A Look at Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry

by | Oct 22, 2020

Written by Serge Chistov

Working with pesticide-free, organic soil, and system is important to ensure the cleanest, most well-defined experience with the product. Organic standards are federally regulated, and as cannabis is not yet legal, federally, those standards have yet to become official in the industry. That said, there is consumer interest in high quality, low emission production, and a willingness on the part of many to pay a premium for the right product.

According to Forbes.com, the reality is the demand is already there, especially among the largest age group of cannabis consumers, which, not coincidentally, is the same demographic that most favor sustainable and organic foods and cultivation methods. So it’s really a matter of the industry continuing to evolve to meet the expectations of its largest customer base.

How is the industry currently poised in relation to sustainability?

As noted earlier, regulations aren’t currently in place to control the cultivation of cannabis from a sustainability point of view. So the rigorous testing and evaluation of the final product from seed to sale that most producers engage in does not require low-waste, proper waste, low emission, and energy efficiency standards to be adhered to.

That said, most of the newer markets that are just starting are putting some of these considerations into their growth plans. Efficiency of the lighting and cooling fixtures, for example, is one way that many new operators are planning ahead. There is currently no uniform standard, but just like in any other industry, there are some coherent attempts to engage in growth in the most nature friendly and organic manner possible. Like most industries, production methods will be a differentiator that is marketable and of interest to the end consumer.

There are a number of organizations that certify cannabis as organic, although they are not currently recognized by any federal entity. The basis for these programs usually includes obtaining water from a legal source, using no pesticides, and managing wastewater runoff. At this time, only about 10% of growers meet the standards for certification.

For the consumer who is interested in ensuring that they are obtaining organic or high sustainability marijuana, there are a few considerations: Strain is much less important than growing methods, and this is information the consumer can request over the counter at the dispensary:

  • Was this product grown in soil? 
  • Was this product fed synthetic nutrients? 
  • Was this product ever sprayed during its life cycle? 

If these questions can’t be answered promptly and with integrity at the counter, it’s time to move on to the next dispensary. 

Like most other products on the market, cannabis is being produced and manufactured up to the standards that regulating bodies are setting up in applicable states. So, just as a grocery store will have a full selection of middle-range products that aren’t necessarily produced sustainably, they also have sections with organic products that are. It goes without saying that the latter, with higher production costs, are also offered at a premium price, but the value for the end-user will be manifest. It will be on the consumer to demand that producers go above and beyond the basic regulations to provide a green and organic product.

The growth of biodynamic certification 

Biodynamic certification has a lot to do with recycling green waste and sequestering carbon back into the soil. The practice of biodynamic farming is a comprehensive organic farming method that requires the creation and management of a closed system, minimally dependent on imported materials, and instead meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself

This is a difficult standard to meet in indoor environments, where most cannabis is grown. For traditional farming methods and traditional crops, this is the most responsible way a farm can go about their operations and is important in the future of farming and the optimal way to look at stewardship of the planet.

What are some of the hurdles the industry faces on this issue?

Regulatory developments and education are the key factors that are extremely important for customer demand to continue to change the behaviors of the manufacturers. There are many groups and organizations that exist to promote and educate on behalf of the customer and on behalf of the industry. There are symposiums, publications, and even advertisements that bring attention to the issue and generate a healthy consumer, just like in any other industry. 

From a regulatory point of view, a lot of the mediums being used to grow cannabis are inorganic and will be in landfills for a very long time. The farmers put in synthetically produced nutrients with EDTA, a harmful chemical that binds heavy metals in the watersheds and helps destroy river ecosystems. These methods are not necessary for cannabis production and are purely monetarily driven, which is where regulatory bodies will eventually need to step in.

Cannabis consumers are very young and are just beginning to get comfortable going into a store and asking questions, educating themselves about the legally available products. As this conversation and the culture continue to expand and grow, the awareness will also continue to grow, as will interest in treating this industry like any other based on cultivation. 

Young cannabis consumers are interested in knowing that what they are ingesting isn’t destroying the planet and is grown in as clean a manner as possible, particularly given that they do consume it internally, whether as an edible, an oil, or an inhaled product. They are keenly aware that adding pesticides to the mix isn’t a healthy way to move forward.

What does the future look like?

Cannabis will be more sustainable in the future even though the industry will continue to struggle with sustainability issues—the regulatory and education factors mentioned above—but it’s likely that within the next few years, more consumers will be able to make those determinations about wanting clean and sustainable products, thereby influencing the market naturally. Currently, many consumers already look at marijuana as a “natural” product and therefore don't pay as much attention to the growing methods the same way they would for the produce they purchase at the grocery store.

There are a number of organic dispensaries that focus on sourcing products from organic farms. That said, many of the edibles products and other non-smokable items on the shelf are sourced from the cheapest sources, many of which are non-organic. Despite the fact that the flower they are selling may have been sourced from an organic farm, the other products usually are not. 

In five years, the product lines for cannabis will be the same mix that currently exists in the produce sections of the grocery stores. Consumers will have choices. Premium, responsible organic products on the one hand (depending on the legalities of the qualifications), and quick and easy, just meeting regulations, middle of the road standard product on the other hand. Consumers will be making their own determinations with their wallets while motivating the behaviors of the marketplace.

Bio: Serge Chistov is a cannabis industry expert and Chief Financial Partner with Honest Marijuana Co. Honest Marijuana has been a leader in cannabis innovation since it’s inception with an organic approach to the growth, production, and packaging of cannabis, the launch of the first-ever organic hemp-wrapped, machine-rolled blunts, the invention of the now patented Nanobidiol Technology, and the first company to bring THC-O-Acetate technology and products to market.