Michael Steinmetz: How Do We Grow Cannabis Responsibly?
With President Biden preparing to move forward on the important and difficult work of addressing the human impact on the planet’s climate, I believe cannabis should be a linchpin of this discussion. Yes, cannabis. How we grow the plant and the industry itself both impact our climate. But why should our president, beleaguered with a pandemic and a nation divided by civil unrest, busy himself with a plant that is still illegal in the branch of government over which he presides?
President Biden’s environmental commitments are based on two principles, that “(1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.”
The first principle necessitates that we support a determined, unprecedented effort to ameliorate our climate change woes. The second principle underscores the notion that economic conditions are upstream of environmental conditions. In other words, I believe we need the government to regulate cannabis effectively so we can grow it responsibly.
And how do we grow cannabis responsibly? By doing it outside.
Carbon and Cannabis Control
According to findings from New Frontier Data, indoor cannabis cultivation labs produce nearly 25 times more carbon than outdoor grows and are 70 times more energy-intensive than commercial office buildings. A new study from Colorado State University recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability highlights the environmental impact of growing cannabis indoors. Additional research from Colorado State University estimates that growing a mere ounce of cannabis indoors can have the same environmental impact as burning seven to 16 gallons of gas. Simply put, indoor cannabis farming has a significant impact on our environment. I believe that this could potentially pose a threat to Biden’s climate change goals.
After January 1, 2023, there will be no regulatory cap in California on the size or production amount of cannabis farms. This lack of a size limit could invite corporations to consolidate and build massive indoor industrial grows. A few ways we can aim to offset this is by regulating both the size and number of indoor grows, incentivizing cannabis companies to opt for sun-grown farming, and by supporting interstate commerce.
Currently, restrictions on interstate commerce are causing a bottleneck in our industry. California has a surplus of cannabis in general, and we can expect that much of this cannabis makes its way across the U.S. illicitly. Removing restrictions on cannabis with respect to interstate commerce would open up the regulated flow of sun-grown cannabis, thus diminishing the need for newly legalized states to erect indoor grows.
There are other bold ways forward, including a requirement that indoor cultivation facilities be highly energy efficient with all power generated on-site using renewable energy sources. This “net zero” approach is already a goal that the federal government and many states are applying to ordinary types of facilities. Apple, Facebook and Google are voluntarily showing us that this is possible in large-scale data centers.
Better yet, cannabis can be grown sustainably under the sun.
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Nature Does It Better
When my wife and cofounder Flavia Cassani and I first came to the Emerald Triangle, it was the amazing variety, exceptional quality and effect of the sun-grown flower — tall cannabis trees of potent beauty stretching some 20 feet high to the sky — that captured our hearts and imaginations.
We’re not alone. Just as aspiring pastry chefs travel to Paris to learn their craft or cheesemakers go to Parma, travelers come to the Emerald Triangle to sample cannabis grown in what is considered by many to be America’s cannabis epicenter. Grown outside in the sun, subject to the natural elements of wind and rain, and often grown alongside a healthy rotation of organic fruits and vegetables, this region has been considered the unofficial cannabis capital.
I believe that outdoor production has everything to do with it. While the cannabinoids and terpenes that give subtlety, variety and psychoactive effects to each individual strain are largely missing in indoor-grown cannabis, they are celebrated in sun-grown cannabis. According to a 2019 article in Leafly, full-spectrum sunlight coaxes a fuller genetic potential from the plant than does artificial lighting.
California is an agricultural hub of the nation, furnishing most of the almonds, strawberries, artichokes, walnuts, lettuce, and avocado stock (to name a few) for this country. Nebraskans don’t grow their own walnuts inside; they import them from California. Alaskans don’t raise strawberries in warehouses; they import them from California. By legalizing interstate commerce, agricultural states like ours could provide more than just walnuts and strawberries — sun-grown cannabis could be brought in, too.
This year, California launched its appellations program in order to secure the integrity of legacy cannabis growing regions like our Emerald Triangle home just as France protects Champagne and Italy protects Parmigiano-Reggiano. The state did that because cannabis grown outside reflects its environment just as reliably as do wine grapes.
I believe we don’t have the energy to waste on indoor growing when outdoor sun-grown cannabis — agriculture as it is meant to be practiced — is already available on a large scale, from decentralized, independent family farms.
In a richly agricultural state like California, the gap between these two distinctly different styles of growing has never been more important. There is not a comparable agricultural product grown indoors at scale — so why would this beautiful plant, called a “weed,” be grown any differently?