Cannabis has a complicated relationship with the environment. But when cultivated correctly, cannabis crops can be sustainable and help fight climate change.
Every industry has a potential environmental downside. However, some industries are less polluting than others.
The cannabis industry provides a more environmentally friendly alternative to other practices. For example, hemp provides a better solution to textile, rope, and construction material manufacturing. Cultivation of all cannabis plants also captures carbon, often more effectively than entire forests.
While there are many benefits to cannabis cultivation, alarm bells have also been wrung for its downsides. Cultivating and manufacturing cannabis products has a carbon footprint that can’t be ignored. In addition, when done illegally, cannabis farming can harm ecosystems by clearing forests and fields.
As cannabis legalisation sweeps across the world, understanding the environmental impact is the key to wise regulations. Let’s look into both the benefits and drawbacks that cannabis has on the environment.
The potential environmental downsides of cannabis cultivation and manufacturing surround several factors:
- Pesticide use
- Energy use
- Land cover change
- Water use
- Water pollution
- Air pollution
These are the documented environmental side-effects of the cannabis industry. Many of them come as no surprise, as every farming and manufacturing process has at least some environmental impact. The question of cannabis’s downsides must naturally shift to a comparison between it and the alternatives.
Each cultivation method has its downsides. When it comes to impact on climate change, indoor growing has a much higher energy output than mixed-light and outdoor growing. However, outdoor growing can cause land-cover changes, including the removal of forests. The latter is seen as less of an issue, as cannabis land use is relatively small in the grand scheme of agriculture.
Cannabis cultivation offers several environmental benefits that fight carbon emissions.
While planted, cannabis plants are excellent for carbon capture. However, the catch is that outdoor growing is the route to a better carbon footprint. Indoor cannabis cultivation has a decidedly negative effect on carbon emissions.
Outdoor is a different story. For example, industrial hemp (grown outdoors) absorbs 8 to 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre. So, cannabis has a great effect on our carbon footprint while planted.
Environmentally friendly products
Hemp provides an environmentally friendly alternative to many products that cause high carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. The crop has been used in manufacturing for thousands of years. Now, it still offers a sustainable alternative to materials used in clothes, ropes, construction, paint, fuels, and more.
Compared to other crops, cannabis doesn’t require much water and land. With outdoor growing, cannabis crops can be planted in close proximity to each other. Compared to “cash crops” like cotton, they produce far less waste during the agricultural process.
Cannabis growth often doesn’t necessitate pesticide and herbicide use. It may in some cases, but it is normally avoidable and not excessive. For example, hemp is naturally resistant to most pests.
Excessive use of herbicides and pesticides is one of the causes of damage to natural ecosystems. They contaminate the soil, air, and water, including runoff, which can then spread to other ecosystems. In addition, they also damage people’s health.
Optimising eco-friendly cannabis
As is often the case, it is possible to make the cannabis industry create a decidedly positive environmental impact.
The deciding factor on cannabis cultivation’s environmental impact is the energy source.
Many cannabis farms use natural gas or solar power, which produce lower emissions than other alternatives. Naturally, the location of a cannabis farm will have a significant impact on its emissions. Likewise, the altitude of a cannabis farm will impact its emissions. Within the cannabis industry in Colorado, cannabis farms in low-lying Denver produced fewer carbon emissions than the farms further up the mountains.
One of the roadblocks to environmentally friendly cannabis is federal law. Federal law prohibits most cannabis from crossing state lines, forcing farm owners to stay in-state. If the owner wants to minimise their environmental impact, their choice in ideal locations is more limited.
The key to environmentally friendly cannabis is using the plant’s natural carbon capture potential while actively minimising the energy consumption used in cultivation. There are several steps any cannabis farm can take to minimise its negative environmental impact.
Clean energy indoors
Indoor cannabis farming doesn’t need to be dirty. Farmers can use indoor growing methods while applying clean energy for their operations. When planting indoors, HVAC requires immense energy output. But if you use the cleanest energy sources available, carbon emissions can be minimised.
