Legal Cannabis Stakes a Claim Toward Industrial Sustainability
By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data
After a summer of extreme weather events, November’s 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, is likely to instil a sense of urgency in global business to address sustainability. Key goals of the agenda-setting event include how to secure global net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, to hasten 2030 emissions-reductions targets, and protect communities and natural habitats. The meeting will finalise the Paris Agreement Rulebook, a 2015 outline of the aims for a zero-carbon future.
Clearly the event’s eventual takeaways should have significant implications for the cannabis industry, which has found some criticism for poor ecological practices and — at times observing a suboptimal approach to such industry-wide practices as diversity and corporate social responsibility. For now there is nothing to suggest that COP26 will specifically address cannabis: indeed, one British paper disappointingly suggested that the event turned down a hemp group’s bid for engagement.
For their parts, legal cannabis and hemp could, as fast-growing industries, represent beacons in the fight against climate change, with hemp products in particular offering lower carbon-emissions alternative to their industrial alternatives, including building materials, textiles, biodegradable plastics, biofuel, and automotive uses.
As noted by Dr. Michael Obersteiner, director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, cannabis “might turn out to be a land-saving crop… [which] would spare the expansion of cropland into forests. This will create substantial emission savings.” By example, hemp grows rapidly, aerates soil, and compares favourably to cotton, producing 200%-250% more fibre from the same amount of land. The British Hemp Alliance (BHA) credits hemp for “a range of environmentally friendly and carbon-negative products, while actively contributing to mitigating climate change,” adding that a “thriving domestic hemp industry can kick-start a new green industrial revolution”.
Nevertheless, the cannabis industry as a whole certainly has its sustainability challenges. Chief among such issues facing it is that cannabis cultivation is a big user of electricity in indoor growing, still the sourcing for most legal cannabis, often, requiring up to 2,000 watts of electricity per square meter (i.e., comparable to 50 watts for a cash crop like lettuce). In the U.S., it has been estimated that the industry’s footprint already accounts for more than 1% of electricity consumption, and it is rising. It can also be quite water-intensive (e.g., requiring as much as 6 gallons per plant, some suggest) – with one study concluding that by 2025, total water use in the legal cannabis market is expected to increase by 86%. Even before cannabis was legalized among some U.S. states, water diversion was a critical issue, with more than a billion gallons of water illicitly drained from public water supplies. Water use has been exhaustively addressed in New Frontier Data’s Cannabis H2O: Water Use and Sustainability in Cultivation report, which details how water efficiency is significantly influenced by one’s respective type of cultivation facility and intended annual harvests. The analysis recommends several courses of action as water use becomes ever more critical, including greater industry stewardship at large. It should be stressed that cannabis, as previously discussed in a New Frontier Data blog in March, is already the most water-economical crop among California’s top revenue crops, and represents leadership in responsible water usage. To that end, the cannabis industry should not be punitively singled out by regulators, but incentivized to increase water efficiency by encouraging transparent data reporting and sharing best practices.
Legal cannabis producers share responsibility to make their industry as ecologically friendly and carbon neutral as possible – after all, they too will be subject to extreme weather problems arising from climate change such as flooding, drought, and forest fires. Using passive solar gain and attending to water consumption by utilizing rainwater precipitation, watering at night to prevent evaporation, recapturing water, and maintaining lines and sprinklers are among viable methods to help in the efforts.
“In my opinion, the current cannabis industry is itself undergoing fundamental changes, and moving towards a far more sustainable production and cultivation,” says Harry Wildschut, CEO of Sanoid Isolates – a medical cannabis production facility in Spain acquired by Grow Group. “Sustainability is very much the top of mind, and we talk a lot about the footprint of the cannabis industry. I’m from the Netherlands, and have been exposed to an earlier way of cannabis cultivation: indoors in cellars, with buildings and light which is very expensive, and not very sustainable.”
Sanoid Isolates, says Wildschut, has taken a leap forward by growing under the Andalusian sun and in soil, rather than relying on wasteful indoor cultivation. “Our facilities use hybrid greenhouses, which allow us to grow larger quantities in soil, which means we are not faced with huge electricity consumption.”
He explains that their facilities occupy a large agricultural area. “On one side we have the large Guadalquivir River, and we’re close to the mountains of Andalusia, too. So, we have more than a sufficient supply of natural water, which means that we’re not using drinking water from water companies. As well as this, the greenhouses and irrigation system are fully automated, so we’re minimising our footprint on water usage.” He noted the attendant cost savings to be gained through the reduction of water use.
Indeed, a renewed emphasis on sustainability could well tilt the industry towards more natural growing conditions in warmer climates. “I don’t see any serious supply coming from expensive unsustainable greenhouses in Denmark, the U.K. or northern Germany,” Wildschut said. “At the end of the day, sustainable production is more likely to come from places like Andalusia.” Yet as indoor production continues, vigilance remains important for ways to improve energy usage, such as switching to LED lighting and using chilled water systems for dehumidification.
Should such beneficial factors be handled well, the cannabis industry stands to gain credence for leadership regarding sustainability.
“The industry is taking steps” Wildschut said, while noting that “there’s still sufficient ground to improve the efficacy and efficiency.” As COP26 assembles on 1 November, there is time to consider the partnership role of the legal cannabis industry, and how it can become a purposeful player in the increasingly urgent drive towards a net-zero carbon economy.