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3 Simple Ways Cultivators Can Shrink Their Carbon Footprint

How to grow crops that require less energy and fertilizer.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

This story is adapted from From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time (2020) by Ryan Douglas

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The future of commercial cannabis cultivation will be a marriage of technology and nature—as commercial cannabis growers are likely to face increased pressure to minimize their carbon footprint. Cultivators can help ensure their future competitiveness by adopting more ecologically sound growing practices today. Not only are these methods less damaging to the environment and less energy-intensive, in most cases, they also lower the overall cost of production.

Cultivation entrepreneurs have the opportunity to become pioneers in the industry by adopting cutting-edge technology and incorporating the use of biological agents in their cultivation program. Genetics selection with an eye to crops that require less energy and fertilizer will go a long way towards reducing the energy inputs required to grow a commercial cannabis crop.

Related: Should the Plant That Can Grow Anywhere Be Grown Everywhere?

Work with the sun

Cannabis operations of the future will move away from indoor growing facilities and towards greenhouse production. For every gram of cannabis produced, greenhouses consume 26 percent less power and release 42 percent less carbon emissions than indoor cultivation facilities. New greenhouse technologies and materials will provide the grower with greater control over the environment while minimizing the facility’s carbon footprint.

One such advancement is the use of specialty shade cloths to manipulate the spectrum of light that enters a cultivation facility. Shade cloths have traditionally been black or white in color, and are used inside greenhouses to refract light and lower temperatures in the growing area. Scientists have discovered that by using different colored shade cloths, also called photo-selective shade netting, growers can modify the light spectrum to naturally repel insects, alter plant physiology, and increase flower production.2 This material has the potential to help cannabis growers minimize pesticide use while realizing larger yields.

Use biological agents

Integrating biological controls into a grower’s cultivation program can help to naturally prevent and mitigate damage from pests and disease pathogens. Cannabis growers are prohibited from using chemical pesticides and fungicides on their crops since the flower cannot be washed prior to consumption or processing and chemical residuals will be present in the final product. If you are growing somewhere that does not yet prohibit the use of these chemicals, anticipate they will soon be prohibited. Cultivators should start establishing biological pest and disease management programs now to ensure they remain competitive in the future.

Predatory, or beneficial insects, are bugs that prey on plant-damaging insects. There are dozens of insects that present a threat to cannabis crops. Fortunately, there are dozens of predatory insects that can be used to combat these pests. Which species of predatory insect the grower should use depends on multiple factors—the most important being a question of availability. Not all countries allow the import of beneficial insects, and not every country has a domestic supplier of these insects. If there is a company that breeds and sells predatory insects domestically, they may not carry every species that a cultivator needs. There are also numerous factors that determine the efficacy of beneficial insects within a cannabis crop, such as release rates, timing, and environmental conditions.

Cultivation entrepreneurs should skip the guesswork and seek the advice of a company that sells predatory insects. They will prescribe a release and monitoring program to help protect your crop against the most common pests in your region. They will also help identify potential complications that could kill the beneficial insects or mitigate their effectiveness once they’re released—such as high temperatures, low humidity, or noncompatible products that are applied to the crop. Growers should keep in mind that predatory insect programs only work when implemented preventatively. Beneficial insect populations need to become established in your cultivation site before damaging insects appear. Damaging insect infestations cannot be treated curatively with beneficial insects. Koppert Biological Systems and BioBest are two of the largest beneficial insect suppliers worldwide. I’ve used them on several occasions and continue recommending them to my clients.

Biological controls go beyond just insects and include naturally-derived products that inhibit or interfere with infection by plant pathogens. They operate through means such as parasitism, competition, and the production of antagonistic chemicals. Biological controls are typically bacteria or beneficial fungi that prevent foliar and soil-borne diseases to which cannabis crops are susceptible.

Grow less energy-intensive varieties

In cultivation environments—especially those indoors—cannabis plants are bombarded with light. That’s because usually there is a direct relationship between light intensity and plant productivity. The more light, the greater the yield. Intense lighting requires a lot of power and substantial HVAC equipment to properly cool and dehumidify the environment. Future growers are likely to encounter increased pressure to reduce the amount of energy that goes into cannabis production. In the United States, Massachusetts is already limiting the amount of energy that a licensed cultivation facility can consume. The state’s cannabis commission has placed a cap on electric use for all commercial growers at 36 to 50 watts per square foot of cultivation space, depending on the operation’s tier classification. This is roughly half the amount of energy consumed by a typical cultivation facility.

To stay competitive, future growers will need to do more with less light. In addition to using more energy-efficient grow lights, cultivators should consider selecting plants that don’t require as much light to grow. Some plants actually thrive on less light, because the origins of their genetics come from parts of the world that do not experience intense sunlight year-round. As a result, these plants evolved to thrive on lower light levels than their sun-loving relatives from other parts of the globe.