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Cannabis Cultivation: Is Sun-Grown Better For The Environment?

Marylyn October 8, 2018

Dan Sutton spoke at TEDxVancouver a few years ago about the implication of the past black market growing techniques on the environment and how he believes that cannabis cultivation needs to move to a sun-grown process to become sustainable as a full scale crop for the environment.

Here’s what he had to say:

Why don’t we grow tomatoes in warehouses? Think about the word agriculture. Do you see images of smokestacks? Concrete bunkers? Factories? If you’re like me, you probably see rows of leafy green plants thriving in the sunshine.

Now think about the word growup. Not exactly the same scene is it? I’m Dan and I’m humbled to be speaking in front of this audience today. My background is in business development, building teams and technology and finance. I’ve been lucky to offer the tools to bring ideas to operation in some cool sectors: like nuclear fuel, high field magnetics and software development.

In 2012, I took notice of changing legislation around Canadian cannabis cultivation and started to build a team of some British Columbia’s leading agricultural scientists. Together we’ve designed and built a facility that allows us to cultivate the plant legally, distributing it through a subscription service to medical patients.

It’s our business to know a lot about our product and through my years of research on cannabis, I’ve come to a conclusion. On this continent, people love weed. North Americans consume cannabis with a voracious appetite. Tens of millions of people habitually smoke, dab, vape, patch, eat and otherwise imbibe the contentious plant.

However, cannabis has a dirty secret; a massive carbon footprint. This unexpected social cost of black-market cannabis has no scientific rationale. But it does have a solution. To be clear, I’m not here to debate or persuade on the merits of past or present drug policy. The production of marijuana is becoming increasingly regulated and as a result, we have a new ability to monitor and influence the methods that we use to grow it.

We know for instance the one hundred-ninety kilos of medical marijuana was produced in Canada alone in 2013. But how does this stack up against the black market; the production that we don’t see. The estimates are staggering. Over fifteen million kilograms of cannabis is produced and consumed across the broader population of North America every year. It dwarfs medical. If this estimate is accurate, the black market cannabis revenues rival the beer industry; tens of billions of dollars of untaxed and unregulated production. This dark market has some pretty obvious social costs from funding cartels, to a complete lack of quality assurance. One cost that I didn’t expect is a big one; a carbon footprint, the rivals’ heavy industrial manufacturing.

This is because marijuana is not a field crop, it grows in basements, garages and sheds. The billions of grams annual production are fragmented into hundreds of thousands of tiny grows. They cultivate under artificial light and harvest not tons, but ounces at a time. As a result, the average grow-up looks more like the inside of a tanning bed than a farm.

Today, in North America ninety percent of black market cannabis is grown indoors. This adds up to a startling demand for electricity. In the state of California, for instance, an estimated three percent of total energy production goes to indoor cannabis cultivation. To put this in perspective, this is more annual electricity than is generated by the Hoover Dam which supplements the energy needs of nearly eight million people. Cultivating just one kilogram of cannabis from seed to harvest indoors requires the energy equivalent of driving a car from Los Angeles to New York, eleven times.

There is however, a cultivation methodology that promises better plant health; lower costs and a fractional environmental footprint. I believe that the only path to a sustainable future for commercial cannabis production, lies in a technology that balances natural inputs with tight environmental control; the modern industrial greenhouse.

Plants thrive in sunlight. They’ve evolved over billions of years to do just that. The sun provides a broader light spectrum and a higher light intensity than any artificial bulb. It is a lamp that has limitless and costless fuel for plant growth. In today’s industrial greenhouse, the power of sunlight can be complemented with the environments of control of a laboratory. Over the last fifty years, greenhouses have evolved into streamlined, automated and tightly controlled agricultural environments.

If we moved all grow-ups into greenhouses today, we would save about 20 trillion watt hours worth of energy every year. This is enough energy to electrify all the combined residences of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco all year-long. Greenhouse cannabis production represents the opportunity to substitute billions of kilograms of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by the energy demand for indoor grows, for millions of kilograms of carbon offset absorbed by the CO2 hungry cannabis plant.

We don’t grow tomatoes in warehouses. In fact, there’s not a single crop on planet earth that we grow indoors at scale. Unfortunately, we’re seeing investment in regulated production infrastructure for cannabis that looks a lot like larger versions of the grown-ups of the black market. The dark past of the marijuana industry is influencing the future of regulated cannabis agriculture. I believe, this is a critical mistake.

Industrial greenhouse technology reduces energy consumption and reduces cost. The incentives for entrepreneurs and regulators are obvious. But you may ask yourself, how can I be a part of this conversation?

Firstly, we as consumers need to seek sustainable products. If we care about a sustainable future, the companies that we support will care too. We see the sustainability demand play out in the growth of cool companies like Whole Foods and Tesla. There’s every reason the consumption trends honoring sustainability are relevant for the cannabis industry as well.

Secondly, cannabis cultivators need to carefully consider the infrastructure that they build. Embracing greenhouses means financial competitiveness and sustainability on a ten year time horizon. If you work in cannabis, know this: the future is sun-grown.

Finally, regulators have a crucial role to play; to implement forward-thinking environmental policy around cannabis cultivation. We already motivate the teams that build our commercial industrial infrastructure to think long term with incentives like green building standards and tax. If sustainable sun-grown cannabis cultivation is incentivized by governments, the growers of tomorrow will have every reason to cultivate with the health of the planet as a priority.

I challenge you to start this conversation at your dinner table and at your water cooler. Talk to your local representatives about where they stand at the dawn of what could be a massive industry. Demand sustainability in cannabis or otherwise and entrepreneurs will rise to the challenge. Thank you.

What do you think? Given the move to cannabis legalization in the last few years, are we headed in a more sun-grown cultivation direction? Is this the best path for cannabis and lowering the carbon footprint of growing at larger scale?


Marylyn is smart, fun, creative and loves to indulge in the finer things in life. It's MaryJane, but all grown up!

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