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Which Parts of the Cannabis Plant Can Be Measured With Near Infrared Spectroscopy?

By 
Ahmed Korayem
8 Min Read
May 7, 2024

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Summary

  • Precision in Cultivation: Relying only on state-licensed lab testing leads to common business challenges, including analytical inconsistencies, high costs, and long turnaround time. On-site testing for plant material composition improves precision in cultivation to mitigate most of those challenges, directly impacting yield and profit margins. Near infrared (NIR) spectroscopy, specifically, offers advantages and benefits for on-site testing.
  • Flower Analysis: You want to know the actual cannabinoid and terpene content in your flower? On-site testing will get you those answers right away–significantly faster than waiting for lab tests to return. This data helps your team identify optimal harvest time and overall flower quality.
  • Leaf and Plant Tissue Analysis: That same insight compounds across the plant’s growth cycle. Testing leaves and plant tissue can reveal vital information about the plant’s nutritional status, hydration, health, and maturity, crucial for managing growth conditions effectively.
  • Soil Health Analysis: Look beneath your plant, too. Testing your soil will provide insights into organic matter content, moisture levels, nutrient deficiencies, and overall soil health, essential for maintaining the health of the root zone and, by extension, the entire plant.

Introduction

In manufacturing settings, precision is important. The medical cannabis industry is no exception to that rule. Acting with precision is a guiding principle in the cultivation environment, and the more data that growers can acquire the more precise they can be in tailoring their crops’ chemical profiles and health. 

That translates to being better informed on yield and profit margins. By understanding the actual chemical composition of your plant well upstream from any retail distribution, your team can make informed decisions on harvest time and end product development. Without testing your plants on-site, your team is left waiting for lab results near the very end of the growth cycle (or even after harvest). 

This is where a layer of on-site testing technology comes into play.

Rather than waiting for results from a state-licensed testing lab, medical cannabis growers can use on-site near-infrared (NIR) scanners for rapid analysis of their plants’ material composition. 

What Is Near-Infrared Spectroscopy?

It might sound like a complicated concept, but NIR spectroscopy is simple in practice. NIR spectroscopy is a method that shines near-infrared light on materials, like plants, to see what absorbs that light within. This method has been used in state-licensed testing labs to add credibility to the data.

This type of light is just beyond the spectrum of what our eyes can see. For cannabis plants, this technique can quickly tell us important things about the chemical composition: cannabinoid content, terpene content, nutrient content, and more.

Acquiring this in-depth data is convenient with the use of handheld NIR scanners, offering an expedient method for analyzing plants without ever removing them from the rack. These scanners are quite handy, as advancements in technology have enabled a miniaturization process. You can deploy the same technology that licensed labs often use–right from your pocket. 

This practice provides real-time data that can be used to further any crop steering goals or even to monitor potential regulatory compliance issues (like THC content caps, for instance).  Consider NIR spectroscopy a convenient quality control check for the medical cannabis cultivation environment. 

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Cannabis Testing

When scanning your cannabis plants, there are three main components that can receive this NIR spectroscopy light: the flower, the leaves (and plant tissue), and the soil beneath the plant. 

Flower

The flower of the cannabis plant is where growers will gather some of the richest chemical data to inform market-based decisions. Within seconds, a quick scan can answer multiple questions:

  • What is the cannabinoid content of the flower?
  • What is the terpene profile?
  • Is the flower at its peak for harvesting?
  • How consistent is the harvest from batch to batch?
  • Are there any contaminants in the flower?
  • How does environmental stress affect the flower's chemical composition?
  • What is the moisture content? And how can the drying and curing processes be optimized?
  • Is there genetic consistency in the flowers from the same strain?

By scanning a given batch of cannabis flower from multiple places or from individual buds, growers will pick up a clear picture of the full crop’s chemical makeup. The point of harvest is, of course, an important matter. 

On-site testing allows growers to overcome the limitations of calendar-based harvesting, processing, and distribution. Why leave those important decisions to rigid calendars, when real-time data can provide much more nuanced information?

