Is current cannabis cultivation sustainable over the long term? What can we do to help in any way? Let’s go over some of the problems and some of the solutions to make our crops ready for a future with a shortage of energy and raw materials.
Cannabis is nowadays cultivated using techniques that do not guarantee long-term sustainability. Excessive energy consumption, profligate use of materials, many are the problems, but there are also solutions. We look over the main challenges and propose some easy alternatives to push forward a more environmentally friendly cultivation that is thoughtful of future generations.
It’s been almost forty years since Earth’s global biocapacity was reached. In other words, we use more natural resources than the planet is able to produce, and so far we have been able to live thanks to the provisions put in storage long ago, especially fossil fuel ones. But as it is well known, these will not last forever. The planet is showing signs of exhaustion (loss of fertile land, climate change, extinction of species, global-scale pollution) and fossil fuels and many basic minerals (copper, phosphorus, silver, gold) are more and more scarce.
This means that our society must undergo a radical change if we don’t want to see it collapse under the pressure of all these factors, to which the uncontrolled growth of the population and capitalism’s global crisis should be added. It is almost certain that the future generations will not have the same access we enjoy today to low-cost and abundant energy. Many raw materials commonly available today will be scant later, and consequently, our consumption levels will be unsustainable. These are not whimsical prophecies, but rigorous estimates by renown experts: the time to change the curse of things is running out.
In face of such a prospect of the future, it is important to ask how sustainable the current methods of cannabis cultivation are and what must change to make them so. We should also try find what we can do when we are growing our plant friends in order to help ease these problems, even if in a modest way.
The first aspect to consider is energy consumption. As a consequence of the Prohibition, cannabis growers all over the world have been forced for decades to hide. This initiated the development of indoor growing with artificial lighting. As we know, this is a practice that requires enormous amounts of energy, which the police from half the world tries to track down to catch cannabis growing operations.
Had we not been so vehemently persecuted, cannabis cultivation would have never developed a need for so much technology, energy and raw materials. Hence, it is clear that persecution is the main cause of unsustainability. If the police and the judges leave us alone, not many people would grow cannabis using artificial lighting, they would use what a friend of mine calls “the Great Lamp”, the Sun. Ending the Prohibition is not only about rights or fighting crime, but it is also a question of energetic and ecological sustainability.
Low-energy lamps have solved part of the problem. Energy consumption for lighting has decreased and because these type of lamps don’t generate as much heat as do incandescent ones, there is less need for air conditioning. However, this does not guarantee long-term sustainability. Although, changing lighting technology is a very positive step, it remains insufficient. In terms of efficacy, nothing is better than outdoor growing, this is perhaps why no one grows tomatoes in a bedroom.
To lower the ecological impact of our cultivation, in addition to reducing electricity consumption, we can also choose the sources from which electricity is harvested. In many countries there are companies that sell electricity from 100% renewable sources of energy that refuse to buy electricity harvested from nuclear energy, carbon, petroleum or gas. Major electricity companies also offer plans with options to use renewable energy only, but this is just a publicity stunt. These companies mainly harvest thermal and nuclear energy, and keep their production of renewable energy in an effort to keep their most demanding customers, but, as a whole, they continue with their policy of expanding the production of non-renewable energy. Therefore, my advice is not to trust these companies, we should instead make sure to contribute to the energetic transition by dealing with companies that only sell renewable energy. We should not forget that there is nothing more sustainable and ecological than the Sun.
Another aspect of importance is the use of raw materials needed for the cultivation of cannabis. As a professional in the area of ecological farming, I continue to be amazed at how unbelievably complicated and sophisticated cannabis growing has become. Any beginner with a small number of indoor plants uses a variety of devices, metres, products and accessories that would make the most experienced professional grower turn pale. The manner in which this has taken place resembles what has happened with electricity. Prohibition has caused cultivation to go underground, which in turn, has made prices increase. When prices are high, it is naturally assumed that more equipment is needed. Compared to the sale value of marihuana, the cost of equipment appears affordable.
