Today’s commercial cannabis growers are under more pressure than ever to lower production costs and minimize their carbon footprint. These challenges will compound as the industry expands and governments strengthen their commitments to achieving climate goals.
Complying with environmental regulations should not come at the cost of decreased profitability or inferior product. Fortunately, it can be precisely the opposite. Consider these three not-so-obvious tips for treading lightly and improving your bottom line.
- Select genetics that lend themselves to a smaller carbon footprint.
Lights and cooling are two of the biggest consumers of energy for indoor commercial growers. Switching to LED lights is usually the go-to solution for lowering an operator’s energy consumption and carbon footprint, but like any complex problem, the best answer is seldom a single answer. Complicated issues are best addressed from multiple angles, and cultivation energy consumption is no different.
Most cannabis varieties thrive on high light levels, but for some cultivars, intense light can be detrimental to their productivity. The genetics of these varieties evolved in regions where high light levels were not the norm, so their health and yield can be negatively affected when grown indoors and flooded with strong light. Too much light will cause these varieties to yellow while their leaves twist and turn away from the light.
By selecting low-light-loving varieties for commercial production, cultivators can reduce their carbon footprint by simply consuming less energy. Most indoor growers shoot for light levels around 1,000 micromoles during the flowering cycle. By selecting a variety that thrives with just 750 micromoles of light, growers can realize a 25% energy savings in lighting and cooling costs.
Elite Phenos of Leicester, Massachusetts, is one company that is commercializing these underutilized varieties. The company offers an extensive portfolio of low-light cultivars that can be incorporated into a grower’s production plan to help reduce their electrical consumption and overall carbon footprint.
- Incorporate new technology to decrease your reliance on energy-intensive inputs.
Since plants consume carbon dioxide as part of the photosynthetic process, it’s common for levels to become depleted in closed growing environments. By supplementing the cultivation atmosphere with CO2 gas, growers can replenish the air to ambient levels of CO2 — about 340 parts per million — or even exceed those levels up to 1,500 ppm for explosive growth without jeopardizing the workers’ health.
However, supplementing carbon dioxide increases a cannabis production facility’s overall carbon footprint — but not in the way you might think. Very little carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere since most of it is released inside airtight grow rooms and consumed by the crop. The problem lies in the preparation, storage and transport of CO2 to the cultivation site.
Most commercial operations buy CO2 in large bulk tanks and store them outside of their grow facility. The CO2 is kept under tremendous pressure and stored as a liquid. When it leaves the tank and enters the distribution network of the grow facility, it converts into gas. The compression and transport of these hefty tanks contribute to the total carbon emissions associated with the production of cannabis.
One way to decrease a cultivator’s carbon footprint is to deliver the CO2 directly to the crop in an aqueous solution, not as a gas. CO2 Gro Inc. is pioneering this novel method of delivery. According to the company’s website, CO2 Grow’s saturated carbon-dioxide misting system uses 96% less CO2 while still providing optimal levels to the crop. The company’s system eliminates the need to compress and transport massive tanks of CO2, effectively decreasing an operation’s total carbon footprint.
- Borrow techniques from traditional horticulture to help minimize waste.
Cannabis growers don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to cost-saving practices that are environmentally friendly. Most horticultural crop producers operate on razor-thin margins, and they have spent decades evolving and refining their cultivation programs for peak operational efficiency. Fortunately, most of these commercial growing principles are directly applicable to cannabis.
One such area is fertilizer. Cannabis is a heavy feeder, and the industry relies extensively on water-soluble, mineral fertilizers to meet this need. As cannabis legalization continues to expand, the demand for fertilizer will increase.
Phosphorus is a mineral fertilizer that is commonly overapplied to cannabis crops. A popular myth suggests that a lot of phosphorus is needed during the flowering stage, but the actual levels required for quality plant growth are quite low. The plant does not absorb excess phosphorus, and the resulting runoff — and the grower’s money — goes down the drain.
The production of mineral fertilizers contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of a grow operation due to the energy, chemicals and water utilized in the process. Most phosphorus fertilizer is mined from rock (a non-renewable resource), and the overapplication of phosphorus can contaminate water sources and cause algal blooms.
Commercial flower and vegetable growers avoid this problem by using plant sap analysis to manage their crop’s nutritional needs. Plant sap is the fluid that carries minerals and metabolites throughout the xylem and phloem of the plant. Extracting and analyzing this sap can help growers make real-time nutrient decisions that lower their production costs and improve crop quality.
Growers that implement plant sap testing know precisely how much phosphorus their plants need by comparing mineral levels in the nutrient solution to those in the plant. Often, phosphorus can be dialed back without harming the crop or negatively affecting yield. This saves the grower money on fertilizer and minimizes the total carbon footprint associated with their business. New Age Laboratories in South Haven, Michigan, and TPS Labs in Edinburg, Texas, are two laboratories that offer sap analysis services to the cannabis industry.
A Final Thought
The current state of indoor cannabis cultivation is not sustainable. Indoor growers should anticipate regulations that force them to control their energy use and minimize their carbon footprint. The best growers should start implementing steps today to ensure their business stays competitive in the future.
Ryan Douglas helps new cultivation businesses come to market fast and spend less money getting there. He has worked in commercial horticulture for 23 years and previously directed cultivation for Tweed Inc. in Canada. He now offers cultivation advisory services through his company, Ryan Douglas Cultivation, LLC.