Many environmentalists don’t suggest switching to the outdoors outright. Outdoor growing is better for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but comes with its own issues.
Cannabis farming conducted in mixed-light greenhouses or outdoors is always more energy efficient. The mere shift from indoor to outdoor growing results in reducing greenhouse gas emissions falling by 42 per cent to 92 per cent. Choosing outdoor growing while avoiding its own environmental challenges presents a greener option. Those challenges include:
- Water diversion
- Pesticide use
- Land-use change
With responsible and legal use of water, land, and pesticides, the negative environmental impact of outdoor farming can be further reduced.
What’s the greenest choice?
Ultimately, all three cannabis cultivation methods can be optimised for the best environmental impact. A combination of outdoor, indoor, and greenhouse cultivation with an ideal outcome is possible. Understanding the impact and making wise individual choices is key. With thoughtful cultivation processes, cannabis, and in particular hemp, have a lot to offer the environment.
Biologists identify “hacks” cannabis uses to make cannabinoids
The research provides insight into how trichomes create high quantities of cannabinoids without the plant poisoning itself.
Previously, it was unknown how cannabis naturally creates high quantities of cannabinoids and terpenes. Now, new research from biologists at the University of British Colombia has defined the “high efficiency” hacks that the plant’s cells use to do this.
A number of biotechnology companies are now using yeast or cell cultures to create synthetic cannabinoids. The process allows for the mass production of cannabinoids to create a high volume of products in order to keep up with consumer demand.
In a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, plant biologists uncovered the microenvironments in which THC is produced and transported in cannabis trichomes, shedding light on several critical points in the pathway of making THC or CBD within the cell.
University of British Columbia botanist who led the research, Dr Sam Livingston, commented” “This really helps us understand how the cells in cannabis trichomes can pump out massive quantities of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and terpenes—compounds that are toxic to the plant cells at high quantities – without poisoning itself.
“This new model can inform synthetic biology approaches for cannabinoid production in yeast, which is used routinely in biotechnology.
“Without these ‘tricks’ they’ll never get efficient production.”
Livingston, along with co-author Dr Lacey Samuels, used rapid freezing of cannabis glandular trichomes to immobilise the plant’s cellular structures and the metabolites in situ.
This enabled them to investigate cannabis glandular trichomes using electron microscopes that revealed cell structure at the nano level, showing that the metabolically active cells in cannabis form a “supercell” that acts as a tiny metabolic biofactory.
Until now, synthetic biology approaches have focused on optimising the enzymes responsible for making THC and CBD – like building a factory with the most efficient machinery to make as much product as possible. However, these approaches haven’t developed an efficient way to move intermediate substances from one enzyme to another, or from inside the cell to the outside of the cell where final products can be collected.
This research helps to define the subcellular “shipping routes” that cannabis uses to create an efficient pipeline from raw materials to end products without accumulating toxins or waste products.
Dr Samuels stated: “For more than 40 years, everything that we thought about cannabis cells was inaccurate because it was based on dated electron microscopy.”
“This work defines how cannabis cells make their product. It’s a paradigm shift after many years, producing a new view of cannabinoid production. This work has been challenging, partly the result of legal prohibition and also due to the fact that no protocol for the genetic transformation of cannabis has been published.”
New partnership to commercialise synthetic THCV and rare cannabinoids
Open Book Extracts has partnered with developers of a proprietary chemical synthesis platform that produces ultra-pure, high quality, sustainable cannabinoids, Nalu Bio.
Open Book Extracts (OBX) has entered into a research, development and commercialisation partnership with Nalu Bio.
The partnership will allow Nalu Bio to advance its THCV production method from research and development to commercial-scale manufacturing using its proprietary and scalable synthesis platform.
