Opinion: The More Control You Have Over Your Cannabis Greenhouse, the Better
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The growing environments for medicinal cannabis can be split into outdoor settings, traditional open greenhouses, and more advanced indoor production. Choosing the best option usually comes down to a few factors, including location, cost, and purpose of growing.
While all methods can and have been used across various parts of the medical cannabis industry, Dalgety operates a highly controlled indoor production, due to the level of regulation and control needed for the UK pharmaceutical market. This is in stark comparison to illegal and unregulated methods, which pose a very real threat to the health of users due to the harmful chemicals often used in their production.
Making this comparison is vital to the acceptance and uptake of legally prescribed cannabis. We need to educate others on how medical cannabis sits separate to ‘street’ alternatives, so that it can be made more widely available to the estimated one third to one half of all adults suffering from chronic pain in the UK. Understanding the work and process that goes into the growing environment is one part of that.
Exposed to the elements
Outdoor growing is the least expensive option, but it carries the greatest risk. The plants are exposed to all kinds of weather, insects, and the heavy metals that may be present in the natural earth. Crops are subject to all these conditions, and each will have an impact on how the plants grow.
When it is time to harvest, using tractors and other heavy machinery can be more damaging than the more delicate processing by hand. Security is also much more difficult on open ground, and there are significant challenges with protecting the space. These methods are not suitable for pharmaceutical-grade cannabis, as there are too many potential hazards that could jeopardize the quality and consistency of the plants – but that’s not to say that, in other parts of the world, this method has not been used.
The term organic is sometimes thrown around loosely, but this is more down to the types of materials used in the growing process rather than the environment, which pertains to the non-inclusion of manufactured chemicals, growth regulators, or enhancements in the soil. Growing outside does not necessarily mean organic.
Under one roof
An open greenhouse can be done on a smaller budget than an indoor facility, but with some similar controls.
However, while there are successful productions done this way, these operations generally produce a middle-grade product. Greenhouses often fall victim to ambient temperatures and humidities, which can lead to mold or mildew infecting the plants. While cooling fans can be installed, this causes air to be sucked across the greenhouse, resulting in variants between plants, depending on their location.
Screens, doors, and windows will prevent larger pests, but small mites, pollen, and mold spores are still able to enter these types of buildings. So, while production has been moved indoors, the crop is still very much at the mercy of nature.
When I was operating a large greenhouse in Canada, my team experienced a crop failure due to a neighboring peach farm that was using pesticides. These chemicals were still able to enter the greenhouse despite not being in use on site. In the medical industry, these types of risks cannot be taken.
Advanced indoor production offers total control of the plants and their surroundings. The crop is completely sealed off from the outside world and its elements. This involves a high level of bio-security, where we must change into clean shoes and clothes to enter. Similar to any regulated laboratory facility where medicines are being produced, there can be no risk of any contamination or exposing the plants to anything external.
The practice is favored by the modern medical growers that have to be held to the highest standards.
Indoor production also gives full control of heat, light, and water regardless of the climate, season, and weather happening outside. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity are often some of the biggest risks, but this method of growing allows for setpoints to be precisely controlled, and for plants to thrive. This also helps to gather the best quality and capacity from the crop, and over the next five years, we hope to deliver more than 50,000 kilograms of medical cannabis.
Our state-of-the-art facility has also been designed to minimize corners and angles where anything can become stuck. This creates a clean environment with no risk of any bacteria or other pathogens collecting. Also, advanced systems are used to collect and manage the data of production, which is also under heavy surveillance to protect it.
Technologies across agriculture are always advancing, particularly in the UK where the industry is able to take lessons from other parts of the world. Right now, Dalgety has chosen the environment and measures that fit our production and meet the government standards required. We are also at the advantage of knowing how other environments have performed, and what controls are needed to ensure safe and consistent cultivation that will ensure a high-quality product for UK medical cannabis patients.