Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, plants are breathing in carbon, exhaling oxygen, and helping the planet work toward perfect harmony. It’s a delicate relationship, but an important one, because healthy plants give us food, and medicine, and natural sights that take our breath away. In the face of the climate change crisis, the way we interact with the planet is more important now than ever. And cannabis farms stand at the forefront of innovation for the sake of Mother Earth.
This is a story about cannabis and climate change and the growers that are embracing sustainable, organic, regenerative practices that aren’t just good for the body — they’re good for the soil we walk on, the air we breathe, and the place we call home.
What You Should Know About Plants and Climate Change
Here’s the first thing to know: Darren Story is the CFO of Strong Agronomy, a farm in Watsonville, CA, in Santa Cruz county. The farm practices ecological farming, a sustainable approach to agriculture that emphasizes working with nature, not against it. His farm owns two companies: one, Coastal Moon, grows berries and vegetables. The other, Coastal Sun, grows cannabis.
“There’s no such thing as health if we can’t create healthy plants,” Story says. “They’re the ultimate remediators, especially cannabis and hemp.”
Healthy plants — grown without pesticides, in nutrient-rich soil, with plenty of sunlight — can increase biodiversity while also taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Story says healthy plants suck up metals and gases we can’t use. “When the plant is healthy – when it’s in balance with its environment, and when its immune system and its plant nutrition is completely balanced – it’s photosynthesizing at an optimum rate. This means it’s sucking up massive amounts of carbon dioxide and putting it back into the soil or the medium it’s growing in.”
So, what does that have to do with climate change? Human activities produce massive amounts of greenhouse gases, which cause the Earth’s atmosphere to trap heat (which explains the term “greenhouse effect”). Those gases are produced by activities like the burning of fossil fuels — think coal and oil — and, to a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities, according to NASA. The greenhouse effect contributes to heatwaves, droughts, rising sea levels, loss of habitat, and more intense natural disasters, among other changes1.
Climate change is not good for you. It’s not good for Mother Nature. And right now, large-scale cannabis production is part of the problem.
The Problem with the Cannabis Industry and Climate Change
Agriculture is just one part of the larger picture when it comes to supporting the planet. Cannabis is unique because it consumes such a tremendous amount of energy, which also means it stands to make one of the most significant impacts in combating climate change. And at the same time, it can support efforts to foster more conscious consumers who are mindful of effects cannabis can have on the planet.
Cannabis Is Expensive To Produce
Cannabis is expensive to produce on a large scale. Indoor cannabis cultivation uses enough electricity to power 2 million average-sized U.S. homes, according to a 2011 study. That figure is due to energy-intensive factors like 24-hour indoor lighting rigs, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, and a growing number of grow sites as marijuana is legalized nationwide. This translates to about $5 billion in annual electricity costs. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it equals about 3 million cars on the road.
These numbers aren’t sustainable for the planet, and they aren’t viable for growers, either. The total energy costs for indoor cannabis grow operations typically vary between 20-50 percent of total operating costs — a price that is just as damaging for growers’ bottom line as it is for the environment2.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Growing
“The terpene profile and volume in a cannabis plant that has been grown in the sun is going to be higher because when you grow something outside, you are exposing the plant to more diseases, more insects. Because of this, the plant produces more terpenes and more cannabis as a result,” says Fred Tio, CEO of Trilogía. (Learn more about terpenes here)
Here’s the thing: It’s far more energy conservative to grow outdoors. But few legal states allow outdoor growing, and it’s easier to manage larger crop yields indoors, where growers can control everything from climate to irrigation. According to Aziz Nashat, a partner at Lifted Farms, a biodynamic cannabis and vegetable farm in Watsonville, CA, consistency is another factor that keeps producers from taking their cannabis farms outdoors. Because outdoor grows are subject to the volatile whims of Mother Nature, there can be variances in the final product — and not as large of a yield.
“I would pick high-quality outdoor as my choice of smoke for consumption because I believe the sun has a lot of influence on the cannabinoid profile and the terpene profile of every strain out there, so I enjoy it more,” he says. But Nashat believes that the future of the cannabis industry isn’t outdoors or indoors — it’s in greenhouses. Greenhouse growing is the best of both worlds because it gives growers access to the sun, but also energy-saving practices that benefit the planet and profits.
