Producers should make changes before government officials step in with increased regulations
Water use is one of the biggest shadows looming over the cannabis industry, yet few stakeholders in the United States are talking about what’s on the horizon.
Drought and an increasing number of wildfires continue to ravage the parched western states, home to some of the country’s longest-established cannabis markets. Yet, headlines tend to highlight flashy corporate acquisitions and ever-fluctuating market conditions more so than the long-term outlook on the most critical resource required for the crop’s production: water.
The water issues facing commercial cannabis cultivators are two-fold. First are the impending restrictions on the total quantity of water growers can draw from wells, municipal districts and other regional sources. Second involves upcoming changes to the acceptable quality of effluent water discharged from facilities.
The conversation is only just getting started, in large part because of recent surges in fertilizer pricing and the increasing difficulty of acquiring important fertilizer derivatives. The latest shortages have renewed concerns that cannabis could one day be poised to compete for resources with global food, feed and commodities producers.
Governments worldwide are already eyeing — or enacting — legislation regarding resource allocation and environmental concerns pertaining to horticultural activities. Widespread restrictions on fertilizer application go into effect this year throughout countries in the European Union and Canada as governments attempt to curtail emissions associated with the application of synthetic fertilizers.
The conversation is not a new one, but official enactment of long-debated legislation always seems to leave producers scrambling to adjust methodology and adapt mindset. Dutch farmers have recently been protesting restrictions on agriculture that are already limiting nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions by up to 70% in farming regions near protected ecosystems. This could soon spill over from traditional agriculture to the even more regulated cannabis industry faster than you can say “cultivation.”
It would behoove cannabis growers to keep in mind that the fallout for producers can be swift: In Ontario, after the 2015 enactment of the Greenhouse Nutrient Feedwater Regulation, greenhouse growers saw restrictions on nutrient feedwater disposal shift almost overnight, giving them little time to adjust to the new compliance metrics, immediately impacting operations and profitability. While restrictions have since been adjusted to become less onerous, it took more than a decade for legislators to make their tweaks.
Because the legal cannabis industry is so young, and because cannabis was unregulated and clandestine for so long, there is a fundamental lack of longitudinal data showing how much water and fertilizer is truly required to responsibly and efficiently maintain cannabis canopy in different cropping systems.
That opens the door for governments to independently — and arbitrarily — set water allocation limits per square foot of crop that aren’t realistic for the widely varying commercial cultivation models, including indoor, outdoor, vertical, greenhouse, mixed-light greenhouse, hydroponic, soil-based and others. And once those limits are set, it automatically puts growers at a disadvantage.
It’s hard enough for business owners in more established agricultural markets to weather abrupt regulatory changes. But the cannabis industry doesn’t have the powerful and well-developed lobbying infrastructure that other agricultural sectors like cereal and commodity crops do, nor does it have the advantage of massive government subsidy programs.
In the United States, too, cannabis companies are already hampered by federal prohibition. Overly swift, punitive resource restrictions could be devastating for operators with ever-thinning profit margins. That’s particularly true in emerging markets and for smaller producers and family farms in established markets like California and Colorado that are now experiencing massive price compression and competition.
Fortunately, there are already solutions for cannabis cultivators, such as water recirculation systems, and methodologies that can help conserve water and fertilizer resources, making the most of limited supply in the face of ongoing drought and/or governmental restrictions. Historically, cannabis cultivators have shied away from drain-water recirculation and condensate recapture for fear of vector and proliferation of plant-pathogenic fungi and bacteria such as Pythium spp. and Fusarium spp. However, there is now an abundance of multi-pathway sterilization tools available to cultivators at all scales.
If cannabis companies proactively assess their operational efficiency, they can get ahead of the inevitable. Many of the most-established U.S. cannabis markets are in Western states caught in the grips of a years-long drought. But even emerging markets like Michigan, which has a seemingly endless supply of water from the Great Lakes, will be caught up in conservation legislation in the coming years.
This is because the cannabis industry impacts water systems in multiple ways. While front-end concerns include the overuse of water sources like aquifers, lakes and rivers, back-end concerns include the discharge of chemical-laden wastewater. Fertilizer runoff causes eutrophication and nonpoint source pollution — issues that can be addressed through drain-water recirculation efforts and condensation capture. There are also growing concerns worldwide about the ecological impacts of pesticide-laden runoff, even from the limited pest management products approved for use on cannabis such as bio-insecticides, bio-fungicides and OMRI listed products.
Efficiency in the use of water, nutrients and pesticides has advanced dramatically in recent years, particularly as more cultivators automate their irrigation, spraying and drenching systems and utilize sterile and inert substrates that reduce the risk of pests and pathogens. Condensation-capture technology has also advanced for indoor agriculture, collecting and reusing moisture from dehumidifiers and air conditioning systems generated by the plants’ transpiration stream.
Cannabis producers need to proactively adopt water recirculation technology now, particularly in drought-affected regions that are more likely to legislate resource allocation sooner rather than later. While such short-term expenditures may be easy to put off, tackling the problem of resource allocation now protects business longevity in more ways than one.
For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is already talking in terms of “climate-smart agriculture.” Compliance with those standards may not be necessary now from a regulatory perspective, but treating the end of federal prohibition as an inevitability gives cannabis cultivators a crucial opportunity to propel their own conservation efforts and actively participate in the development of resource use standards and benchmarking, rather than scrambling when the hammer finally comes down.
Marielle Taft is a technical crop advisor for Grodan, a global leader in precision growing solutions and inventor of stone wool cultivation. She has extensive experience in the controlled environment agriculture sector, including large-scale facility design, agricultural engineering, hydroponic crop production, irrigation systems design and research.