Merkley pushes research to study smoke taint, CBD

Sen. Jeff Merkley says he’s advocating for millions of dollars in research grants that will benefit two of Southern Oregon’s top crops.

The Democrat from Oregon said he’s pushing for a $5 million research grant into the way wildfire smoke affects wine grapes, and $4.5 million to research methods to better grow and certify industrial hemp.

In a Thursday morning conference call, Merkley said his push to allocate $5 million for West Coast universities to research wildfire smoke and wine grapes was spurred when a California winemaker canceled an order for Southern Oregon grapes in the fall of 2018 because of smoke taint, a claim that was disputed by growers.

“Whenever there’s a significant risk to an agricultural product — and, of course, our wine grapes are a very big deal for the state of Oregon — it’s important to explain that risk to a substantial degree,” Merkley said.

Reasons behind the 2018 grape order cancellation were less than scientific, according to Merkley.

“What we found the last harvest season was that a bunch of buyers canceled their purchase of grapes in Oregon based on quote ‘smoke taint’ for grapes that had no smoke taint,” Merkley said.

Oregon growers and winemakers ultimately worked together to create “solidarity wine” with a portion of the unsold crop, “because there were so many grapes that were not smoke tainted, but were not sold on that basis.”

The research could help scientists measure smoke taint and isolate compounds on grapes grown and harvested during heavy wildfire smoke, according to Merkley. He said scientific analysis to better understand “what’s really going on” would help develop scientific grounds for whether contracts need to be honored.

“I don’t know the answer to this. That’s why we have research,” Merkley said.

He said Oregon State University is a “premier candidate” for the research grant, but he expects other West Coast universities to participate.

Merkley also touched Thursday on millions of dollars worth of research funding related to industrial hemp.

Merkley said he’s pushing for $2.5 million to research ways to better cultivate hemp, and another $2 million to develop evaluation methods for cannabidiol or “CBD” — a non-psychoactive component of hemp that is being added to a host of health products, spurring an explosion of hemp cultivation in Southern Oregon.

“It might be a billion-dollar crop because of the value of the CBD oil,” Merkley said.

Jackson County has the most acres devoted to the crop in the state, more than for pears and grapes combined.

Hemp is in the “wild west” phase in terms of cultivation, regulation and testing, according to Merkley. Methods to ensure that psychoactive THC levels remain within legal limits can vary.

“How do you test the CBD for THC content? There’s different testing that gives you different results,” Merkley said. “As you process hemp, that number can go up and down.”

Merkley said he’d like to see the Food and Drug Administration look into treating CBD as a drug, based on early studies that show the extract is helping people with seizures and convulsions.

As a health supplement, CBD doesn’t have the same labeling requirements as drugs.

“Otherwise consumers have no idea,” Merkley said. “That becomes a form of fraud.”

Merkley said support for the proposed research bills is “very bipartisan,” and he expects them to move from committee into conference “quite quickly.”