This is where NIR scanners offer a greater degree of versatility. Cannabis flower can be tested by NIR spectroscopy both before and after harvest.

Leaves and Plant Tissue

While the cannabis flower may contain the chemical compounds and secondary metabolites that ultimately drive patient decisions in the retail environment, the plant tissue contains data that will drive grower decisions. The THC content of a given cannabis plant won’t matter much if the plant itself falls victim to environmental stressors or health issues.

NIR spectroscopy offers growers a look at cannabis plant tissue that can answer several important questions at various points in the growth cycle:

  • What is the nutritional status of the plant?
  • Is the plant properly hydrated?
  • Are there any signs of disease or pest infestation?
  • How are the plants responding to environmental conditions?
  • Are the plants mature enough for harvesting? (Make sure to test the flower, too!)
  • How effective are our current production practices?
  • Bottom line, what is the overall health of the plant?

Testing plant tissue can provide a holistic view of the plant's health–especially early on in the growth cycle. While flowers indicate the end product's quality, leaves and other tissues reflect the general condition and vigor of the entire plant. Data gathered early–in the vegetative phase–can help growers make informed decisions as the crop develops. 

Perhaps even more so than flower testing, this is where growers can secure a significant advantage over competitors who are waiting for results from state-licensed labs. A comprehensive health check during the full growth cycle helps in understanding the effectiveness of the growing environment and agronomic practices.

With the ease of spectroscopy tests, cultivation teams can blend daily NIR scans of individual plants into their SOPs. Training is simple, and scanning a plant’s leaves and tissue can be an easy way for staff members to quickly learn about a given crop. 

Soil

For cultivation teams using soil as a growing medium, NIR spectroscopy can provide much-needed information about the actual environment around the plant’s root zone. In most cases, of course, the root zone is far less visible than the plant’s flowers and leaves. This is where spectroscopy can really shine.

Soil is a highly dynamic growing medium. This is especially true for growers using “living soil.” Its characteristics can change over time due to a variety of biological, chemical, and physical processes. These changes are influenced by weather conditions if growers are cultivating their cannabis outdoors, but also by factors such as agricultural practices, plant chemotypes, and biological activity within the soil itself in the case of living soil.

Testing at the soil level can help cultivation teams answer several questions in both the veg and flower rooms:

  • What is the organic matter content of the soil?
  • How much moisture is in the soil?
  • Are there nutrient deficiencies in the soil?
  • What is the soil’s health status?
  • Is the soil contaminated?
  • What are the soil's physical properties?
  • How does the soil vary across different crops (or even within the same crop)?
  • How effective are your team’s soil amendments (if any)?

The answers to those questions lead to downstream effects. The health of your soil will dictate the health of your plants and the quality of your end products for medical cannabis patients. 

Regular soil testing with NIR spectroscopy helps manage more granular variables like soil pH and nutrient content, which are crucial for maintaining soil health. This is an area where growers can reap great rewards in their data-driven decision-making. Waiting for labs to return analytical results won’t even provide information on your soil. On-site testing can deliver a holistic solution to problems that other growers might not even be aware of.

Conclusion

Medical cannabis growers have known for thousands of years the importance of monitoring their plants. Growers will cultivate their own daily habits, with many of them making sure to touch each individual plant each day.

But to get a nuanced, detail-rich understanding of your plants, NIR spectroscopy is a helpful tool. Regular NIR scans can help track the health of cannabis plants over time, providing a detailed record of their condition, from soil to leaves to flower. And by regular, we mean frequent: The more your team tests your crops’ flower, leaves, and soil, the more dialed-in your data will become. 

This continuous monitoring helps in recognizing patterns or shifts in the spectral data that may signal roadblocks to your cultivation success. It’s best to get out in front of any problems in an environment as dynamic as medical cannabis cultivation.

See NeoSpectra in action and learn how it can enhance your analysis workflows. Request a demo and we’ll be glad to guide you through its unique features.
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