Weed Grown in Mid-Air Could Improve Environmental Impact of Mass Cultivation

Cannabis can soothe your mind without destroying the planet.

The Green Revolution is less “green” than the nomenclature of the modern marijuana normalization movement might suggest. In California, cannabis cultivators are moving operations from quasi-legal gray areas into compliance with the November-passed legalization initiative Proposition 64, and that transition is demonstrating a historical laxity when it comes to environmental practices.

Simply put: Farming weed at commercial scale, in an unregulated grow space, isn't always good for the planet; often, cultivation can be done in a cleaner, more efficient way.

“Aeroponics is the technology that NASA developed in the '80s in order to grow food in space,” Benny [last name withheld] of Benny’s Farm tells KINDLAND over coffee in Santa Monica. “We use it to grow cannabis, on earth."

Benny’s Farm is a Los Angeles-based cultivator and medical marijuana delivery service. Benny––a photojournalist turned cannabis entrepreneur––says his brand strives to provide its patients with only high-end cannabis products, and to conduct operations in as sustainable a fashion as possible. For context, aeroponics technology allows farmers to grow plants “in an air/mist environment with no soil and very little water,” according to NASA. “Aeroponics systems can reduce water usage by 98 percent, fertilizer usage by 60 percent, and pesticide usage by 100 percent, all while maximizing crop yields.”

Image via VSCO

Benny claims that aeroponic-grown, maximized yields are also higher in quality than weed grown using traditional methods. 

“With aeroponics, we give the plant the 17 vitamins and minerals it needs, which will uptake immediately, and it will grow faster than if we were using soil,” Benny says to KINDLAND. “The larger implication [of using aeroponics] is that the faster the plant grows, the quicker you’ll get to the end of the race, which means the less resources you’ll use. We use 90 percent less water, and less nutrients than every other conventional method. California is the world capital of cannabis, and a huge agricultural state, in general,” he says. “We will be producing shit loads of waste if nothing changes.”

A significant number of marijuana growers, and plant farmers at large, use soil, rock wool, or coco coir mediums in their cultivation processes. Popular Mechanics defines rockwool, which is conducive to hydroponic setups and popular among indoor weed farmers, as, “a material very similar to fiberglass that is extremely porous and holds 16 times its weight in water.”

When used as insulation in residential homes, rockwool fibers are thought to be nearly as dangerous as asbestos, if inhaled. Coco coir, also known as palm peat, is made from the husks of coconut shells. It can hold up to eight times its weight in water, and is normally sold by the brick.

“We will be producing shit loads of waste if nothing changes.”

“When you’re using rockwool, at the end of every run––maybe every two months––the rockwool material, which has to be thrown out each time, doesn’t flush out the acidic nutrients,” Benny says. “Which is pretty much the same as throwing batteries into a landfill—by the ton.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which come 2018 will oversee the Golden State's market cultivation standards—once state lawmakers establish a regulatory structure per Prop 64—was up until recently unaware of the rockwool waste created by marijuana growers, says Benny.

Anticipating robust earnings once the California recreational market hits full swing, tumble-down, and financially broke desert towns such as Desert Hot Springs and Cathedral City hope to become the state’s cannabis cultivation hubs.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

“As the first city in Southern California to legalize large-scale medical marijuana cultivation, Desert Hot Springs has been inundated by marijuana growers and developers. They are buying up dusty desert land—some with no utilities or roads—in hopes of cashing in as California's marijuana growers come into the open under new state regulations. . . The crush of developers in Desert Hot Springs led to a tripling of land prices in the area.”

Growing cannabis indoors and under the sun is incredibly resource-intensive. More specifically, water and electricity are crucial to marijuana farmers, and will be in high demand in these desert-located indoor-cultivation oases.

According to Grist, the high-intensity light bulbs commonly used in indoor weed-cultivation setups at commercial scale account for “1 percent of total electricity use in the United States each year.” This “1 percent” is nearly the same amount of power drawn annually from every computer in every home in the country, says Grist.

Image via VSCO

Electrical power, of course, is not the only precious resource consumed by cannabis farming. When grown outdoors, as weed is predominantly cultivated in California’s Humboldt County, “some estimates suggest that pot plants use six gallons of water per day per plant over the summer.”

“For example, a traditional indoor grow may use 24 lights, and 900 gallons of water per week,” Benny tells KINDLAND. “Most of that water is runoff. It goes down the drain. It gets wasted. For a grow using 24 lights, we would probably use 400 gallons [with aeroponics], and none of that water is lost.”

A 2016 study of Humboldt County grow sites found “high risk of negative ecological consequences associated with cannabis agriculture as it is currently practiced in northern California.” 

The study, an undertaking by Jake Brenner, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College, and Van Butsic, a specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, examined 60 (of 112) watersheds in California’s Humboldt County––which alongside Mendocino and Trinity counties make up the Emerald Triangle, where much of the country’s cannabis is grown.

Brenner and Butsic’s study mostly examined the spatial distribution of Humboldt greenhouse and outdoor grows, and the relation to water usage and potential impact on animal habitats. The researchers conclude that, “it is the spatial distribution of cannabis agriculture that determines environmental harm.” And that, “the extent and magnitude of cannabis agriculture documented in our study demands that it be regulated and researched on par with conventional agriculture.”

California is indeed a weed haven. But the Golden State’s economic pastures will only grow evergreen, and the projected billions of dollars in tax revenue will only be generated from legal pot, if more attention is paid to the environmental impact of cultivation. 

New, planet-saving technologies need to be employed, is the lesson of Benny's Farm, and regulations should be put in place to keep growers in check until all systems are set to go sustainable—as much as growers may chafe at those regulations now.