When conscious consumption enters the cannabis world, purchasing decisions may be based more on fair trade and regenerative agriculture than on orange hair and THC percentage. With legalization, the industry has shifted from trying to protect people from the police to trying to protect small businesses from the giants that inevitably invade the cannabis room. But while great support for small cannabis companies comes from the concern of the people involved, there is another party to consider: the planet.
Large-scale industrial agriculture has historically been no friend of the environment. But what is the real environmental impact of cannabis production? It’s not necessarily size that determines how sustainable a cannabis grow is. A small indoor farm wastes an incredible amount of electricity, while large-scale regenerative farming outdoors is possible with foresight and planning.
Of course, the cannabis industry is not currently set up to reward sustainable practices. California, one of the world’s agricultural hubs, has so far only allowed outdoor cannabis cultivation in 13 counties, and as of now, the products that can be found on pharmacy shelves are more likely to come from indoor manufacturers.
When looking at the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation, it is more important to examine the various cultivation methods and remember that, unlike traditional farming, cannabis cultivation has a different complicated dimension – one that arose from the remnants of the reefer madness.
An energy-efficient means of production
While greenhouse and indoor operations can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint, such as: For example, collecting and reusing water, soil and other natural resources, growing cannabis outdoors is the most energy efficient production method.
The International Cannabis Farmers Association, a California-based organization created to promote measures to support local farmers and the cultivation of sunglasses, conducted a study of the different levels of energy use for different types of production. Their data showed that half an acre of indoor production (22,000 square feet) generates the same energy needs per year as 298 average households. Four season greenhouses make up 82 households, while greenhouses that use sunlight to flower make as much as 15 houses. Tire houses, which mostly take in sunlight with some extra lighting, use the same as 0.5 houses a year, and of course cannabis grown under the sun does not use extra lighting energy.
If the sunglasses method meets the sustainability goal of reduced energy consumption, then why is it only allowed in certain areas and why are the shelves dominated by products for indoor use? The answer to both questions arises from an artificial notion of “quality” that dominates the market, as well as the fear that cannabis is “too free”.
Under the ban, popular culture and the media ruled that the traits that defined “quality” were primarily the THC percentage and the appearance of the buds. It would be like deciding the quality of a wine based on its alcohol content and color. This, coupled with public concerns that cannabis might grow outdoors, led to measures to encourage indoor cultivation in large, highly secure facilities.
However, growing cannabis on small farms in the sun – in harmony with the environment and without the use of chemicals – creates an objectively high quality end product. This is because the full spectrum of the sun’s rays maximizes the development of cannabinoids and terpenoids, and healthy, nutrient-rich soil results in clean cannabis.
Johnny Casali of Huckleberry Hill Farms in Humboldt County says that growing with special attention to preserving the natural landscape has an impact on the plants, resulting in cannabis with a true terroir. Terroir, a French term often used for wine, refers to the unique effects that environmental factors have on a plant phenotype.
“The ability to grow my cannabis in natural sunlight on a unique plot of land enables me to develop strains that will thrive in this area of Humboldt County,” said Casali. “The sun dictates my special creations by rising early in the morning and setting right behind the Madrone trees at 6:00 pm.”
The rules for growing under the sun
Sungrown production is currently allowed in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Growing herbs outdoors provides 1-2 harvests per year compared to the six harvests that indoor farms can produce. However, under the laws of these states, cannabis growers are taxed based on the final weight of the cannabis they sell, rather than the number of cycles they produce. In order for suntanned cannabis growers to survive in this market, they need help through more production-based tax incentives.
However, there are a few methods outdoor growers can use to supplement natural sunlight and get more harvests in a year. Mixed-light operations can range from tire houses, where farmers pull tarps to cause light deprivation, to four-season greenhouses where extra light is used to grow cannabis out of season. In addition to additional lighting, these facilities may require seasonal ventilation, heating and cooling. And as with sunglasses, this method is only allowed in some states.
When considering the energy efficiency of various lighting systems, two types of lights should be considered: obsolete high pressure sodium lamps (HPS) and light emitting diode (LED) lights. While LEDs are more energy efficient, this method is also more expensive. This means that HPS lights are becoming more common, although LEDs are becoming more popular.
Of course, some cannabis growers don’t use electric light at all – for their plants or for themselves – because their farmers believe in a lifestyle that is devoid of artificial energy. One such farmer is Simon Evers of Elysian Fields, a second generation farm in Mendocino County.
“I choose to live from the electricity grid in the country,” said Evers. “I believe very much in homesteads and communities. And in this dynamic [cultivating] sunglasses [cannabis] just makes sense. “
In addition to growing under the sun, another way to improve a cannabis farm’s footprint is to use regenerative farming methods that improve the quality of the land, even if it is used for cultivation. These regeneration practices include the use of living soil, accompanying plants, beneficial insects, closed-cycle compost systems, and water recycling.
Cyril Guthridge, who runs the Mendocino County’s Waterdog Herb Farm, believes that other natural elements beyond the sun affect the expression of his outdoor harvest.
“It’s about the benefits of the sun, moon, and air,” Guthridge said.
Guthridge said his use of companion plants improved the terpene expression of his cannabis, as did the stress in the natural environment.
The trend for cannabis growers to grow other crops on their farm is actually an impact of the ban, as small artisanal cannabis growers have had to create systems that minimize their trips into town to reduce the likelihood of detection. Along with a culture of farming, this has created a number of eco-friendly, agronomically creative cannabis gardens that are perfect examples of 21st century agriculture. As Guthridge says, he is a cannabis farmer “who uses nature to make nature better”.
Despite the benefits these farmers see from growing with regenerative practices, many new cannabis regulations put artisans at risk. Due to the unique regulatory and licensing hurdles, unlike traditional farmers, cannabis growers are not entitled to tax incentives based on energy savings. In addition, there are also more environmental hurdles for suntanned farmers to obtain a license in a legalized environment, including more complicated water access permits and inspection procedures.
Change of perception & prohibition of guilt
For sustainable cannabis practices to be feasible in a regulated market, two shifts in perception must occur.
The first perception that needs to change is that “quality” cannabis is defined by its THC percentage and bright orange hair. Instead, the cannabis-consuming public must adapt to a new definition that includes the method by which the plant was farmed, the ethics of the companies that will benefit from that purchase, and the impact that product has on the land.
The second perception that needs to be abolished is the opinion of many local governments that cannabis grown outdoors poses a greater security and crime risk than cannabis grown indoors. We need to start licensing sunburn cannabis and promoting new regulations that incentivize outdoor growth as part of the greater pursuit of responsible environmental policy.
Ultimately, the only party to blame here is the ban. The ban took a crop and forced it inside under artificial light – and the madness of the refrigerated containers keeps it there.
Originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.