Is cannabis the saver of a destructive and struggling agriculture industry, or is it another weed in the machine doing more harm than good? Will it help us solve climate change, or is it creating a brave new world that helps us ignore our impending doom that it’s accelerating us to?
While there is little doubt over cannabis’ ability to replace certain crops that stress the environment, is it enough?
Then, the bigger question for many growers, is if optimal cannabis cultivation is still eco-friendly? Because what’s optimal for nabbing the stickiest of the ickiest may not be optimal for the environment. And if we want to continue growing cannabis for the years to come, we may need to make some concessions.
These are the types of questions we will be looking into as we get to the bottom of the issue, “Is cannabis truly a green plant for the environment?”
Quick note, for most of this article we are tying hemp and marijuana production together. However, hemp production is having less of an environmental impact, and we’ll be sure to note these differences.
Agriculture and Its Impact On The Environment
While near impossible to argue against the countless benefits agriculture has given humans, likewise, it’s near impossible to turn a blind eye to the damage it has caused and continues to.
Perils of Agriculture
- Leading source of pollution in several countries around the world.
- Accounts for 70 percent of human freshwater consumption, with experts warning that a 15% increase in water extraction will be needed to account for population growth.
- Poor cropland irrigation waterlogs land, erodes coastlines, and can influence rainfall patterns thousands of miles away.
- In countries like the U.S., more land is dedicated to livestock than anything else.
- Livestock contributes to a large proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, especially, methane.
- Nitrogen and phosphorus overuse harms terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, creating toxic algae blooms that affect drinking and recreational water sources.
- Heavy reliance on nitrogen-heavy fertilizers has increased reactive nitrogen levels in the environment, potentially up to 600%.
In 2016, the World Bank estimated that nearly half of the land cultivated by humans (1.7 billion acres) was dedicated to growing just cereal grains like corn, rice, and wheat. To say there are mammoths of threats pressing on our ability to sustain our agricultural productivity is putting it lightly. And that’s ignoring the biggest threat of all . . . climate change.
Can Cannabis Help?
Even before the worry of sustaining a growing population under the threat of climate change, one of the main arguments for cannabis legalization stemmed from the crop’s ability to provide a more environmentally friendly and renewable resource for many of the materials we rely on. Cannabis grows fast and comfortably in many places around the world and in various climates without demanding too much fertilizer or water to grow.
Materials made from cannabis include ropes, plastics, papers, building materials, biofuels, beddings, protein supplements, therapeutic oils, and on.
In fact, many believe cannabis was outlawed in the U.S. due, in part, to it threatening those in the paper/lumber industry. And they have a good reason! William Randolph Hearst, the founder of Hearst Communications, worked with failed alcohol prohibitionist Harry Anslinger, to demonize cannabis, connecting it to increases in violent crime caused by “nonwhites”. Hearst and his company had a significant interest in paper, nylon, and timber.
It is quite extraordinary to read about all things that cannabis can help create, allowing it to provide materials used in everything from the fashion to the automotive industry. At this point, it’s likely fair to say cannabis, in particular, hemp, has earned its place in several industries.
But how much weight is cannabis actually pulling? Is it living up to its promise of a fast-growing and low-demanding crop? Has cannabis had a real impact yet? We can now start answering those questions despite their complicated nature.
Cannabis’ Big Environment Problem
Let’s answer some BIG questions before we get into our BIG problem.
- Can cannabis offset carbon if farmed, harvested, and processed correctly? Not realistic!
- – Hemp production alone would need to take over 27% of the landmass of the planet (36 billion acres) to achieve this.
- Can cannabis, in addition to other eco-friendly practices, help solve climate change? Yes!
- Is current cannabis production helping the environment? That’s a big no!
In 2021, cannabis proponents were handed unsettling news. Their hopes for a green and clean industry are anything but, with indoor cannabis cultivation creating a disgusting amount of greenhouse gases. An amount comparable to other major extraction industries, which include the oil, gas, and metal-extraction industries.
There are several reasons for this, and while it appears cannabis cultivation isn’t always lining up with our hopes for a green industry, thankfully, it’s mostly not the crop’s fault.
The real reason cannabis is struggling to live up to its green nature is mostly due to too much and not enough government regulation.
Remnants of Prohibition
One of the reasons for cannabis’ alarming contribution to greenhouse gas emissions stems from remnants of its prohibition, forcing cultivation to happen largely indoors.
For example, in the United States, it’s illegal to transport plants across state lines. Another example is when Colorado first legalized recreational marijuana, businesses were largely required to grow their own products. This has led to a state like Colorado attempting to grow cannabis year-round indoors. But this is having devastating costs, with the state’s cannabis industry contributing more CO2 emissions than their active mining industry.
