Regenerative no-till farming. Biodynamic farming. Permaculture. These Earth-saving farming techniques—once considered fringe agricultural movements for overly hopeful individuals, a.k.a. hippies—are now seeing a rapid rise in popularity.
Not surprisingly, cannabis farmers are at the forefront of this “new” wave of eco-savvy farming, together with some of the world’s top coffee and wine producers. This makes sense, as terroir—a term traditionally used to describe all aspects of a grapevine’s environment—is a crucial factor in shaping the unique characteristics that a particular grape genetic will express, and the same goes for coffee, cannabis, and many other agricultural products over which humans obsess.
Taking care of the environment as a long-term asset is perhaps more obviously a wise choice for such competitive niche agricultural sectors than for growers of, say, cucumbers or broccoli. This is why these sectors provide a unique opportunity for farmers to test regenerative-farming models for large-scale projects, providing irrefutable proof of concept necessary to change the minds of policymakers so that we can initiate a global transformation in farming culture. But are we still in time?
Modern large-scale farming techniques have up to now been one of the most destructive forces against nature on this planet, but many of us are still arguing about whether it’s worth spending the extra money to get better food. I think most of us are missing the point.
So what’s so wrong with tilling soil? Haven’t humans been farming this way since time immemorial?
Yes, we have. But since humans started this practice on a large scale, we have also been devastating ecosystems faster than ever before—and with permanent effect.
Clear-cutting and tilling earth will, inescapably, deplete biodiversity and soil fertility over time. As water retention, soil fertility, and biodiversity decrease, modern farmers tend to use pesticides and fertilizers that poison our river, lake, and ocean ecosystems in order to make crops more viable. The combination of all these factors makes large-scale agriculture the single most environmentally destructive human industry on Earth.
Let’s take a step back and think about that: the worst of all human activities when it comes to environmental damage is not mining or oil extraction but just regular ol’ farming.
Somehow this fact gets lost in an ocean of more visible eco-campaigns, like “stop the oilsands” or “save the whales”. Not that these are not worthy causes, but perhaps many of us eco-minded folks have not tallied the math far enough down to even realize that there will be no whales to save if we do not change what we are doing on land. And right quick.
Thankfully, regenerative-farming activists have always been there. They are just busy farming—dedicating their lives to actively creating the proof of concept that we so desperately need to win hearts and minds. To them, these farming methods have always been about so much more than just pleasing chefs and getting a higher price for their produce.
Now is the time to set aside the self-focused argument of whether or not organic farms actually make “better quality” agricultural products and to come to terms with the fact that 2020 must be the year that humans realize as a global community that a dramatic change in our agricultural sector will be crucial for the survival of the human race. And going organic is only the first step in the right direction!
Many people don’t realize that standard industrial organic farming methods still come with the drawback of having to sometimes clear-cut old growth and then repeatedly till the earth in order to combat weeds.
No-till methods use cover crops—like clover, alfalfa, and buckwheat—that are rolled into the earth as a natural form of controlling weeds while also restoring vital nutrients and microbial life to the soil. These methods are already used by some organic and even some nonorganic farmers, but they are still being perfected for most large-scale industrial-farming applications. Fully organic no-till farming would effectively put an end to the ongoing deterioration of soil and water systems caused by current farming techniques, so every chance to prove the worth of these methods provides a small push in the right direction.
But before we get too excited about how no-till cannabis growers are going to save the world, let’s take a hard look at where our mainstream cannabis sector is today in terms of sustainability.
If I were to assign an overall grade to players in this industry as it stands today, I would definitely flunk most companies, three times over. There is one resounding reason for this: not only are most Canadian licensed producers (LPs) using nonorganic farming methods but they are also growing almost exclusively indoors.
Large-scale indoor production is by far the most environmentally detrimental, wasteful, and costly of all farming methods, but it endures as the standard in the Canadian cannabis sector, not only because of our lovely weather but also because many misguided souls still believe that this is the only way to grow high-quality cannabis.
Before we debunk that myth, let’s assess the true extent of the damage of indoor growing.
