Your cannabis consumption has a carbon footprint, and when everybody's cannabis consumption is added up, that carbon footprint gets mighty big. But most of that climate-changing impact is coming from marijuana grown under lights indoors with extensive heating, air conditioning, and electrical requirements. Marijuana grown outdoors, or in greenhouses or hoop houses, doesn't require any of that, and has virtually no impact on greenhouse gas emissions.It would appear that the ethical thing for marijuana consumers to do when it comes to addressing climate change is to rely on outdoor, sun-grown marijuana. But that is just for starters. Environmentally conscious consumers can get really serious and demand marijuana that is sun-grown, organic, and produced in a sustainable and regenerative fashion.
Before getting to solutions, let us first come to grips with the scope of the problem. Given that much of the marijuana grown in the United States goes into the black market, no one is quite sure just how much weed we produce. But a 2019 study from industry analysts New Frontier Data estimated that we are closing in on 35 million pounds a year, a figure that we could hit as early as 2025. (California alone accounted for more than 12 million pounds of illegal exports in 2019, according to the report.) A 2012 report from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated 30 million pounds nationwide.
That is a lot of weed, and it has an environmental impact. That same UC Berkeley study found that marijuana cultivation accounts for at least 1 percent of all the electricity consumed in the country, at a cost of $6 billion a year. (Note that outdoor grows can be done without any electricity.) That translates into greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 3 million cars, the researchers estimated.
A 2018 report New Frontier Data found that each gram of harvested indoor flower comes at a cost of one pound of carbon emissions, or 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. That same report found that growing indoors creates nearly 25 times more carbon and uses 18 times more electricity than outdoor grows.
More recently, researchers at Colorado State University published a March study showing how shifting grows from indoors to outdoors could almost eliminate the industry's carbon footprint. Going outdoors would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the industry in the state by 96 percent, reducing Colorado's total emissions by 1.3 percent.
The industry is headed in that direction, but at an achingly slow pace.
That 2019 New Frontier Data study found that only 44 percent of marijuana cultivation operations were outdoor grows. A Cannabis Business Times 2020 State of the Industry Report had similar numbers. It found that 42 percent of grows were outdoor, 41 percent were greenhouse, and 60 percent were indoor. (The numbers exceed 100 percent because many operators rely on two or even all three methods.)
The good news, according to Cannabis Business Times, is that the number of indoor operations declined steadily over the past five years, dropping from 80 percent to 60 percent, while greenhouse grows increased by 7 percent and outdoor grows by 5 percent.
Dale Gieringer, the longtime head of California NORML, has been following the evolution of marijuana growing for decades, back to the 1980s, when raids on northern California pot growers helped prompt the move toward indoor cultivation. It was just easier to hide the crop from the cops, but that required artificial lights and all the other inputs for an indoor crop.
"Indoor never made any sense to us, any more than indoor wheat or any other indoor agricultural crop," Gieringer told the Chronicle. "That's the whole beauty of marijuana: Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, you can make it with pure sunlight; it's very carbon neutral and energy efficient when you do it that way."
Nowadays, said Gieringer, it is not the need to hide from law enforcement but the need to comply with stringent regulatory requirements that induces growers to go under the lights.
"All those security precautions the government puts on to protect us have driven a lot of people indoors," he said. "One of the weird things that happened in California was that authorities got real skittish about outdoor growing in a lot of places and so, early on, we had these towns out in the desert that opened up huge indoor grow facilities that have to be air conditioned. None of that makes any sense to me; it's just the way things have been regulated."
One group that encourages not just outdoor cultivation but outdoor cultivation with the best practices in Sun+Earth Certified, the leading nonprofit certification for regenerative organic cannabis.
Sun+Earth Certified was founded two years ago on Earth Day by cannabis industry leaders, experts, and advocates with a common commitment to regenerative organic agriculture, farmer and farmworker protections, and community engagement.
To earn the Sun+Earth seal, marijuana farms must be not only organic (no chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides), but also use sustainable methods that regenerate the soil, such as using cover crops, composting, reduced soil tillage, and planting the crop alongside food crops. All of these practices suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
"The multi-billion dollar cannabis industry has an important obligation to shift away from high levels of energy consumption and chemical-intensive farming practices, and Sun+Earth has the blueprint for how to do that," said Sun+Earth Executive Director Andrew Black during an Earth Day virtual press conference marking the organization's two-year anniversary.