While true that cannabis is fairly unfussy about its environment, even it has its limits. But due to prohibition-style regulations, cultivators are attempting to grow cannabis in places and during times that just aren’t a good fit. We are currently seeing cannabis cultivated in arid deserts that require extra water, along tropical and cold regions like Hawaii and Alaska where HVAC systems run constantly to manage temperature and humidity.
Speaking of HVAC systems, 54% of cannabis cultivators are solely growing in warehouses and greenhouses, largely eliminating the advantages that come from its ability to grow well in many different environments. Only 12% of cultivators say they only grow outdoors. Estimates show that potentially up to 80% of the greenhouse gases emitted from indoor cultivation could be eliminated by moving them outdoors.
And while prohibition-influenced regulations largely contribute to cannabis’ incredible greenhouse gas pollution, to rub dirt into our eyes, the fault for cannabis’ environmental woes falls on us growers as well.
An Honest Look At Ourselves
While some forms of government regulations hurt cannabis’ environmentally friendly nature, a lack of other regulatory practices common in the agriculture industry is doing the same.
Maximizing yield is the main pursuit for many cultivators, but trying to nab that extra 5% increase in yield is having alarming repercussions. From drowning their plants with too much fertilizers to bathing them in too much CO2, cultivators are giving their crops way more resources than they possibly use, leading to those resources escaping into the environment.
We’ve mentioned the perils of fertilizer runoff already, which the cannabis industry is also guilty of. But as well, we are seeing high-end estimates that 25% of the total greenhouse gas emissions produced from the cannabis industry come from supplemental CO2 use.
Much of the issues with cannabis’ negative impact on the environment comes from the recreational and medical marijuana side, which demands marijuana plants rich in cannabinoids and terpenes. Achieving this quality is much easier to do inside, especially, on a large-scale operation. Two big reasons for this are due to cannabis’ sensitivity to fertilization and light at night, both of which can degrade quality substantially. Growing crops indoors is always going to be more resource-demanding than outdoors.
As such, we need to be careful about where we place these indoor operations — emissions produce from growing 1 ounce of cannabis indoors are about the same as burning as 7 to 16 gallons of gasoline, depending on location. As you can see from the map last linked, cannabis grown indoors in California is much less resource-demanding compared to Colorado and Hawaii’s indoor operations. The main reason for this is California’s climate allows operations to bring fresh air from the outside without significantly needing to mend it.
Growing Cannabis Outside Can Have Its Consequences Too
Even hemp grown outdoors solely for industrial materials and CBD extracts needs cleaning up. One of cannabis users’ favorite parts of the crop is the terpenes. Not only do they give cannabis plants their delightful range of aromas, but they also appear to greatly alter the effects the cannabinoids produce.
Terpenes are classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — other VOCs culprits include crops like tobacco, lavender, and chemicals like acetone (nail polish remover). While terpenes are harmless to ingest with likely positive health benefits, when they escape into the atmosphere, they can combine with combustion gases, creating ozone.
In Colorado, ozone is the biggest pollutant the state deals with, and unlike other VOC-producing crops, cannabis is grown in greenhouses in densely populated areas. Colorado, like many states, does not set their own emission standards, following the rules set by the EPA instead — which currently has a shaky set of standards for cannabis production.
There are several ways to reduce the emissions of VOCs without affecting yield. Specialized equipment can capture VOCs before they enter the atmosphere. This is important for marijuana production that desires plants rich with terpenes. Then, the age and strain of the crop can greatly affect its VOC output. By understanding that, we can better select low-terpene producing hemp plants, as the terpenes aren’t important when creating non-medicinal materials.
However, due to many states’ limited budgets and with no backing from the federal government, many researchers say they’re struggling to run the research they need to clean up the industry. And with many states not setting their own emission standards, at the moment, it’s falling squarely on cannabis cultivators to do so.
Can Cannabis Cultivators Have Their Cake And Eat It Too?
Can optimal cannabis cultivation overlap with the best cultivation practices for the environment? Can we as growers have our cake and eat it too? Surprisingly, it appears so.
First, the big distinction here is optimal growth for a medicinal marijuana plant is quite different than it is for a hemp plant cultivated for industrial materials.
Due to cannabis flowers’ light, fertilization, and fertilizer sensitivity, growing unpollinated cannabis plants with heavy and precise concentrations of cannabinoid and terpenes is vastly more labor and resource-intensive. So much so that, cannabinoids and terpenes synthesized in the laboratory may soon become the predominant commercial cannabis product.
