Cannabis Farming and Climate Change

Stephen Andrews
08 Dec 2021

Global warming is effectively changing weather patterns around the world. It's disrupting the balance in nature and bringing many risks to humans and all other species living on the planet. Cannabis makes no exception. Cannabis plants are extra sensitive to heavy rain and heat. With volatile weather anticipated to be more common in the future, it will negatively affect outdoor plantations. Farmers in some states, such as New York, have already expressed concerns after losing significant swaths of their crops last summer.

Cannabis farmers are finding extreme weather a new source of concern. New York faced record rainfalls this year, decimating cannabis crops across the state.

Due to global warming, the heaviest storms can now generate vast amounts of rainfall over a very short period of time. When there's too much rain, excess amounts of water build up in the soil, which can be a serious issue to both hemp and THC plants cultivated in the open. Overwhelming amounts of water create an unfriendly environment for the roots of cannabis plants. And when the roots are affected, the whole plant is likely to end up affected.

"Because hemp is so sensitive to water, the plants literally drowned and died because the roots couldn't get any oxygen," Allan Gandelman from the New York Cannabis Growers and Processor Association told WSKG

Gandelman farms cannabis in Cortland, and he reported losing nearly an acre of hemp this year. That's almost 2,000 plants, due to heavy rains and floods that persisted month after month. He said that the plants that survived the terrible weather yielded less usable product than in dryer years. 

Larry Smart, a Cornell University professor of plant breeding and horticulture at the School of Integrative Plant Science, said he'd heard similar stories from other cannabis farmers as well. Cannabis growers across New York will continue to face challenges with more frequent extreme weather events such as floods. However, Smart said that the region around New York is in a more favorable position because there will be sufficient rainfall compared to other parts of the country. 

"We will be able to continue to grow our crops without irrigation. The only thing we're going to have to mitigate is these extreme rain events that lead to flooding. And again, we can mitigate that with tile drainage, raised beds, and again planting crops that cannot tolerate that rain on our best-drained soils," Smart said.

Growing cannabis in greenhouses or under high tunnels may work as a solution to protect crops from excess water as well as to control the plant's chemical properties in line with state regulations. However, using greenhouses and tunnels is more costly, requires irrigation and electricity, and produces more waste. 

"The downside of greenhouses is you need a lot of electricity for ventilation and also they're made of plastic and metal. Plastic comes from fossil fuels so now it's even less sustainable," Gandelman said. "And so our goal is to be as sustainable as possible and hopefully we don't have to move our entire farming operation under plastic." 

cannabis hemp farming has impact on climate.

How the cannabis industry affects the environment?

Like other industries, the cannabis sector contributes to pollution and environmental degradation. The industry impact may be less significant than sectors such as air travel, SUVs or meat production, nevertheless, it cannot go unnoticed.

Many of the environmental issues related to the industry arise from a lack of regulation. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, making it impossible for legal jurisdictions to engage in trade and commerce. For example, one of the biggest markets - California, cultivates three times more cannabis every year than what the state's medical and recreational users can consume. California could export roughly 3 million pounds of weed to other jurisdictions where it's more difficult to farm cannabis. But commerce between states is a severe breaching of the legislation.

Illegal farming is another issue. Even in the Golden State, where more than sufficient amounts of cannabis are cultivated, illegal plantations are thriving. According to some estimates, Californian forests accommodate roughly 80% of US illegal weed crops. This is virtually killing vegetation and local ecosystems. 

While there's no quick fix solution to any of these problems, legalizing cannabis at the federal level can strengthen regulation and aid environmental loopholes. 

Can the industry fight back climate change?

There's certainly so much potential here! Industrial hemp is incredibly versatile and is already used to produce paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, health food, fuel, etc. Products such as eco-friendly hemp bricks have tremendous potential to reinvent construction and engineering, while inventions such as hemp batteries can transform high-performance energy storage devices. 

We have the science and knowledge of how to fare better in the future; it just takes more political goodwill to act. Not only on utilizing cannabis plantations for environmental causes but various other sectors and industries as well.

Stephen Andrews