The Future of Sustainability in Cannabis Cultivation
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As cannabis has become legal and regulated in many parts of the world, its cultivation has, in turn, become industrial. Inevitably, many of the large companies that dominate the sector are more focused on their profits than environmental responsibility. But what is the environmental cost of industrial cannabis cultivation? And how can it be paid back?
To answer both of those questions, it’s important to talk about soil. According to the Soil Association, “Soil is a combination of minerals, organic matter, air, water and living organisms. It is this combination of materials that provide the essential components and services to sustain life.”
This kind of living soil is vital in giving cannabis crops what they need to produce cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids and all other water-soluble components, such as phospholipids, sugars, and waxes.
The soil microbiome balance and food web are the building blocks to healthy soil. Because of the generational extraction of topsoil around the world, infusing soil with fungal and bacterial organisms will aid in the growth of any crop, especially cannabis. Key measurements in the soil microbiome aid in calculating the ratio of the fungal biomass to the total bacterial biomass present, known as the F:B ratio. This ratio then gives a key performance indicator showing what is optimal for the cultivation of specific crop types. Fungal dominance is typically shown in mature forests, whereas bacterial dominance is shown in species of moss. For example, Cannabis Indica Lam. (cannabis) maximizes Δ9-THC production at a F:B ratio of 0.9 – 1.0. Additionally, Cannabis Sativa L. (hemp) maximizes CBD production at a F:B ratio closer to 1.2.
Biodiversity is also important in establishing the appropriate soil microbiome ratio. As the soil biodiversity increases, it directly correlates to an increase in the above-ground production of the plant. Every organism within the soil system has a specific function in the overall soil food web. Some organisms specialize in breaking down others to create food to generate nutrients to the plant. Other microorganisms are present to consume toxins around the soil environment. These microbial communities are crucial to plant health and their resistance to any stressors, such as drought, pollution, and even disease. The bioactivity occurring underground drives plant growth and increases carbon bioavailability to the crop. This natural method of bringing the soil to life, as opposed to the synthetic route of manufacturing “living soil,” is the optimal way to regenerate the soil ecosystem and maximize crop production.
As a global community, we have continuously depleted Earth’s soil from decarbonization, chemical pollution, and erosion. To make up for the detrimental influence caused to the world’s agro-ecosystem, a new system needs to be created: regenerative agriculture. According to the Rodale Institute, regenerative agriculture “is a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.” To begin regenerative agriculture, several techniques can be used, such as no- or low-till farming, planting cover crops, mixed crop rotation, animal grazing, and the use of compost or manure.
- Land tilling conservation (how often the land is tilled or disrupted) helps to fortify bioactivity, giving it the chance to create symbiosis among the organisms as well as create drought-resistant soil.
- Planting diverse cover crops is directly correlated to increasing plant health above ground where farmers are also able to foster a more nutrient dense soil that maximizes crop yields.
- Rotating cover crop species will increase the soil organic matter, decreasing built up nutrient areas that could lead to a decreased resistance against pests and diseases.
- Animal grazing in the fields prevents soil compaction while also naturally supplying necessary microorganisms through defecation.
- Applying compost or manure boost the soil microbiome with a variety of species, including fungi, mycorrhizae, and nematodes.
Most importantly, implementing the aforementioned standards will keep more carbon where it belongs and (carbon sequestration).
Cultivating cannabis either outdoors or in greenhouses has been standard in the consumer market. However, how do we tie living soil, regenerative cultivation practices, and the global impact of CO2 emissions into innovations to sustain the industry’s future generation of cultivators? Carbon sequestration, company trading projects, and strategies to meet net zero emissions are all climate change buzzwords the industry is starting to speak. Ironically, to sequester not only means to isolate or hide something, but to slash government spending. Why haven’t more government sectors provided a funding pathway to aid in the regeneration of the environment? What are the incentives mature cannabis markets employed to curb carbon emissions and cultivation footprints?
In January 2020, Colorado launched the Colorado Cultivators Energy Management pilot program in partnership with local electric cooperatives and municipal utilities after large cannabis producers effectively overloaded the grid shutting down available utilities multiple times. Critical load areas such as lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), and control systems were assessed for replacement. In reference to outdoor cultivation, research suggests hemp is an effective bioaccumulator that is four times more efficient than mature forests. Hemp has also become classified as a hyperaccumulator, meaning it not only pulls in toxins from the atmosphere, it also can store several toxins from the medium it is grown within. Other bioaccumulators (alfalfa, peas and red algae) do not behave nor perform at a comparable rate to hemp.
With hemp’s ability to sequester more than 15 tons of CO2 while also nitrogen-fixing the soil it is grown in, reversing the negative impacts caused by age-old farming methods will occur faster than agro-forestry. The future of cannabis cultivation could help decrease its own carbon footprint, paving the way for a more sustainable future. Let’s not forget that “Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
This article originally appeared in Analytical Cannabis' Advances in Cannabis Cultivation eBook in December 2021.