There is not enough space here to go into much detail, but in order to have good buds, it is not necessary to use so much plastic or apply too many treatments. We can save money, energy and natural resources by simplifying the way we grow cannabis and by disposing of what is superfluous. Knowing the difference between what is needed and what is not, is what makes a good grower. Another key to the sustainability of the environment is to use lasting, versatile and recyclable (or even better, recycled) materials.
Hydroponic and Aeroponic Growing
Agriculture without soil, be it hydroponic (root immersion in water with mineral nutrients) or aeroponic (grow roots in a mist or air environment of the same solution), has seen a dramatic expansion in the last years, not only with cannabis crops, but also with all types of plants. And, however, its degree of unsustainability is such that it deserves a commentary of its own.
Growing without soil is not very efficient. We are aware that microorganisms living in the soil are indispensable for plants to absorb nutrients. But since they do not exist in hydroponic solutions, the concentration of nutrients needs to be increased to absurd levels for the plants to be able to absorb only a small portion of them. It is as though in order to breast feed a baby we would have to submerge him in a bathtub full of milk. Hence, hydroponic crops consume amounts of fertilizer way above the quantities needed to nourish the plants, and waste most of them at the end.
The second problem is the technical complexity of these types of crops: pumps, circuits, filters, and all sorts of metres. For this reason, hydroponic growing, and, to a larger extent, aeroponic growing, demand a proportionally much higher investment, which directly impacts the sale price of the product. Low profitability makes the operating cost a real burden, if someone thinks otherwise, he or she should ask a couple of horticulturalists I know: after having invested considerable amounts of money in the construction of super high-tech hydroponic greenhouses, whenever they drop the prices of tomatoes or lettuce, they end up working almost for free. To save their own skins, some have switched to cannabis growing, but it is uncertain whether this will continue to be profitable since there could be regulation that makes cannabis cultivation open to anyone, making profit margins low again. In the meantime, they continue to exhaust the natural resources of the planet with their high consumption of raw materials.
Everything suggests that today, the only viable alternatives with a serious chance of being sustainable in a future context with low energy availability are forms of agriculture based on permaculture. Other forms of technology will harshly experience the foreseeable increase in the prices of energy, plastics, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, until sooner or later the unavoidable happens and they become unviable. The sooner we are ready, the better.
We cannot forget about seeds. Nowadays, feminized and automatic seeds dominate the market. Since legal penalties depend, for the most part, on the number of plants and their size, getting rid of the males to reduce the number of plants per cultivation has become common practice. This has naturally decreased the popularity of regular seeds. However, this type of scenario is hardly sustainable over the long term.
The seed market is currently dominated by unstable hybrids, which have been feminized. It is impossible to breed these plants and, if they are crossed with males grown from regular seeds, the descendants will lack homogeneity. Of course, we currently have a great variety of plants with a significantly improved yield, but in exchange for security, and especially convenience, the opportunity that growers have to make these varieties evolve is lost.
In fact, one of the most important advantages of plant breeding is that these plants can undergo natural selection, and hence can be adapted to different climatic conditions and plagues. Growing cannabis on the French coast is not comparable to growing it on Swedish mountains. And a plant that is obtained from crossing Thai and Jamaican specimens, to give an example, will not have the same behaviour in both places. If at some point bank seeds do not make it easy for growers to breed their own plants and improve them, thus establishing a bidirectional relationship with their clients, they would be making sure to have regular clients, but by doing this they would also lose the contributions from growers that select their seeds to the development of plants that resist certain plagues and different climates. Sharing a lineage is a fundamental aspect for its conservation. It suffices to remember that a seed bank once lost all the genetics of a certain variety (I will not give names) and had to appeal to cannabis growers to see if the variety could be retrieved. A conventional seed bank that specializes in onions and zucchinis would have had a different fate. Often, one’s main strength is also one’s main weakness.
Basic Tips to be More Sustainable
- Natural light is better than artificial light
- Soil is better than hydroponics
- Crops using artificial light should use low-energy lamps
- Use electricity from renewable energy sources
- Reduce the amount of material, choose it based on durability and versatility
- Use products and material that are easily recyclable, or, even better, that are recycled
In terms of efficiency and economy nothing surpasses nature. To help its conservation and its ability to fulfill our needs in the future, we have to imitate it. The faster we learn from it, the better it will be.