With a 76,000 sf. NSF- and ISO 9001-certified research and production facility near Durham, North Carolina, OBX and Nalu Bio plan to begin initial production of THCV in September 2022 with market-ready compounds available before the end of the year.
CTO of Nalu Bio, Matthew Roberts, commented: “Our THCV is produced in highly scalable reactors at factory-scale, using low-cost, safe and effective starting materials. Nalu Bio and OBX are both innovators in their respective fields, and this partnership is mutually beneficial for two industry leaders.
“Nalu Bio prides itself on partnering excellence, and we’re excited to deliver high-quality, safe, and low-cost cannabinoid ingredients and products to the market.”
Nalu Bio’s vision for the synthesis and cost-effective mass production of cannabinoids mimics the history of aspirin – the therapeutic value of aspirin for pain relief was discovered, and while initially derived from willow bark, it is now mass produced at factory-scale with higher quality and dosage consistency, which has benefited billions of consumers worldwide as it has become the most commonly used drug in the world.
THCV will be the first cannabinoid available at commercial scale through this partnership, allowing OBX and Nalu Bio to offer the highest quality, most consistent dosage of THCV.
Both OBX and Nalu Bio envision a range of additional cannabinoids to be released through this partnership,including a broad range of cannabinoids from hemp and natural sources, such as CBD, CBN, CBC, CBG, CBT, CBDa, CBGa, CBDV, and THCV.
OBX CEO, Dave Neundorfer, commented: “I am excited about the value Nalu Bio and OBX will bring to the cannabinoid therapeutics market. This partnership is well-positioned to meet the needs of the growing synthetic cannabinoid market and deliver potentially life-changing products to consumers worldwide.”
Greece welcomes first medical cannabis plants from Israel
Mother plants have arrived in Greece, marking the beginning of production for Tikun Europe.
Tikun Europe has welcomed the first mother plants from Israel and will now begin cultivation in the company’s facility at Korinthos, Greece.
Transportation of the plants was carried out by Skyserv Ground Handling Services. The shipment of the plants was made in specially designed containers under controlled environment ensuring the best possible conditions throughout the transportation from Israel to their final destination.
Cultivation will take place in Tikun Europe’s vertically integrated greenhouse unit, with an area of 21,000 m 2 and it anticipates an annual production capacity of 10 tonnes of dry flower.
CEO of Tikun Europe, Nikos Beis, said: “We welcome the first mother plants to our facilities in Greece. Their arrival marks the beginning of production at the factory in Korinthos, which takes us one step closer to the realisation of our commitment.
“Our factory, being the largest pharmaceutical facility in its industry in Europe, is committed to creating innovative, high-quality medical cannabis products.
“A new era is beginning for our country with the operation of our Tikun Europe facility, paving the way for Greece to become one of the main players in the field of production and export of medical cannabis products.”
The plants will be used for propagation under strict protocols that will ensure the preservation of the unique characteristics of the mother plants to the future generations. The facility is expected to reach its full capacity levels gradually in the near future, to deliver a wide variety of finished medical cannabis dosage forms.
The company’s greenhouse and production units are designed to comply with the GACP/EU-GMP standards, and it holds all the necessary licenses and certifications in order for its operation.
COO and vice president of the board of Tikun Europe, Dimitris Giannopoulos, stated: “After completing the construction of our production facility in Korinthos, today signifies another important milestone, that brings us one step closer to the beginning of cultivation of medical cannabis plants in the country.
“The main challenge and opportunity now become the development and production of a complete portfolio of high quality finished medical cannabis products to meet the needs of patients in Greece and in Europe”.
Commercial director of Skyserv Ground Handling Services, Martha Georgila, stated: “We are very happy that Tikun Europe trusted Skyserv to implement the first transport of mother plants in Greece.
“Following all transportation protocols for that type of merchandises, along with the specific storage conditions that were required during their stay at the airport area, we managed to keep them intact until their departure to the company’s factory in Korinthos.”
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