Grow Cannabis Organically: Why it’s Easier in Controlled Environments

When given the opportunity to work with some of our design and construction peers to put together a design/build resource for the industry, we jumped at it. The result was “Build Your Grow,” which you can read here. However, we thought it would also be helpful to do a quick recap of the top takeaways for a quick read.
June 25, 2020

As the cannabis industry is well aware, regulation can be a double-edged sword. Regulation of cannabis has led to so much positivity in every state that has seen the light, the success of which influenced the lifting of the federal prohibition on hemp. While we may be over-regulated in some ways, the good has absolutely, positively outweighed the bad. One area where our industry could really use more regulation—or at least a certification mechanism—is in organic labeling. We are a ways off from USDA organic certification in the cannabis industry, but some industry players have noted the need and stepped up to fill the void, such as California’s OCAL and the Cannabis Certification Council (CCC). The requirements to be certified as an organic producer with these bodies are substantially similar to those of the USDA, with strict limitations on fertilizers and pesticides in particular, as well as GMO’s.

The way our industry cultivates cannabis (with some obvious regional exceptions) is largely in controlled environments. Interestingly, this method of cultivation can benefit plant growth and health to such and extent that limitations associated with organic certification are far less impactful. This makes it easier to produce the yields associated with inorganic processes while still obtaining organic certification. And while commercial food farming at scale is substantially different from the way our industry cultivates cannabis, we can probably take some lessons from the cannabis industry and apply them to the way we cultivate food as well.

You Can’t Stop Mother Nature
The hallmark of an uncontrolled, outdoor environment is abundant natural sunlight. Conversely, the grower has no control over mother nature, so the cultivator, and the plant, is at the mercy of the outdoor environment. Day to day fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and insects, fungus and pathogens that make their homes outdoors, are all likely to negatively impact the health and quality of the crop at some point in its growth cycle. In some cases, this causes complete devastation (just ask some of your farmer friends).

But even in the best years, outdoor cultivation requires constant interference by the cultivator—usually by the regular, large scale applications of pesticides and fungicides. Obviously, there are regions where the weather lends itself very well to outdoor cannabis cultivation, but even those regions have vulnerabilities to weather patterns and pests. Nearby farmers can also derail organic certification of an outdoor crop by drift or overspray of unapproved pesticides, fungicides or glyphosate.

In Controlled Environments, you are Mother Nature
In a controlled environment, the temperature and humidity are perfected. Those fluctuations that can impact the plant’s natural immunities are all but eliminated, leaving the plant stronger and making it less vulnerable to pests, pathogens or fungus if they do manage to infiltrate. However, with a well thought out floor plan, appropriately designed mechanical and ventilation system, and solid employee SOP’s, the presence and infiltration of damaging microorganisms can be greatly reduced or eliminated. This makes the limitations on pesticides and fungicides associated with organic certification far less burdensome to the controlled environment cultivator—with fewer problems. Limitations on solutions to those problems aren’t as….problematic.

The benefits associated with perfecting the plant’s environment in indoor cultivation extend to fertilizers as well. If the plant isn’t spending energy responding to negative fluctuations in its environment, it is able to focus all of its energy on growth. Further, manipulation of temperature and humidity at certain points in the growth cycle (“good” stress) can elicit certain physiological responses in the plant that can boost overall quality. Temperature manipulation in particular can elicit responses associated with oil production, odor, or coloration. Tightly controlled management of the cultivation media, and what the plant is consuming means the cultivator can ensure the plant is being exposed only to environmental conditions and nutrients that improve results. Additionally, CO2 supplementation is widely proven to boost yields in cultivation, which is impossible to do in an uncontrolled setting. All of these factors make limitations on approved fertilizers for organic certification far less impactful in a controlled environment.

Use of GMO’s in organically certified crops are prohibited (although selective breeding is acceptable). The point of genetic modification is to create inherent defenses against drought, pests, and environmental fluctuations in plants—essentially, changing the plant to make it more suitable for its environment. In controlled environment cultivation, we have the ability to make the environment more suitable for the plant, so the prohibition on GMO crops is not particularly meaningful when cultivating in an indoor cultivation environment. Although for cultivators not seeking organic certification, it will be interesting—both in cannabis and food—when we see what we can do with GMO and a controlled environment at scale.

Being a Friend to the Earth
Most cannabis cultivators who are looking to get organic certification are also concerned about their environmental impact. Cultivating in controlled environments allows for the recycling of condensate water (water collected through the dehumidification process is treated and reused for irrigation). This means that use of water resources can be at near zero when cultivating in controlled environments. This data point is becoming increasingly important in the era of climate change, extreme drought, and limitations on water resources. Run off and rejection of used nutrient water is also better controlled, limiting or eliminating waterway pollution from farming activities.

The one area where indoor cultivation is decidedly not the most environmentally friendly means of growing is in energy use. However, companies like Surna are working every single day to reduce our industry’s reliance on power. We are very confident that as the industry continues to mature, we’ll continue to improve energy efficiencies, decrease reliance on grid power, and increase our use of renewables.

If you are ready to discuss your future design plans, contact us!


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