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Is the Marijuana Industry Green Enough?

A trip to the Emerald Cup, an outdoor organic marijuana growers' competition, reveals the environmental potential of the cannabis industry.

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Now, cannabis industry players, from farmers to automatic bud trimmer makers might be wondering what can be done to make sure the planet’s greenest industry is born Green. This is not just a simple matter of “sungrown” outdoor versus generally more energy-intensive indoor cannabis cultivation, though that’s a major factor. It is about incorporating sustainable cannabis methods no matter how and where the plant is cultivated – and this includes the industrial side (hemp) in places like North Dakota. 

If I weren’t already driving on vegetable oil and being routinely outwitted by goats, I would have become aware of the sustainable cannabis imperative when Nobel Laureate Evan Mills, a researcher on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the prize, approached me after an live event I was doing in support of my recent book. As a follow-up project to his UN panel work, Mills had in 2011 published a much-discussed report on the energy demand of California’s (mostly indoor-grown) cannabis industry (which he concluded is responsible for 3% of all of California’s energy use). 

Our email dialogue since meeting has been spirited: as a guy who has visited probably three dozen cannabis farms, both indoor and outdoor, in the course of my research, I find myself with notes on farming techniques that not only help with my own tomatoes and beans, but which represent the cutting edge of an agricultural sector that Michael Pollan describes as including “the best farmers of my generation.” Yet exchanges with Mills always force me to ask critical questions like, “Is that farmer’s drip irrigation technique really sustainable?”

Although I have written about intentionally sustainable, locavore, taxpaying outdoor cannabis farmers, I’d have to be blind not to be aware that a segment of the outdoor farming community in the U.S. and Mexico requires as much education as indoor gardeners do when it comes to issues like waterway diversion and pesticide use. At the same time, several indoor cultivators I’ve met, forced by prohibition to hide from the best and cheapest light source there is (the sun), are genuinely trying to make their crop as healthy and sustainable as possible. 

That’s why, long-time attendees say, education – a chance for remote farmers to come together and network -- is really why the Emerald Cup exists. I devoted my own talk to the importance of a locally branded sustainable practices and certifications. Most farmers here in the Emerald Triangle get it. A third-generation Humboldt County farmer named Mike told me as he stared admiringly at the rows of finalist buds behind the glass display at the Emerald Cup’s straw bale-lined Growers’ Tent, “You just don’t need to do it indoors – it’s better without all the equipment and chemicals. The plants adapt to the climate. Why wouldn’t I use God’s own sun instead of a generator?”

2012 Finalists for the Prestigious Emerald Cup in A Display Case

Case in point, this year’s winner of the Emerald Cup grand prize (a trip to Jamaica), Leo Bell of nearby Laytonville (for his “exceptionally smooth, enticing and very sticky…nasturtium-scented” Chem Dawg strain, according to judges). The 30-something Bell said that his farm’s well only fills a single five-gallon bucket every few minutes, so for 10 months he watered his "girls” by hand with a cup (all psychoactive cannabis plants are females). Bell noted in his victory speech that during the 2012 Emerald Triangle growing season, “I gave my heart to these plants, five hours every day.”

If all of humanity’s agricultural engineers operated according to such principles, climate change would be a much more relaxed discussion. True, this isn’t the era of the Little House on the Prairie books that I read to my toddler. But the aboveground, regulated, taxpaying cannabis industry enjoys the great fortune to be born now and born massive, when we know that all capitalism (not just agricultural capitalism) must be conducted while considering the earth and her resources as a finite system for which we are collectively, as humans, responsible. If you’ve got an interest in our species surviving the next century, this moment presents the opportunity for the cannabis industry to chart the very best course, or the very worst.