On any farm, in any part of the world, growing consistently high-quality crops requires a vast amount of resources — water, nutrients and energy — and produces a significant amount of waste, including plant material, packaging and wastewater.
Cannabis is no exception. From water use to climate control to lighting, cannabis production comes with its own environmental price tag.
It’s a concern that many Licensed Producers are addressing by improving upon traditional production methods in creative ways. We spoke with Organigram and The Green Organic Dutchman (TGOD) about how they’re using innovations in water use, healthy soil and smart technology systems to reduce their environmental impact and make their methods more eco-conscious.
A single cannabis plant can soak up to 23 litres of water each day. Multiply that by hundreds of plants, and you can begin to understand just how much water is required for cannabis production — and how capturing and reusing water, including rainwater and snowfall, can have a huge impact.
At TGOD’s Ancaster, Ont. growing facility, a manmade pond helps the company store and reuse water for production. “Our pond acts like a large rain barrel and holds five million litres of water — equivalent to two Olympic-sized swimming pools,” says David Bernard-Perron, vice-president of growing operations at TGOD. “The water from the pond goes through ultra-filtration using a 15-microns filter and passes through UV light for disinfection. Afterwards, the water is stored in one of seven clean raw-water tanks inside the buildings.”
Water can also be recycled throughout the farming system: Organigram traps and reuses up to 70% of the water used in its grow rooms, and its drip irrigation system reduces evaporation waste and watering frequency. Other Licensed Producers reduce their water usage by feeding their plants through aquaponics, a symbiotic, closed-loop cultivation method in which fish waste acts as a source of nutrients for the plants, which then help naturally treat the water so that it can be recirculated.
Employing Smart Tech
Though it can be a huge investment, smart technology systems can help perfect resource allocation; automation has the benefit of precisely calibrating light, temperature, humidity, water and nutrients to reduce waste. Both Organigram and TGOD use proprietary automation systems that monitor and optimize every aspect of the growing cycle — humidity, millilitres of water per plant, temperature, light, fertilizer, and air exchange. These conditions can be controlled remotely through a mobile app. If one metric is off, the team gets an alert to check the system.
“By combining natural elements with the latest in automation, we can maintain ideal growing conditions while decreasing our environmental footprint and staying true to our sustainability principles,” says Bernard-Perron of TGOD. At Organigram, the company’s OrganiGrow software performs 1,000 checks and measurements during the crop cycle to optimize every resource. “Our environmental system checks each sensor every five minutes, with over 500 sensors on grow room climate alone,” says Jonatan Montpetit, director of cultivation.
In addition to reducing energy use, technology can help Licensed Producers reuse energy. TGOD has gone off the grid with a system that involves a diesel generator and cold water to enable its greenhouse to operate independently. Any by-products from the power generation (such as excess heat) are then used in the greenhouse. Similarly, at Organigram, every possible resource is exhausted: a system captures the heat given off by air-handling units outside the grow rooms to warm the irrigation water.
Technology has also allowed Licensed Producers to rethink traditional farming techniques. Organigram uses an efficient three-tier vertical growth system that allows for higher productivity in a smaller footprint. “Grow up, not out!” says Montpetit. “Our grow facility is divided into 115 strain-specific micro-climates, which allows us to heat up smaller areas, reducing our resource requirements. We also strategically turn on the grow lights in our rooms at different intervals, which diminishes our energy peak and reduces our carbon footprint.”
Healthy Soil and Growing Materials
Choosing an eco-friendly growing material helps Licensed Producers reduce the amount of production-associated waste that ends up in landfill and can offer a natural way to promote plant health. Organigram uses coco coir as its growing medium, a by-product of the coconut industry, while TGOD’s plants grow in a proprietary reusable living soil, created from a collection of natural ingredients, including glacial rock dust and crab meal. “It’s a diverse ecosystem, including healthy bacteria, fungi and nematode worms, actively working together to break down organic matter, unlocking nutrients for growing plants,” says Bernard-Perron.
Pest management is tied into the soil; Licensed Producers can use natural products, such as fish, and sesame and garlic oils, to suffocate bugs that snack on the plants’ leaves. Another tactic is to employ other insects, such as nematodes and ladybugs, to do the job. “Our integrated pest management approach uses several beneficial insects to control undesired insects. We also use several plant health products authorized by Health Canada that use beneficial fungus to out-compete pathogenic fungus and increase plant health,” says Montpetit.
While indoor growing has the benefit of protecting plants from certain pests, it means growers must rely on artificial lighting to some degree. The most popular type of artificial lighting used in cannabis production, high-pressure sodium light (HPS), can increase the temperature in a grow room by as much as 30°F; energy-consuming ventilation and air conditioning systems are required to maintain a consistent temperature.
In TGOD’s greenhouses, glass roofs allow plants to grow under natural sunlight that’s complemented by a broad-spectrum LED lighting system — which uses 40% less energy than HPS lights — when natural rays are low.
When sustainably minded Licensed Producers work to reduce their environmental impact, their carbon footprint can be reduced significantly. “We believe we have an obligation to build our organization in a responsible way,” says Montpetit at Organigram. “Canadian society has given us the opportunity to grow, make and sell cannabis products legally, and we view that as a privilege that cannot be taken lightly.”
Bernard-Perron at TGOD echoes that sentiment: “We have made sustainability a strategic focus, as we believe we can do well and do good at the same time. We are developing cannabis solutions to make peoples’ lives better and we are cognizant of the impact that we have on the society we live in.”