Maybe you've heard that cultivating cannabis is bad for the environment. Perhaps you've seen headlines saying that growing an ounce of indoor cannabis emits the equivalent amount of carbon as burning a full tank of gas. Or maybe you've read reports that say growing a few pounds of weed yields the same environmental toll as driving across America seven times.
All of this is (mostly) true. Indoor cannabis cultivation is not environmentally friendly. This method requires hours of blasting air conditioning, heating (if you live in snowy regions), lighting, air filtration systems and irrigation. Aside from swapping high voltage lights with LEDs, there are few green solutions for indoor grows to lessen their carbon footprint.
Outdoor cannabis grows aren't perfect, either. They've earned a negative reputation thanks to illegal operators polluting National Park lands, stealing water from protected rivers and leaking pesticides into watersheds. Even legal outdoor grows can contribute to soil erosion, nutrient loss and increased soil acidity. Monoculture, or producing one type of crop to the exclusion of others, in cannabis is equally damaging to soil as it is in traditional agriculture.
But the research highlighting the harms of cannabis cultivation lacks nuance. Why? Because growing cannabis can remediate the Earth and aid in the fight against climate change if done properly. Regenerative farming, for example, is a system of agriculture practices that involves working with plants to utilize photosynthesis and maintain "living soil." Plants draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in healthy soil — grazed and naturally fertilized by animals — where it transforms into stable carbon.
"The idea of regenerative farming is simple," says Leah Penniman, co-director and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm, in an interview with Now This News. "It's that human beings don't inherently need to trash the planet to eat. If you're taking from the soil, you also have to be giving back to it."
Soil is a living organism impacted by humans and changing weather patterns. Research published in 2020 found that 16 percent of soils are estimated to have a lifespan of less than 100 years due to human-induced soil erosion. Outdoor cannabis cultivation, like any agricultural product, could exacerbate the issue of soil degradation if symbiosis between the Earth, animals and humans isn't central to a grow op's practices. Using the regenerative agriculture model to grow cannabis is how the plant is supposed to be cultivated: connected to the Earth via living soil and surrounded by an orchestra of biodiversity. Cultivating hemp can be done in the same way.
"Regenerative farming of soil-aeration hemp and other beneficial crops is how it's always been done, or you and I wouldn't be here," says Doug Fine, bestselling author of American Hemp Farmer and Farewell, My Subaru, who is also a regenerative polyculture farmer. "A growing body of research suggests that each cubic inch of topsoil we restore of the world's farmland sequesters up to three billion tons of carbon annually. And hemp's substantial taproots are absolutely stunning at creating the conditions that allow for the building of topsoil. We're all wise to root for an industry that helps with climate stabilization."
Hemp cultivation offers a double-pronged approach to tackling climate change. First, simply growing hemp devours carbon at a rate of six tons per acre, according to the European Industrial Hemp Association. Hemp is more effective than trees at sequestering carbon, researchers say, as forests typically capture 2 to 6 tons of carbon per year, whereas a hectare of hemp (the equivalent of roughly 2.5 football fields) traps 8 to 15 tons of CO2 per year.
"We need to be growing hemp at scale around the world to move the needle on reducing carbon emissions and remediating the Earth," says Stephan Smith, founder and CEO of Onda Wellness, the world's first certified biodynamic and verified regenerative hemp farms, based in central Oregon. "This plant isn't just about CBD oil; it can also help us clean up toxic soil so we can grow food that isn't full of poison. Hemp was even used to help clean up radioactive soil in Chernobyl because it's one of the best phytoremediators."
Second, hemp has a plethora of practical applications — some argue there are over 10,000. Implementing industrial hemp into society as a replacement for plastic and construction material, as well as by making paper products, paints, textiles, rope and biofuel to power vehicles, could theoretically halt various levels of our pollution problems and relieve trees from being processed into paper.
"In three to four months you can have hemp paper made," says Roger Sterling, better known as the Ganja Guru, who grows hemp on his family's farm in Alabama. "Trees take a long time to grow, but hemp grows infinitely faster, and it does a lot of the same things that trees do. Using hemp for paper would allow us to leave the trees alone and ultimately have the same or better product in a shorter time with more sustainable material."
The US hemp industry is nascent, however. Hemp only became legal for US farmers to grow in 2018 when the Farm Bill was amended to include hemp. Bob Escher, architect and president of Escher Design in Vermont and founding member of the US Hemp Building Association, says hemp decortication plants — hemp processing facilities that separate the rugged, woody interior of the hemp plant from the soft, fibrous exterior — are sparse in the US. Still, the industrial hemp industry is slowly building.
"People have been coming out of the woodwork developing the science to create hemp-based materials," Escher says. "There's a guy in Kentucky building hemp flooring, so instead of mahogany or pine, it's hemp wood, which looks just like hardwood. There are people working on hemp plastics, too, so anything made of plastic can be replaced. Slowly but surely, you're going to see hemp-based materials being included in construction."
There's a branch of Escher's business called Hemp Hollow. It focuses on using hemp in architecture and promoting it as a certifiable construction material. Hempcrete is one of Escher's areas of expertise, and he says that it's a misnomer. It's not a one-to-one replacement for concrete. Instead, it's a lighter, biocomposite material used for walls or insulation in homes or buildings. It's non-structural, so buildings and homes still require traditional frames and foundations. Using hempcrete, along with other hemp materials in construction, could lower CO2 emissions in the construction process and the overall energy consumption of a home or building.
"Hempcrete continues to absorb carbon even after a home or building is built," says Escher, explaining that limestone powder is blended with water, hemp hurds (or the inner woody core of the hemp plant), and other additives to create hempcrete. "The lime is the secret sauce because it binds the hemp together into a breathable material ideal for the construction of buildings or homes."
See, there are myriad ways cannabis can help improve the environment. Hopefully, the research on cannabis cultivation's environmental impacts will reflect the nuances instead of further demonizing the plant — one that could add a few hundred years onto the Earth's life expectancy.
"There's a lack of education and awareness in regards to how hemp can impact the world," Sterling says. "If everyone knew how drastically it could change things for us and the environment, there would be no hesitation about whether hemp is a worthy industry. That's why education about this is so important."