While many agricultural sectors seek to produce in an environmentally friendly way, is cannabis a good student?
We are witnessing the rise of cannabis farms, where large companies and small organizations are dedicating time, money and resources to growing this plant. The question is whether cannabis cultivation is sustainable.
The 3 types of culture
First of all, you have to understand the three main ways of growing cannabis. Each offers unique advantages and disadvantages for the environment as well as for the final returns:
Indoor culture in pots or hydroponics: Indoor growing - in pots or in hydroponics - is common, especially for farms that want to remain discreet or want to keep a precise control over their environment. These methods use artificial light, which makes them very energy-intensive. On the other hand, indoor cultivation can reduce the need for water,
Greenhouses: Culture in a greenhouse is similar, but may 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 sun.
Outdoor Farms : The outdoor farms rely on the most "natural" form of cannabis cultivation, allowing plants to grow in the soil, with a minimum of artificial structures to protect them. Yet outdoor farms raise their own set of potential problems, 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 growing is common in cannabis farms. It gives producers optimal control of the crop environment, including lighting, ambient temperature and air circulation. These systems consume a significant amount of electricity. And depending on how that electricity is produced, it could be bad for 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.
The shipping of products is an environmental factor for all agricultural businesses, including cannabis farms. The more crops are shipped, the greater the carbon footprint of transportation. In the United States, this is an area in which the cannabis industry is shining. It is a state-owned and state-owned enterprise, so the shipping industry is fairly local and autonomous. If and when cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, this factor could change.
Tracking and packaging
Cannabis is followed through to sale in Washington and several other states, making it one of the most popular industries in the country. This can be beneficial for both consumers and farmers, with detailed information on product history. However, no information on the packaging is followed at this stage.
Many cannabis products are packaged in plastic packaging and other disposable but non-recyclable packaging. But consumers can let producers know they want information about sustainable development - including details on the materials used for packaging and instructions on how to get rid of them responsibly.
Pesticides and other chemicals
Pesticide use 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 farming 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 growers are small farmers, 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 will affect farm size and farming practices.
Not all cannabis farms will have the same impact, even with size. Some cannabis growers will try to make their operations greener. But others can reduce some costs to save money or increase returns - even if it means breaking the law. However, the same goes for any farm.
Cannabis as a carbon sensor
We must also 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 kind of carbon sensor, 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.
In the end, the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation is unclear, with too many variables at stake, including the size of farms 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 engaged in environmental stewardship and sustainability.
There are certainly problems to be solved with regard to regulation, the CO2 impact of the use of artificial light and non-durable packaging. But for now, cannabis cultivation seems to be taking a positive direction.