Hemp grown for material purposes should largely be a blessing for the environment when grown with the correct regulatory practices. How many other crops it can replace and how successfully is still unknown, however,
For home growers and those that want to stick to cannabis flowers, new cannabis research is showing you can still be relatively friendly to the environment. There are four big things you’ll want to focus on: location/season, lights, water, and nutrients.
Choosing the perfect location and time of year to grow can be difficult for several reasons, but it is well worth the investment. Not only is it better for the environment, but it can also save you money in several ways. Even with the best lighting technology, there is a lot of heat coming out of our grow rooms and tents, and for many, running lights at night, especially during colder months, can help home growers cut down on their electric and heating bills. While many cannabis growers partake daily, cannabis is an extremely high-yielding crop, with a single growing session of 4 months able to supply the grower with 12+ months of personal supply.
While lighting technology has advanced wonderfully, delivering more light with less power by harnessing as much of the natural sunlight as possible should be a priority. You will almost undoubtedly still need supplemental lighting due to cannabis’s incredible light consumption, potentially giving it a DLI impossible to naturally achieve anywhere around the world due to its photoperiod.
Cannabis is notorious for its high water consumption. Not as high as some plants like cotton — a potential resource cannabis can replace — but still demanding. This issue has been exacerbated by the belief that cannabis flowers require 1-2 weeks of increased watering before harvest to strip fertilizer salts from both the media and crop. Amongst cannabis growers, this technique is called “flushing”, but in other horticulture circles, this practice is referred to as “leeching”. Many marijuana enthusiasts hold the flushing belief to heart, with many feeling that unflushed weed is harsh, dirty, and far from optimal.
Cannabis’ water demands are not great for the environment even before it needs this potential flush. However, thankfully, with laws around the world loosening their belt on cannabis, research on this crop has entered a whole new world. And it couldn’t come fast enough with research showing that end-of-harvest flushes do not increase plant quality in any way when proper cultivation practices were used before.
Flushing your media can remove salt buildups, but it can also significantly disrupt proper fertilizer concentrations/ratios. As such, it should only be used when absolutely necessary — often around the midway point of growth. As well, the grower should then replenish their media with a well-balanced fertilizer solution.
End-of-harvest flushes may offset some problems that affect yield quality due to high-fertilizer use. However, it’s unlikely this cancels out the environmental damage that occurs from high-fertilizer runoff — in fact, it likely exacerbates them.
While those that increase the amount of water they give their plants before harvest likely aren’t doing the environment or their crops any favors, they are doing something right that anti-flushers aren’t. Those that flush their plants two weeks before harvest often simultaneously stop applying fertilizer. Those that don’t believe in flushing will often continue giving their crops fertilizer right up until the last day or so.
While some growers will slowly taper off their nutrients the last two weeks, some don’t, and that’s an issue because research is finding they probably can without hurting their yields. In fact, even those that slowly taper off their fertilizer usage may still be giving their crops more than they need.
Fertilizers that go unutilized by crops often end up in waterways. And this introduces the potentially bigger issue with growing cannabis and its fertilizer demand. Nearly every grower has the mistaken belief that cannabis requires incredible amounts of nitrogen for the growing stage, then heavy amounts of phosphorus when it starts flowering. The problem is both nitrogen and phosphorus are the two of the most environmentally destructive basic nutrients that our plants require to grow. Even worst, research is showing that cannabis grows close to optimal on a single fertilizer for its entire grow.
According to Dr. Bruce Bugbee, cannabis can grow near-optimal with a 2-1-2 solution for its entire growth cycle, and other researchers are finding similar results. That gives us a nutrient solution of two parts nitrogen and potassium to only one part phosphorus. In the past, the common belief was cannabis needed three to four times the amount of phosphorus to nitrogen once flowering started.
This is wonderful news for the environment, as even small amounts of phosphorus runoff can cause dangerous algae blooms that create “dead zones” that damage ecosystems vital for aquatic life. As well, these blooms and phosphorus runoff can make their way into the waterways we depend on for our drinking water.
Cultivators should not rush to drown their plants in more nitrogen, as they are likely already giving more than enough during the vegetative stage. Nitrogen runoff can cause algae blooms, with the current estimate showing around half of the nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers escape from the fields they are applied to.
In fact, many cannabis cultivators will want to reduce their overall fertilizer use. Further findings by Dr. Bugbee are implicating that cannabis crops may grow best when they have a do a little more work to find their nutrients.
All-in-all, cannabis legalization should be a blessing for the agricultural industry, helping it correct some of the significant negative impacts it has on the environment. We will all need to do a little more work to make this happen. However, this appears very à propos, as our favorite crop grows better when it works a little harder too!