A single 5,000-square-foot indoor grow room can easily consume up to 45,000 kilowatt-hours of power per month, due to all of the lights and environmental controls required. To put that into perspective: an average home in B.C. uses about 10,000 kilowatt-hours per year! And keep in mind that a single LP will have dozens, if not hundreds, of times this square footage of grow space.
There are hundreds of approved LPs in Canada, with hundreds more coming. Ouch—sounds like we will need to build a lot more of those “green” hydroelectric facilities.
Unfortunately, excessive power use is not the only issue with growing indoors. Indoor production is traditionally thought to be best suited for hydroponic—soil-free medium—settings. For this reason, LPs tend to opt for peat-based, “rock wool”, or other growing mediums that are often discarded with every harvest. These discarded mediums contribute thousands of tons of garbage to our landfills every year.
Rock wool, for example, is incredibly popular as a growing medium despite the fact that it is nonreusable and noncompostable. On the other hand, discarding compostable peat-based mediums creates a never-ending demand for peat that threatens natural peatlands ecosystems.
But the story is not all bad. Health Canada is doing a good job of regulating “runoff”—a term used to describe wastewater that often contains fertilizers—to prevent licensed production sites from polluting our waterways. Home growers that do not face regulation need to join this fight by opting for hydroponic systems that avoid runoff or by installing a water-treatment unit.
Hydroponic methods can yield incredibly high quality while also being very sustainable, when done right. Rock wool is not the only way to do hydroponic, and discarding peat-based mediums is not always necessary. Many ecologically aware hydroponic producers already know about these potential advantages and are running their systems accordingly.
Sun-grown cannabis is becoming increasingly popular, thanks to innovators like Tantalus Labs, which is actively showing the Canadian market that you can actually grow high-quality cannabis outdoors, under the sun. For those of us from the tropics, this is not news, but it is nice to see Canadian companies proving this to consumers.
Soon there will be LPs showing Canadian consumers that with the right genes and growing and processing techniques—like light-deprivation and cold-cure methods—outdoor production sites can also yield incredibly high quality, even in our beloved Canadian weather.
If you are in the biz and reading this, thinking, “This guy is crazy; of course indoor is always better than outdoor!” well, you probably just don’t have enough experience smoking properly acclimated outdoor cannabis that has been cured to perfection. And that, my Canadian compadres, is not your fault. I forgive you.
Seriously, though, if you get a chance, grow some Texada Timewarp outdoors on the B.C. coast and then try growing it indoors and tell me if indoor is always better than outdoor. Quality outdoor is all about having acclimated genes and proper curing; thankfully, many of the up-and-coming LPs and microproducers are well aware of this fact.
If you think about it, this move to the outdoors is really the moment that cannabis gets to decide what side of history it is on. Will it be one more crop contributing to the collapse of our environment, or will it be a crop pushing us to reconsider business as usual?
Well, part of the issue there is that it is not entirely on LPs and micros to allow for these changes to take root in our sector. Regulations surrounding biological-contaminant parameters will have to be loosened, because currently Canada regulates cannabis as if it were a pharmaceutical drug rather than what it is, which is a plant. This has made it very difficult for organic growers to pass quality inspections—that is, until Whistler came along.
The first LP to crack the puzzle of how to grow fully organic cannabis using only the limited set of Health Canada–approved growing mediums, fertilizers, and pesticides was Whistler, followed by TGOD (The Green Organic Dutchman) and, recently, Rubikon, which hails from the same team that started Whistler. I have not tried TGOD, but both Whistler and Rubikon deliver some of the best buds ever seen in the legal space, in my opinion. Like Tantalus, these ecofriendly trailblazers deserve accolades for doing what many said was impossible and helping to set the bar higher for the rest of us.
And, no, organic does not always mean higher quality—it has to be done right. But doing it right requires all sorts of products that are simply not an option for the Canadian LP. Health Canada needs to approve more of the compost-based mediums, natural-soil amenities, and the beneficial bugs, microbes, and fungi needed to apply and develop organic no-till farming methods further.
We must demand that our government get behind the organic no-till movement and create policies that act on the realization that this is about more than just having quality produce, weed, wine, or coffee. This is about survival.
Adolfo Gonzalez is a cofounder of CannaReps.