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Sustainability Regulations: Cannabis Industry v. Big Ag

While the US has made tremendous progress in rolling back the nearly 100 year criminalization of marijuana, regulatory policies have rapidly expanded across the emerging legal industry. Although cannabis is just a plant like any other agricultural commodity, cannabis cultivators have to deal with far more regulations and legal hurdles than any other crop in American history.

It’s not surprising that many are starting to wonder why these intense regulations are only enforced upon cannabis and not the rest of agriculture, especially as the need for conservation and sustainability becomes more and more urgent to address climate change.

Regulations are typically a double-edged sword. While they provide additional safety for consumers and the environment; the trade-off is usually higher costs and increased bureaucracy.

Marijuana with a Gavel

However, modern cannabis industry regulations exhaustively cover everything from an extensive track-and-trace system all the way down to odor control. The cannabis industry is also being forced to deal with pressing environmental issues that the rest of agriculture has been able to ignore for over a century—how to grow plants without harming the environment.

Traditional ag’s story is quite different. Decades of lobbying from big ag have been able to shape government regulations so that goods can be produced as cheaply as possible, with many watchdog organizations pointing out that environment and consumer health protections have taken a back seat to profits.

Professional cannabis growers have been placed in a unique position by being forced to develop a growing industry within a more environmentally responsible and sustainable business model framework. If successful, these effects could ripple into traditional agriculture, which similarly needs to rapidly transform itself in order to address increasingly urgent environmental concerns. Additionally, the large profit margins generated by cannabis provides a rare opportunity to invest in more sustainable cultivation systems which other industries typically couldn’t afford.

Wastewater Discharge

Toxic Spray in Agriculture

Industrialized agriculture has few solutions for dealing with wastewater. Typically, harmful fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides run off straight into the landscape, polluting creeks, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, contaminating drinking water sources and damaging ecosystems. At no point are any of these harmful chemicals properly contained. Instead, they are discharged straight into the natural environment.

Wastewater discharge has been harming natural ecosystems since the inception of industrialized agriculture. When untreated nutrient runoff from industrial farms drain into large bodies of water, algae blooms thrive off these nutrients, which in turn depletes oxygen from the water, making it almost impossible for marine life to survive.

For example, the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, first observed in 1985, covers an average of 6,000 square miles and is a continuous threat to major fishing industries. Similar dead zones off the coasts of Oregon and Washington have been steadily becoming more problematic for the last 35 years.

In many locations, cannabis farms are not allowed to discharge any wastewater at all. This is because municipal wastewater treatment facilities were not originally constructed to process cannabis farm effluent. Additionally, the high profits generated by the booming cannabis industry have gotten the attention of local governments seeking to raise tax money by implementing expensive fees and regulations. These issues have incentivized cannabis cultivators to pursue innovative alternatives for dealing with their wastewater.

Minimum Liquid Discharge

Nutrient Runoff Reclamation Container

Advanced minimum liquid wastewater discharge technologies now being applied to the cannabis industry for the first time are able to separate harmful chemicals out of the water by high efficiency reverse osmosis systems. At each filtration stage, problematic contaminants become more concentrated as they are separated from the resulting purified or “product” water. Therefore, the waste is properly accounted for and contained, rather than discharged into the surrounding natural environment.

The main expense of achieving minimum liquid discharge is the large amount of power required to operate the equipment. However, as the costs of renewable energy produced by wind and solar continue to fall, minimum liquid discharge technologies will become more affordable across all ag industries. In the near future, all of agriculture could have efficient and sustainable solutions to dealing with wastewater.

With minimum liquid discharge technologies in place, the extreme costs of restoring ecosystems or the irreversibly priceless cost of extincting vulnerable species can be proactively avoided. Also gone is the need to constantly truck wastewater off to a disposal site, a much more carbon intensive way of dealing wastewater. Furthermore, as externalized costs on the environment become mandatory to address in order to fight climate change, it will be cheaper to mitigate the problem in the short term, rather than deal with the eventual and more expensive environmental disaster in the long term.

Water Usage

Water Storage Tanks

Despite agriculture consuming up to 90% of the west coast’s water supplies, California outdoor cannabis farms are regulated on water use much more strictly than any other crop. 

For example, outdoor cannabis growers are required to build water storage systems equal to the entire demand of their crop so that water demands don’t impact streams during the dry season. Cannabis farms are also subject to far more extensive laws regulating pesticide use and drainage quality, as compared to other forms of agriculture. Cannabis growers are also blocked out of federal grants that help pay for water quality and sustainability projects, unlike the billions of dollars of grants available to traditional agriculture.

Historically, cannabis has been negatively cast as a water thirsty plant that consumes up to 6 gallons per plant per day. However due to data inaccuracies and anti-cannabis legal authorities looking to inflate numbers, the true number is likely much lower, around 2 gallons per plant per day. For comparison, cannabis requires the same amount of water as tomatoes and about 33 times less water than almonds. Additionally, cannabis delivers more economic value per gallon of water than any crop, so to say that growing cannabis inefficiently uses water is an inaccurate and exaggerated claim.

70% of the nation’s cannabis supply is currently grown in the West which is now facing extreme drought conditions. Growing cannabis with peak water efficiency technologies that could carry over to the larger ag industries will be absolutely critical for the future of agriculture in the Western United States.

When water supply is limited, indoor hydroponic systems are already far more efficient than outdoor agriculture, using 97% less water. New and advanced water conservation technologies being applied to the cannabis industry offer opportunities for cannabis cultivation to become even more efficient with water usage.

For example, technologies like the Automated Reclaimed Condensate System (ARCS) can reclaim up to 80% of a facility’s daily water demand by recycling HVAC runoff that would normally go down the drain. Another benefit of the ARCS is that it can treat rainwater, further decreasing a facility’s water demand and cutting the costs of cultivation. Finally, hydroponic cultivation is possible anywhere, relieving the burden carried by agricultural lands that have historically relied heavily on cheap, readily available water.

Automated Reclaim Condensate System (ARCS) Skid

Innovating Sustainable Agriculture

Smart farming with IoT

The cannabis industry is in a unique position to advance sustainable agriculture by applying its high profits towards conservation technologies in order to adapt to the strict regulations being forced upon the industry.

The resource intensive practices that allowed cannabis to exist underground for so many decades have driven governments to mandate more environmentally friendly practices to build out the legal market. The hope is, if governments impose regulations on one crop, similar resource intensive practices common in other sectors of agriculture should be reassessed to comply with the need to address the ever-intensifying environmental crisis.

Cannabis has already begun the process of reinvention by evolving out of its stigmatized past and is looking to rebrand itself as a healthier and more sustainable product. At the same time, climate change is becoming a pressing issue that can no longer be ignored and necessitates immediate action. Cannabis has the opportunity to vindicate its image by driving the innovation urgently needed to advance sustainable agriculture.