Not So Green - The Cannabis Industries Impact on the Environment

How cannabis farming could potentially be doing more harm than good



Is it time for cannabis legalisation?


With 4/20 having been and gone in a puff of smoke and the flick of a lighter, once again, the arguments for the legalisation of cannabis have been permeating our timelines and news feeds. With the many credible and legitimate arguments that are given in favour of Cannabis, and with 29.6% of 16-59 years olds saying that they’ve used cannabis at least once in their lifetime in 2020, surely we must be getting closer to legalisation, right?. Well, no, not exactly.


Well, why not?


You may outrageously ask, ‘Surely there can't be anything bad about legalising weed, it's less dangerous than alcohol’. Yes, as a narcotic, weed can generally be a lot less physically dangerous than a lot of legal and prescription drugs, particularly alcohol. But unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Environmentally, the impact of its farming and cultivation has been shown to be unsustainable. In a study looking at more than 1,000 locations across the U.S, researchers found the median emissions from growing one kilogram of cannabis was about 3,600 kilograms of CO2 emissions. With the climate crisis worsening year by year, is cannabis one of many guilty parties exacerbating its critical state?


What are some of the effects of cannabis farming?


While cannabis farming does occur in the U.K, in fact, it is one of the biggest exporters of legal cannabis in the world; I will not be focusing on that aspect of the industry. I’ll mainly be referencing U.S cannabis farms as there is more research available on their environmental impact. So, what are some of the negative effects of cannabis farming?


1. Energy consumption


The vast majority of cannabis is grown indoors using artificial lighting, heating, and ventilation due to the unpredictable or changing weather conditions of the areas they’re grown in. This also allows for the best quality crop control and can reap multiple harvests. However, this massive amount of energy consumption is unsustainable and results in a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions.


2. Water use


Like any other form of agriculture, cannabis farming requires a large amount of water to provide sustenance to the crop. One positive is that because plants are often tightly grouped together, indoor cannabis farming often doesn’t use as much water as other forms of agriculture. However, the main issue when it comes to water consumption is that cannabis farms are often located in areas where water is already limited. These watersheds support ecosystems that could be put at risk if the little amount of water there is used for farming.


3. Pesticides


As is the case with any cultivated crop, measures must be taken to ensure the crop isn’t plagued by pests and disease. Due to federal drug laws and confusion surrounding whether cannabis is a medicine or a plant, many farmers turn to using incredibly strong, unregulated pesticides for their product. Not only are pesticides harmful for the humans that consume the crop, but also pollute water supplies and are harmful to other animals and vegetation that might be living near the crop, particularly in outdoor farming.



4. Packaging


Much like any other consumable product, cannabis comes with a lot of packaging waste. From the boxes it's shipped into the bags it comes in, the sale of weed can come with a lot of wastage. CBC reports that one gram of cannabis packaging can sometimes equate to 70 grams of wastage, ending up in landfills.


How can cannabis become more green?


So now we’ve discussed the problems, and what are some solutions? Just like with any other environmental issue, there is no one ultimate fix-all. There are just many little things that cannabis companies and farmers can do that could make a massive difference.


1. Optimising cleaner energy solutions


Investing in cleaner energy equipment and careful planning and optimising energy consumption via the heating and ventilation systems of facilities. It may also help to grow in a hybrid setting of outdoor, indoor and greenhouse environments, as moving farms solely to the outdoors comes with its own set of problems.


2. Being more water-conscious

Understanding the sources of the water and recirculating irrigation water for later use this will prevent nutrient-rich, reusable water from being dumped into sewers and potentially harming ecosystems, while making the most of the water that is already there. Condensation can also be saved and reused. Overall, regulating maintenance and upkeep of water systems is a must to ensure that water is not being wasted and unnecessary amounts are being taken from low source areas.


3. Organic pest-killing options


Other than introducing more rigid regulation in the types of pesticides used, there are many organic alternatives that can replace harmful chemicals and aid in pest control. Through the use of botanically derived pesticides, and organism derived pesticides, both the safety of the crop and the impact of its cultivation on the surrounding environment will be improved. Certain bugs might also be useful in the growing process as well like ladybugs which each pests like aphids. So killing them off might not always be beneficial.


4. Biodegradable, sustainable packaging


This is a transition that much of the cannabis industry has already embarked upon. By limiting the amount of packing and also using packagings like hemp or compostable materials. The amount of waste produced by cannabis packaging is shrinking. There are whole companies that are dedicated to creating recyclable and sustainable packaging. One example of a company that has spent years curating sleek and environmentally friendly packaging is Sun Grown, based in California.


Unfortunately, the negative environmental impact of cannabis cultivation still remains a fairly legitimate argument against mass legalisation. If we want to see a prosperous future with commercially sold and regulated cannabis, the environmental impacts of its cultivation must be stringently considered, and hopefully with a bit more care, consideration and planning, we can look forward to a greener future.