Is Cannabis Farming Sustainable?

indoor cannabis farming operation

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After many decades of near-universal prohibition, the world is starting to accept the use of cannabis. The reasons why marijuana was thought to be a dangerous drug increasingly appear illogical and a growing body of evidence is supporting the use of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes alike.

Accordingly, countries all over the world are starting to legalize cannabis for various purposes. Some countries, like Canada, are so cannabis-friendly that they even have online dispensaries, like BudBuddies.ca.

In turn, we’re seeing the rise of cannabis farms, where big companies and small organizations alike funnel time, money, and resources into growing this increasingly profitable crop. The question is, is cannabis farming sustainable?

The 3 Types of Cultivation

First, it’s helpful to understand the three main modes of cannabis cultivation. Each offers unique advantages and disadvantages for the environment as well as for final yields:

  1. Indoor potted or hydroponic cultivation: Indoor cultivation — either potted in soil or using hydroponic methods — is common, especially for operations that want to remain discreet, or want to maintain precise control over their environments. These methods rely on artificial light, making them highly energy-intensive. On the other hand, indoor cultivation can reduce the need for water,
  2. Greenhouses: Cultivation in greenhouses is similar, but may rely on a mix of natural and artificial lighting; for example, growers might rely on natural sunlight for the majority of a plant’s needs, but supplement with artificial light on days when there’s not enough sun.
  3. Outdoor farms: Outdoor farms rely on the most “natural” form of cannabis cultivation, allowing the plants to grow in the earth, with minimal artificial structures to protect them. Still, outdoor farms raise their own series of potential issues, such as use of pesticides or fertilizers.

Key Problem Areas

Growing cannabis can introduce a handful of potential problems, depending on how it is cultivated:

Artificial Light & Energy Consumption

Indoor cultivation is common for cannabis farms. It allows growers optimal control over the crop’s environment, including lighting, room temperature, and air circulation. Those systems consume a significant amount of electricity. And depending on how that electricity is generated, it could be bad for the environment.

Evolving Regulations

States that allow cannabis cultivation have environmental regulations in place to ensure the practice is handled sustainably. But in many places, these regulations are still getting ironed out, making it easier for producers to circumvent expensive environmental requirements. For example, cultivators must take unusable plant material waste and mix it with 50 percent non-plant waste, like compost or soil. But to cut corners, a company could feasibly stuff the waste in a plastic bag and throw it into a dumpster.

Shipping

Shipping produce is an environmental factor for all agricultural ventures, including cannabis farms. The further crops are shipped, the greater the transportation carbon footprint. However, this is one area where the cannabis industry shines. This is a state-regulated and state-level business, so shipping is fairly local and self-contained. If and when cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, this factor could change.

Tracking & Packaging

Cannabis is tracked seed-to-sale in Washington and several other states, making it one of the most-tracked industries in the country. This can be beneficial to consumers and farmers alike, with detailed information on the product’s history. However, no packaging information is tracked at this stage.

Many cannabis products are packaged in plastic and other disposable, but not recyclable, packaging. But consumers can let producers know that they want sustainability information — including details about the materials used for packaging and instructions on how to dispose of them responsibly.

Pesticides & Other Chemicals

Pesticide use is widespread in all areas of agriculture; it’s not unique to the cannabis industry. However, it’s still worth considering. Many farmers, in an effort to protect their cannabis plants, could use chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and other products that eventually work their way into soil or water sources.

Farm Size

It’s also worth noting that the size of a farm can affect its overall environmental impact. Assuming all other variables are equal, a small farm will generally have a smaller impact on the environment than a large industrial agricultural operation. However, a farm that employs sustainable agriculture practices naturally reduces their negative environmental impact at a larger scale, particularly when compared to industrial agricultural operations.

At this early stage, many cannabis producers are smaller growers, as in Massachusetts, where the USDA estimates that 95 percent of cannabis farms are “small farms,” and 82 percent are family-owned. But as the industry grows, it will be interesting to see how the corporatization of cannabis will affect farm size — and farming practices.

Individual Differences

Not every cannabis farm is going to have the same impact, even accounting for size. Some cannabis farmers will try to make their operations greener. But others may cut corners to save money or increase yields — even if it means breaking the law. However, the same is true for any agricultural operation.

Cannabis as a Carbon Sink

We also need to consider 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 sink, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ultimately reducing the effects of civilization’s CO2 production, even if only slightly. Of course, if the farm is producing more CO2 than the plants can absorb, this effect will be negated.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, it’s not clear how much of an impact cannabis farming will have on the environment. There are too many variables in play, including the size of the farms and the practices of the cannabis farmers.

Even as state and local governments increase environmental regulations on cannabis cultivation, there are some indications that many cannabis farmers are already committed to environmental stewardship and sustainability.

There are certainly some issues to resolve with regard to regulations, the CO2 impact of using artificial lights, and unsustainable packaging. But for now, cannabis cultivation seems to be moving in a positive direction.

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Anna Johansson

Anna is a freelance writer, researcher and business consultant. A columnist for Entrepreneur.com, HuffingtonPost.com and more, Anna loves enjoying the great outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.