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Sustainable Harvesting

Oct 26, 2017 11:39PM ● Published by Ricardo Baca

The sun shines faintly on this 60-degree September day in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, but the 10-day forecast promises rain—and so a grower purposefully strides across her 30,000-acre farm of flowering cannabis in the heart of America’s “cannabis bucket.” Every few feet, she pulls out her loupe to catch a closer look at the plants’ amber trichomes, and after making a few notes in her little notebook, she nods to herself and pulls out her mobile phone. It’s harvest time. Meanwhile across the rest of the state, other largescale cultivations—planted on hundreds of thousands of acres—are doing the same thing, because California now produces more than 75 percent of the country’s cannabis. The year is 2027 in an imagined, but definitely possible, post-prohibition world. Proposition 64 has all but disappeared in the rearview mirror, as have the federal laws that used to ban the interstate sale of marijuana, which is now the established darling of mass-scale agriculture. As the country’s largest producer of almonds, avocados, grapes, tomatoes, peaches, plums, artichokes, broccoli, and many other popular fruits, vegetables, and nuts—in fact, California is responsible for two-thirds of the nation’s produce—the state has always been uniquely poised to grow the majority of the population’s pot plants, as well.

But unlike so many other products grown in the Golden State, cannabis can be cultivated successfully indoors on a large scale—and some would say it’s even better done indoors, at least in terms of the ability to amplify THC and control a variety of factors, as well as to produce multiple harvests in shorter growing times. The problem is, it’s not necessarily better for the environment. Indoor cultivation inhales an enormous amount of electricity — for high-intensity lights, ventilation systems, heaters and air conditioners, dehumidifiers and humidifiers, much of it running 24 hours a day. And a recent study by Evan Mills, a scientist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, suggests that indoor grows are one of the most energy-intensive industries out there, currently accounting for 1 percent of the nation’s electricity usage. That may not sound like a lot, but that's the same percentage used by Americans’ washing machines. It will be hard to move away from the indoor grow model, but for the industry to be sustainable and do right by the planet, it needs to be grown and regulated like the agricultural product it is. Of course, growing cannabis outdoors sprouts a whole other set of issues, including things like increased clear-cutting of forests and increased road construction, which can result in a loss of wildlife habitat and an increase in greenhouse gases (partly because the loss of forest also means the loss of trees and plants that filter CO2 from the atmosphere). Erosion is a serious problem, too, as is the potential effect on rivers and streams. Not to mention that the runoff and air pollution from pesticides, fertilizers and petroleum-based fuel can impact habitats, water sources, and other crops. In addition, research scientist Mills found that the cannabis industry produces 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is equal to the output of 3 million vehicles—more of which would be needed on the roads to ship California cannabis to the rest of the country. And then we get into water use, a big deal in cannabis cultivation. A task force in Oregon exploring environmental best practices for the state legislature found that on average, a mature plant can consume up to 6 gallons of water a day in a 150-day growing cycle. (By comparison, one grape plant grown to make wine uses half that.) Transplanting the entire industry outside, where unpredictable rain and sun patterns can quickly alter normal water consumption and wind can cause the plants to dry out faster, could substantially increase water usage. But according to a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters by a professor in environmental studies and a specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, these concerns can be addressed by, yep, more studies—difficult in the current regulatory climate with cannabis still classified as a Schedule I substance. That research would result in increased oversight on the environmental impact of growing cannabis, as well as more careful, thoughtful planning that would put pot farms in the least impactful, most environmentally beneficial places possible. “Siting grows in areas with better access to roads, gentler slopes, and ample water resources could significantly reduce threats to the environment,” study authors Jake Brenner and Van Butsic wrote. They also pointed to their study, which surveyed the watersheds of northern California's Humboldt County, as an example of the sort of analysis that could be done— and is absolutely necessary—to inform land-use plans for cannabis agriculture and to ensure that energy-efficiency standards and laws would be implemented to help guarantee less wasteful production. The green-minded city of Boulder has regulations requiring growers to directly offset 100 percent of the electricity and other fuels used in production by using renewable energy or paying into an Energy Impact Offset Fund, or they pay a fine. And in Oregon, where a report by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council revealed that an indoor grow system for only four plants sucks up as much energy as 29 refrigerators, cash incentives have helped to reduce energy use, and 20 percent of the tax revenue goes toward offsetting the environmental impact of past and present cannabis cultivation. The bottom line is that under our current 2017 model, the concept of harvest is less about agriculture and growing season than it is about plugging into the grid — so let's start considering a more environmentally sensible approach that pays homage to the sun-fed farming that got us here and takes less of a toll on the gigantic greenhouse we call Earth. 
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