Is cannabis cultivation sustainable? Like all other types of agriculture, it can be. It also can be incredibly destructive in its cultivation practices and in the sourcing of inputs. Some elements of the commercial cannabis industry have become unsustainable by law — for instance, the plastic bags often required for compliant “exit” packaging for cannabis products sold in dispensaries. Many common cultural practices that arose among growers from the pre-regulated era, such as a reliance on bottled liquid nutrients, are unsustainable as well.
Energy consumption is another major stumbling block for sustainability in indoor and greenhouse cultivation. Creating the “sunshine” necessary for a healthy harvest requires energy-intensive artificial lighting. Other electrically-powered systems found in indoor and greenhouse environments, such as climate control and ventilation, add significant weight to the overall carbon footprint of these growing methods. There are, however, a number of technological advances that have been made which can reduce the heavy reliance on fossil fuels to create artificial growing environments, such as more energy-efficient LED lighting and HVAC systems and on-site renewable power generation.
Outdoor cannabis production, on the other hand, relies on the natural resources of the sunshine, water, and soil at the grow site. This is something of a double-edged sword. Responsible stewardship of these resources can be incorporated into a conservationist and regenerative approach to farming, but irresponsible practices can cause massive ecological damage.
In dense outdoor cannabis-growing regions like the Emerald Triangle of California, for example, pollution of the watershed from non-organic inputs used in cannabis production has prompted the enactment of regulations limiting the usage of water for cannabis cultivation. It is important to note, nevertheless, that cannabis cultivation is not the only industry responsible for this type of ecological damage. There is a combined effect of agricultural production, the built environment, and waste generation that land ALL types of farmers in the same conundrum.
Home Grow Sustainably
Oaksterdam’s Home Grow course presents techniques and concepts that encompass all growing methodologies, from indoor tents to outdoor gardens. Home cultivation presents a pathway to cannabis freedom for many people. At the same time, it is our collective responsibility to grow cannabis as sustainably as possible.
Indoor cannabis cultivation is incredibly resource-intensive. From the cash outlay to procure the growing equipment to the increase in both the physical (e.g., utility bill increase) and environmental (e.g., fossil-fuel consumption) costs, indoor cultivation is more impactful than outdoor growing. Home cannabis cultivation in indoor environments takes up scarce resources — energy, water, plastic, and so on. If you must grow indoors, we encourage you to try to take some steps to cut down on your energy consumption and the amount of materials you use, particularly plastic.
Water and Energy Conservation
Cannabis plants require a great deal of water and light to achieve optimal growth. In an indoor grow or greenhouse with supplemental lighting, at least a portion of the lighting will be powered by electricity. The use of both water and electricity in cannabis cultivation can have a significant impact on the environment; using less of each is a relatively simple way to improve the sustainability of a cannabis grow.
Water conservation is the practice of responsible water consumption. It entails mitigating the excessive use of water and being mindful of the impact of tapping watersheds that are already taxed. Some common water conservation techniques include reducing usage, reusing irrigation water and condensate from dehumidification systems, rainwater harvesting, establishing retention ponds, and employing permaculture techniques for maximum water retention in the soil.
Meanwhile, energy conservation is essential to reducing the carbon footprint of a cultivation operation, particularly an indoor site. The figure below depicts the steps you can take to reduce the environmental impact of your energy consumption.
There are a lot of ways to sustainably build and design a home grow. Buildings crafted with reclaimed materials will cut down on costs of production, especially in rural areas where it is more extremely cost-prohibitive to transport new building materials. Sustainable structures made of straw bale, bamboo, repurposed materials, and reclaimed wood are more environmentally sustainable as well as cost-effective.
Further, moving away from single-use plastics or reusing plastics such as zip ties in your garden is another way to cut back on emission-heavy plastic production. Some growers will source their building materials from trees on their property that were felled by storms or fires.
The most important consideration in alternative materials is locality, i.e. sourcing materials as close to the development site as possible. Conservation farmers avoid the huge carbon footprint that the transport of raw materials always brings when they buy locally.
A Call to Action
Every home grow will be unique to the site, and not all people will be able to grow outdoors to reduce the carbon footprint of their home grow. Whatever method of cannabis cultivation works best for your home, be it indoors or outside, please attempt to mitigate your consumption of resources, especially fossil fuels, as much as possible.
The cannabis movement is not just about the freedom to grow cannabis for personal consumption. It is about freedom in many forms. People fought for cannabis decriminalization, the process that made home cultivation legal, to free themselves from the oppression of the War on Drugs and, along the way, created underground economies that were networks of family-based cottage industries of craft cannabis cultivation.
Many of these cannabis pioneers were growers who cared deeply about the preservation of the land and waterways around their gardens. The spirit of the cannabis movement is one that has always manifested sustainability, not just for ourselves but for our communities and our ecosystem. We encourage you to continue this tradition in any way possible in your home cultivation journey.