The numbers support this move toward greenhouse growing. According to a 2017 report, greenhouses in Colorado save 60-75 percent of the energy required per pound of flower compared to typical indoor grow facilities3. Greenhouse growing also forces farmers into a symbiosis with nature that they wouldn’t get indoors, Nashat says. “I don’t care how good your greenhouse is; you’re going to end up with insects in there. You’re going to end up with a frog every once in a while.” And that’s a good thing — because, without a little bit of nature, you don’t have the same symbiosis that produces a natural, healthy plant and a thriving ecosystem.
Regenerative Agriculture and Cannabis
The cannabis industry may be moving toward greenhouse cultivation. Still, there’s a lot to be said about the impact of outdoor cannabis farms — particularly as it relates to regenerative agriculture, organic soil, and the ability to reverse the number of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.
Regenerative agriculture refers to practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring soil biodiversity. Farms like Story’s Strong Agronomy are actively working on proving that cannabis cultivation can be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. Story wants to “make sure our plants can absorb the most photons and convert that sunlight into carbohydrates and medicine.” While he isn’t against using grow lights — especially when the climate is foggy, as often occurs in Santa Cruz — he recognizes the power of the sun and the cannabis plant’s environmental impact when it grows outdoors, as Mother Nature intended. “This plant has a voracious appetite for inputs,” he says. “It loves sunlight. It loves carbon dioxide. It loves nutrients. It loves its environment.”
Cannabis plants can be a key player in something called atmospheric remediation — the ability to take carbon gas directly out of the atmosphere. According to CannaSystems Canada, an industrial hemp supplier, industrial cannabis has the potential to sequester up to 20 tons of carbon per acre directly into the soil, year after year. Carbon is great for healthy soil — it helps soil retain water, boost productivity, and increase resilience to floods and drought4. Regenerative farming practices keep soil disturbance to a minimum, which keeps carbon in the ground where it belongs. Cannabis farms that use ecologically sound approaches to agriculture stand to benefit the plant because regenerative organic farming could capture carbon dioxide in quantities exceeding global emissions, according to a 2014 white paper by the Rodale Institute.
By adopting regenerative farming practices and moving growing practices into outdoor and greenhouse models, the cannabis industry stands to impact the climate change crisis positively. At the same time, there is a tension between what should be done and what is easier to do. Cannabis grown using organic, innovative, ecologically beneficial methods might be more expensive than mass-produced products produced by indoor producers. This means, as a consumer, you have the power to support sustainable growing practices. Here’s how.
Why You Should Shop for Cannabis the Way You’d Shop at Whole Foods
“Organic” is a regulated term. For products to have the “organic” stamp on their label, they must be approved and adhere to strict standards by a certifying agency. Taken as a whole, organic products must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances — for example, no pesticides5. You won’t find organic-branded marijuana at your local dispensary because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. However, organically grown cannabis exists, and you should care about it.
Here’s why: Large-scale cannabis growers may use fertilizers and pesticides to produce a higher crop yield, but the side effect is that those substances can end up in the soil and in your lungs. According to CannaSafe, a testing company that checks cannabis in California, nearly 25 percent of the marijuana it tested had high levels of pesticides in 2018. (The fail rate dropped to less than 3 percent in 20196.)
Talk to Your Budtender, Help Mother Earth
Much in the same way, you might shop for grass-fed beef instead of conventional because it supports healthier cows; cannabis grown using organic practices minimizes environmental impact and keeps harmful pesticides and fertilizers out of the soil and water7. Purchasing organic, sustainably grown marijuana also makes a statement: It proves that consumers are willing to pay for quality cannabis products that are grown with care for Mother Earth. “You have to be passionate about what you’re putting in your body,” Story says. “You have to have regenerative organic medicine, or it’s not medicine.”
If you want to support the planet with your dollar, look for sustainable, regenerative, organically grown cannabis, and ask your budtender what you’re buying. You’ll also want to prepare yourself for a slightly different high, according to Story. “When people learn about organic, regenerative-grown cannabis, the first thing they say is, ‘The flavor and the aroma is so much more powerful than what I’ve had before.’” He attributes the quality to the fact that the plant is growing with nature, not against it.
Innovative cannabis farmers are working to prove that our plants, our soil, and our planet is worth protecting. And you, as a consumer, can play a part. After all, as Story says, it’s not just that cannabis can combat climate change — it has to. And you can support the fight for Mother Earth, one organic puff at a time.
Related Article: No. Cannabis Can’t Cure Coronavirus, But Here’s What It Can do.