More and more places are removing legal barriers to cannabis, whether for recreational or medicinal use. With the decrease in repression, the development of markets such as CBD and a society that is gradually opening up, the cannabis industry needs to achieve greater production to meet consumer demand.
But even as the legal industry booms, the black market persists with competitive prices and profiting from unethical and unsustainable practices. Unfortunately, this growing expansion of cannabis cultivation and marijuana farms can have serious environmental consequences that are taking their toll on the planet.
As more places create regulations for marijuana cultivation, indoor (rather than greenhouse or outdoor) cultivation has become the option that most cultivators are forced into based on these very same regulations. While indoor has various benefits to the cultivator like security and climate control – many political obstacles prevent growers from establishing or growing outdoor or in greenhouses.
However, indoor growing is more harmful to the environment than outdoor or greenhouse growing due to the large amount of electricity it uses, which in turn contributes to carbon emissions.
A recent study by researchers at Colorado State University shows that indoor cannabis cultivation in the U.S., depending on its location, produces greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle of the plant of between 2,283 and 5,184 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of dried flower. In comparison, one year of driving a car burning 2,000 liters of gasoline releases approximately 4,600 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. Growing 28g of cannabis is estimated to be the equivalent of burning 60 liters of gasoline in Hawaii, for example.
These huge emissions are largely attributed to the use of electricity for indoor air conditioning, high-intensity lighting, extraction for ventilation or the supply of carbon dioxide for accelerated growth. In short, indoor production is one of the most energy-intensive processes in existence.
While growing marijuana outdoors is naturally more energy efficient (after all, you don’t need to plug into the sun), cannabis farms also have a different kind of environmental impact.
Preparing a plot of land can mean clearing forests, diverting rivers, and destabilizing entire ecosystems. Without any regulation, illegal growers often use pesticides and other banned products to protect their crops from pests, which can have devastating consequences for nearby wildlife as well as the end consumer.
It is also problematic for aquatic ecosystems, as it risks poisoning waterways with water runoff. Runoff water draining from plants contains nutrient compounds which harm the environment – regardless of whether they are “organic” or “natural” nutrient products. Moreover, growers often divert water from streams to irrigate their plants, threatening both local fish populations and water supplies in the area.
Cannabis is a plant that requires a lot of water. Some estimates indicate that an individual adult potted plant can require up to 20 liters of water per day in summer, 7 liters more than it takes to clean a load in an energy-efficient dishwasher.
Clearly, there is a need to help growers develop more sustainable cannabis cultivation methods with nature. Here are some ideas:
It may not be the ideal method for some due to the climate they live in, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just implies a small change of perspective, such as thinking about a mixed outdoor-greenhouse system in countries with less favorable climates.
Almost all electrical equipment comes with very clear labeling about energy consumption and efficiency. Pay attention to these labels. Choose lighting that does not consume as much energy, such as LED lights, which also produce less heat.
There are many products sold as pesticides or fungicides which are NOT safe to be used on marijuana. Not only are they dangerous to the consumer but they are also harmful to the surrounding environment. Study and be aware of which products are safe and which are harmful.
Remember that “chemical” does not mean “dangerous”. Many companies and marketing teams will try to scare you into buy products that are “better,” or “safer.” Water is a chemical. In fact everything that exists is a combination of chemicals.
Brands which use buzzwords like “organic”, or “natural” in order to sell their products as safer, healthier, or more ecological are taking advantage of naive consumers. Many “organic” certified products have been proven to be more harmful to the environment than the conventional products they sell themselves as alternatives to.
It is a common mistake for first-time growers to overwater their cannabis plants. Measures can also be taken on a personal and industrial level to ensure that plants do not lose water through evaporation.
Composting is the best thing you can do for your crop. Not only does it mean you can “recycle” almost all the organic waste your kitchen produces, but it is the best fertilizer you can give your plants.
Is there one brand manufacturing products in a way that is more eco-friendly than another? Is there a way to get good quality soil that doesn’t come in a plastic bag? Always look for the eco-friendly alternative before making decisions!
Everything you use in your cannabis grow is a resource that comes from somewhere else. Being aware of that is the most important way to go green. Any product you use has some cost to the natural environment. Every drop of water you use is part of our most valuable resource.
The question of whether cannabis prohibition is harming the planet by allowing growers to use harmful cultivation techniques is something that will need to be considered as the legalization debate moves forward.
The market has grown steadily over the past 30 years, but a lot has changed in the past 5 years as several countries around the world are opening up in some way to marijuana.
If things don’t change, there is concern that legalization will do nothing to help the environmental crisis the planet is suffering. However, legalization coupled with the right environmental policy has the potential to be good for our environment.
Will the cannabis industry be sustainable in the future? Three players will provide the answer to that question: growers, government regulations and consumers.
While regulations could encourage more sustainable practices, lawmakers should design policies with cannabis growers in mind. We should not discount the role of consumer demand, which would involve buying from low-emission producers, although that option is not yet a reality.
There are techniques that can be used to improve the carbon footprint, such as rain-fed agriculture, an agriculture that relies especially on the efficient use of rainfall in places with semi-arid conditions. It is better for the environment because it does not deplete valuable water reserves in regions where water is scarce, especially during a drought.
Using companion plants in polyculture is also another option that avoids the need for pesticides, as some plant species naturally repel insects that eat the companion plant, as well as allowing other beneficial insects to be attracted.
In addition, to keep the soil alive between seasons, you can use cover or rotation crops, vermiculture or leave the land without tillage for some period of time: they replenish the soil with nutrients and prevent soil erosion for when it is time to plant again.
Agricultural practices can be hard on the environment, stripping the soil of its nutrients, reducing water retention, destroying symbiotic ecosystems and inhibiting plant growth after years of forced farming. That’s why regenerative agriculture focuses on maintaining and improving soil quality, biodiversity and crop yields through sustainable methods. As growers, we have a responsibility to care for the land to ensure that it is fertile and healthy for the future. If we take care of the land, we take care of our plants.