
Ideal Environment
Grow Level