As the legal cannabis industry becomes one of the world’s most important business sectors, there is an increasing need to minimize the industry’s impact on the environment, wherever possible.
In many parts of the world, where cannabis has been traditionally grown for centuries, cannabis is already very much a sustainable crop. Afghanistan, a country known for producing some of the world’s finest hashish—and for many years, as one of the top global producers of cannabis—is just one example.
In general (although there is, of course, regional variation), the Afghani cannabis crop is grown with few, if any, added fertilizers or pesticides, and without irrigation. Rather than depending on irrigation, the crop is sown right before the start of the seasonal rains, which provide the young crops with all the water necessary to successfully grow to maturity.
In Morocco, the drought-adapted strains that were the mainstay of the local industry for many years are gradually being replaced by Pakistani, Afghani and now Dutch and American genetics.
These strains are generally more potent and produce sticky, fragrant hashish beloved by mostly European buyers, but they require far more water and nutrients, thus necessitating irrigation systems, water storage and use of fertilizers. The Moroccan industry, formerly relatively sustainable, is now becoming much less green thanks to the demands of the market.
One might expect that countries within the ancestral homeland of cannabis, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, are easily able to produce truly sustainable cannabis. After all, cannabis evolved to grow in these regions according to the local climate, so (notwithstanding the effects of climate change) it should continue to grow there quite happily with minimal human intervention, or without causing further environmental degradation.
However, in parts of the world that do not traditionally grow cannabis, and that are only now beginning to see the formation of a cannabis industry, a whole new set of challenges await.
Cannabis plants also require a certain level of moisture in the air, in the form of relative humidity, preferably between 40% and 60%. In the Negev, relative humidity is more like 10-20%.
Israel’s Negev Desert is one of the driest, hottest places on earth, with less than 12 inches of rain per year, and temperatures that reach as high as 115F in the height of summer. Few plants grow naturally here, save for a few scrubby brooms and acacias. But with the assistance of modern, sustainable technology, the agricultural scene is currently evolving in fundamental ways.
Since the 1960s, Israel has been implementing a plan to “greenify” its deserts, thereby increasing available agricultural land. Today, around 95% of Israel’s food is produced domestically, and they even have a healthy export industry in flowers, fruits and vegetables.
Now, a new crop is gaining considerable attention for its potential in the fields of agriculture and medicine: cannabis. There are currently eight registered and licensed producers of medicinal cannabis in Israel, and several of them are currently developing drought-adapted strains that can tolerate the harsh conditions of the desert.
Israeli Medical Cannabis (IMC) is one such company. Growing in desert or near-desert conditions, the choice of strains they plant reflects the environmental conditions they’re grown in, by necessity. It doesn’t make sense to grow strains that require abundant water if the natural environment doesn’t support the plant’s growth.
And it’s not just water that matters. Cannabis plants also require a certain level of moisture in the air, in the form of relative humidity, preferably between 40% and 60%. In the Negev, relative humidity is more like 10-20%.
To deal with these pressing concerns, desert-based cannabis growers in Israel have various choices—to transport water from other areas, to attempt to exploit the aquifers that lie deep below the desert surface, or to reduce the water requirements of the crop they grow.
Israel enjoys a level of water availability far greater than most other desert states, due to an intensive drive to build desalination plants along the coastline. These plants render briny seawater into suitable water for plant, animal and human consumption. Bringing in water from other areas is not as daunting a task as it may be for other would-be desert agriculturalists, but it’s far from the sustainable ideal.
Regardless of one’s views on Israel, it’s impossible to deny that the work being done in the Negev Desert is of incomparable benefit to humanity. The technologies being developed could potentially help millions of people survive coming climate changes, as they enable crops to be grown in areas of considerable water scarcity.
In a world in which the consequences of climate change are already becoming apparent, efforts to render our agricultural systems sustainable are increasingly invaluable. All over the world, no matter the climate zone, cannabis growers need to take steps to make their work as sustainable and low-impact as possible, be it switching to LED lighting, reducing fertilizer use, or making compost teas from garden waste. The more cannabis growers do to minimize environmental impact, the more we can confidently represent a viable, sustainable alternative that other forms of agriculture can emulate.