The ‘triple bottom line’ value of sustainable cannabis cultivation

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by Benjamin Bourque

It’s ironic that producing a plant as beneficial as cannabis can strain natural resources more than other crops. Fortunately, legalization is paving the way for more environmentally responsible production and cultivation, by opening the door for more scientific research and making it possible for cannabis companies to openly explore, test and share best practices.

From advances in automation technology to time-tested soil management methods, cannabis cultivators and processors now have a range of powerful tools at our fingertips—and more powerful reasons to adopt these solutions than meets the eye.

The ‘triple bottom line’ ideals you hear about in economics are well within reach for today’s forward-looking cannabis companies. By adopting holistic organic farming methods, embracing new technology, and considering carbon footprint in larger strategy, cannabis leaders can achieve people, planet and profit goals in one fell swoop.

Four sustainable cannabis cultivation principles for people, profit and planet

Whether specializing in natural, plant-based medicines or adult recreational products—or both—cannabis companies have an opportunity to mimic the plant that can do so much good. Enhance your global impact as well as local customer satisfaction with these four sustainability principles:

  1. Enrich soil, and you’ll enrich product quality, flavor and aroma, too. Many cannabis cultivators rely on synthetic salt-based fertilizers, which can contaminate the environment and degrade soil. Others claim they’re organic, but base these claims on a particular additive or two, rather than engaging in 100% organic soil management. Yet as a botanist, I’ve learned both in the lab and in the field that holistic permaculture and organic farming practices aren’t just better for the planet—they’re better for the consumer, too.

In a nutshell, the richer the soil, the richer the flavor and aroma profiles of the terpenes: Organic producers yield double the terpene content of conventionally grown farms. They also deepen the distinction between strains, delivering rich flavor that persists even at the bottom of the bowl.

How so? One way is to start with peat moss and cocoa to support drainage and aeration, then blend with organic amenities like earthworm compost, humus, minerals, bird and bat guanos, and azamite. This rich composition gives soil a strong yet permeable infrastructure, and avoids waterlogging. Atop that, we periodically apply a fertilizer blend made with malted sugar beets, cold-pressed seaweed and refined kelp. We also apply aloe vera, soy protein, and other nutrient dense applications like compost tea as needed.

By bringing together quality ingredients, in the right quantities and at the right time, we create a healthy rhizosphere around the roots, facilitating healthy nutrient and microbial activity and uptake through the stem and leaves, which ultimately contributes to more diverse terpene composition.

  1. Get smarter about water usage. Flushing and water management should not be a one-size-fits-all technique. Most people in the industry follow the two-week rule of thumb; that is, two weeks of clean water is enough for an appropriate flush, whether you’re working with salt-based or organic nutrients. But this “rush to dry” when the plant is not appropriately flushed of resident nutrients during the dormant stage can result in a grassy or hay smell which can diminish the experience with the product. However, when you have living soil with the right balance of nutrients, as described above, it enhances terpene content, as well as product flavor and smoothness. The ash also burns a cleaner bright white, which can be a pleasant surprise for consumers who haven’t experienced cannabis cultivated in this way.
  1. Invest in tech-driven environmental monitoring, packaging and cleaning solutionsSmart, data-driven horticulture solutions can help cannabis companies reduce energy, while fostering optimal growing conditions in real time.For starters, consider installing an environmental monitoring system that provides hardware and software for climate control, energy saving and optimal reuse of water. Have the entire cultivation facility equipped with low voltage sensors to monitor soil content, including nutrients as well as heat and moisture levels. Use AI software to process the sensor data and make decisions to change nutrient contents, along with other adjustments to optimize growing and water usage. Customize the technology to create ideal environments for each strain—matching the fertilizer recipe for a given strain to align with production goals like higher THC percentage or higher yield.

Additionally, solar array reduces overall energy use; automated packaging equipment reduces product waste and improves quality; and sterilization technology guards against powdery mildew, driving quality while reducing any need for pesticides or fungicides.

  1. Leverage location decisions to shrink your carbon footprint. Consider co-locating your cultivation and processing units with your retail dispensary. Creating a one-stop shop helps reduce the carbon emissions of transporting products and people from an off-site farm. This “one roof” strategy doesn’t just benefit the planet either. Customers also benefit when cannabis concierges can easily bring questions to cultivation experts, and vice versa, for more on-demand customer service.

Think globally, support communities locally

Cannabis companies have the power to provide invaluable benefits to our communities. With sustainable practices like those outlined above, we can also help combat the effects of climate change by keeping more carbon in the soil, reducing energy emissions, and conserving water resources.

Let’s leverage the best environmental practices—in a way that also better supports the communities and companies we serve—and together we’ll shape a triple bottom line success story that benefits all.