"In two years, we've grown to 33 cannabis farms and hope to finish the year with 60 total certifications," said Sun+Earth executive director Andrew Black. "This shows demand at both the farmer and consumer level for high-bar certifications for regenerative sustainable cannabis production."
The group is striving to set the gold standard for more-than-organic marijuana production.
"Our certification is tougher than normal USDA organic farming requirements," Black said. "Farmers must build soil fertility using natural resources from the farm itself to create living, bio-rich soil. And there are written contracts to protect farm labor and on how to engage with and uplift the local community. Those aren't part of any other organic standard."
Sun+Earth certified farmers are a world away from industrial cannabis production indoors and under lights.
"I credit the plant with bringing me into the consciousness of being in a living system on a living planet," said Tina Gordon of Moon River Farm, a Sun+Earth certified grower in southeast Humboldt County. "We do less than half an acre, in the ground in full air under the sun. The plants are exposed to the elements. You think about how the plants are grown and how they react to the natural environment, and you ask yourself what does the land around us offer? What is the responsible way to live? You have to do this in the best possible way with the best possible practices, not just for the plant, but for the people and the community. That's why Sun+Earth resonates so deeply for me. We can care for and heal the planet and ourselves with cannabis."
As Gordon and fellow Sun+Earth certified grower Chrystal Ortiz, founder of High Water Farm, demonstrate, best practices means adapting to the land, not trying to bend it to one's will.
"We're in an oak grove and we chip the oak for mulching," Gordon said. "We mulch on top of where the plants grow and also beside them, and the mycelium starts eating the wood, and we flip that back into the soil, so it's soil-building. The mycelium is also breaking down a thick layer of leaves, making humus; this is how trees grow. We start with what feeds these native plants, and then we start tuning in on the essentials. We use rainwater from the top of the property, and of course, we utilize the sun. When this plant goes indoors, the opportunity to understand how and where this plant is grown is lost."
Ortiz's High Water Farm occupies a different growing environment, and that makes for a different growing method.
"What is unique about farming here is that it is way different than Tina's experie of mulching and mycelium. I'm working in a beautiful, silty canvas in the Eel River watershed that fills with water every winter, a zen canvas that is rebuilt every year. Farming in the silt is different from forest cultivation. I'm learning new ancient traditions," the second-generation grower said.
"We do dry farming with a cover crop, and we till the cover crop, run sheep that eat the cover, till the sheep poop and composted cover crop into the ground, and then we plant our plants directly into the ground," she elaborated. "There is no water or fertilizer added whatsoever for the entire cycle. We just look at the ancient redwoods with their wide shallow root systems; they figured it out, and we follow the same process. We have wide plant spacing, the sunshine hitting this native soil and the evaporation of the water table. It's a very unique, faithful way to grow. When the plant gets the strength and resilience it needs, we're off to the races for another beautiful season."
Sun+Earth fills only a tiny niche in the massive marijuana economy, but it is a niche that is growing and one that can begin to shift practices in the industry.
"We're trying to build a truly green cannabis economy, and that means educating at the dispensary level about why Sun+Earth cannabis is important and how consumers can support farmers by buying their products," said Black. "If we want to keep these farms on the land, they have to be supported in the marketplace."
"Right now, the expansion of Sun+Earth is happening organically," Black said. "We're creating demand in California, where we have an active campaign to promote Sun+Earth at point of sale. And we're trying to create campaigns that attract more of a national audience. For instance, last fall, we had a fundraising campaign where Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps created a cannabis-scented soap made from hemp extract from a Sun+Earth certified farm in Oregon."
Those campaigns are getting the word out beyond California, Black added, pointing to four farms in Oregon, two in Washington, a hemp farm in Wisconsin, and an urban medical marijuana grow in Detroit.
"We're working on expanding to the Eastern Seaboard, too, maybe soon in Massachusetts, where local ordinances allow for outdoor grows, In some jurisdictions, they don't allow outdoor production, which is crazy."
What's really crazy, though, is contributing to the global climate crisis by smoking indoor-grown, high carbon footprint weed. As the example of Sun+Earth shows, conscious consumers can make a difference by supporting conscientious producers.