- 1. While many agricultural sectors seek to produce in an environmentally friendly manner, is cannabis a good student?
While many agricultural sectors seek to produce in an environmentally friendly manner, is cannabis a good student?
We are seeing the rise of cannabis farms, where large companies and small organizations devote time, money and resources to cultivating this plant. The question is whether the cultivation of cannabis is sustainable.
The 3 types of culture
First, you need to understand the three main ways of growing cannabis. Each offers unique advantages and disadvantages for the environment as well as for final yields:
Indoor culture in pots or hydroponics: Indoor cultivation - in pots or hydroponics - is common, especially for operations that want to remain discreet or that want to keep precise control over their environment. These methods use artificial light, which makes them very energy intensive. On the other hand, growing indoors can reduce water requirements,
Greenhouses: Culture in a greenhouse is similar, but can be based on a mixture of natural and artificial lighting; for example, growers can rely on natural sunlight for the majority of a plant's needs, but supplement with artificial light when there is not enough sunlight.
Outdoor Farms : The outdoor farms rely on the most “natural” form of cannabis cultivation, allowing plants to grow in the ground, with minimal man-made structures to protect them. Yet outdoor farms raise their own set of potential issues, such as the use of pesticides or fertilizers.
Key problem areas
Cannabis cultivation can introduce potential problems, depending on how it is grown:
Artificial light and energy consumption
Indoor cultivation is common on cannabis farms. It allows growers optimal control of the growing environment, including lighting, room temperature and air circulation. These systems consume a significant amount of electricity. And depending on how this electricity is produced, it could be harmful to the environment.
States that allow the cultivation of cannabis have put in place environmental regulations to ensure sustainable management of this practice. But in many places, these regulations are still unclear, making it easier for producers to avoid costly environmental requirements. For example, farmers must take unusable plant waste and mix it with 50% non-plant waste such as compost or soil. But to save money, a company could possibly put the garbage in a plastic bag and throw it in a dumpster.
Product shipping is an environmental factor for all agricultural businesses, including cannabis farms. The more crops are shipped, the greater the carbon footprint of transport. In the United States, this is an area in which the cannabis industry shines. It is a state-regulated and state-level business, so shipping is quite local and self-sufficient. If and when cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, that factor could change.
Tracking and packaging
Cannabis is tracked to sale in Washington and several other states, making it one of the most followed industries in the country. This can be beneficial for consumers and farmers alike, with detailed information on the history of the product. However, no information on the packaging is followed at this stage.
Many cannabis products are packaged in plastic wrap and other disposable packaging, but not recyclable. But consumers can let growers know they want information on sustainability - including details on the materials used for packaging and instructions on how to dispose of them responsibly.
Pesticides and other chemicals
The use of pesticides is widespread in all sectors of agriculture; it is not unique to the cannabis industry. However, it is still worth thinking about it. Many farmers, in an effort to protect their cannabis plants, could use chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and other products that end up in soil or water sources.
Size of the farm
It should also be noted that the size of a farm can affect its overall impact on the environment. Assuming all other variables are equal, a small farm will generally have less impact on the environment than a large industrial farm. However, a farm that uses sustainable agricultural practices naturally reduces its negative impact on the environment on a larger scale, especially when compared to industrial farms.
At this early stage, many cannabis producers are small growers, such as in Massachusetts, where the USDA estimates that 95% of cannabis farms are “small farms,” and 82% are family farms. But as the industry grows, it will be interesting to see how the transformation of cannabis into society affects farm sizes and farming practices.
Not all cannabis farms will have the same impact, even when you factor in size. Some cannabis growers will try to make their operations more environmentally friendly. But others may cut some costs to save money or increase returns - even if that means breaking the law. However, the same goes for any farm operation.
Cannabis as a carbon sensor
We also have to take into account that cannabis is a plant, and like all plants, it absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. This allows a cannabis farm to function as a sort of carbon scavenger, trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ultimately reducing the effects of civilization's CO2 production, if only slightly. Of course, if the farm produces more CO2 than the plants can absorb, this effect will be canceled.
Ultimately the environmental impact of growing cannabis is unclear, too many variables at play, including farm sizes and the practices of cannabis growers.
Although state and local governments are strengthening environmental regulation of cannabis cultivation, it appears that many cannabis growers are already committed to environmental stewardship and sustainability.
There are certainly issues to be resolved when it comes to regulations, the CO2 impact of using artificial light, and unsustainable packaging. But for now, cannabis cultivation appears to be heading in a positive direction.