Cannabis is a rising star of the natural healthcare industry, but is the ancient medicinal plant really as “green” as it seems?
The cannabis plant, which has been part of the earth’s natural ecology for millennia, has many environmental benefits.
Today, the industry developing around medicinal cannabis in New Zealand and around the world faces the challenge of doing things in an environmentally responsible way.
A way that upholds the value of the cannabis plant, improves the health of patients and preserves the wellbeing of the planet.
To mark World Environment Day, we decided to take a look at the environmental benefits of the cannabis plant and the opportunities for the medicinal cannabis industry in New Zealand to adopt sustainable practices.
In the interests of transparency, we’re also sharing what Ora Pharm is doing to minimise our impact on the planet and be part of Generation Restoration, which is the theme of this year’s World Environment Day.
The environmental benefits of cannabis
Like most plants, cannabis has played an important part in maintaining the earth’s ecological balance for millennia.
Today, science is finding that the cannabis plant may have unique environmental benefits.
Most of the research to date has focussed on hemp, a variety of the cannabis sativa plant.
Hemp is the preferred option for ecological and industrial use as it contains very small amounts of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Cannabis is a natural soil cleaner
Soil contamination is a major environmental issue around the world.
Pesticides, fertilisers, and other harmful chemicals used in industrial agriculture accumulate in the soil making it unsafe for growing food or fabric crops.
Heavy metals and pollutants leeching from factories and dumpsites also contribute to soil contamination.
Research has found that cannabis — specifically, hemp — is highly effective at absorbing contaminants and cleaning up the soil.
The process is known as phytoremediation.
The term was coined by researchers who planted hemp around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to help reduce soil toxicity.
Farmers in Italy have been using cannabis to fight soil contamination on their land.
And German researchers have found that hemp was able to extract lead, cadmium and nickel from a plot of land contaminated with sewage sludge.
The health of our soil is critical to the future of our planet and it seems cannabis may be part of the solution.
Cannabis reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major contributor to global warming.
The cannabis plant has been found to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop.
That means it takes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil through a process called carbon sequestration.
Hemp is known to grow quickly in a wide range of nutrient-poor soils with small amounts of water and little to no fertilisers, making it one of the most efficient CO2 converters on earth.
There’s a lot of talk about planting more trees to save the planet, but it turns out cannabis may be a superior alternative.
Cannabis is a renewable biofuel
Reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels is one of the biggest challenges of our time.
It turns out that cannabis may be one of the best options we have for creating renewable biofuel or biodiesel.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut have found that industrial hemp has properties that make it an “attractive” raw material for making sustainable biofuel.
The study found that hemp biodiesel showed high conversion efficiency — 97% of the hemp oil was converted to biodiesel — and it could be used at lower temperatures than any biodiesel currently available.
It’s been said that hemp biofuel is environmentally friendlier to produce than other alternatives, such as sugar beet, palm oil and corn.
So will we be running our cars on cannabis in the future? Only time will tell.
Cannabis is a sustainable choice for paper and fabric
Cannabis sativa (hemp) is an incredibly sustainable material for making paper and clothing products.
Hemp grows much more quickly than trees, taking about four months to mature. It’s been estimated that one acre of hemp can produce as much paper as 4-10 acres of trees over a 20-year cycle.
It’s estimated that 68 million trees are cut down to make paper products each year. Using hemp to produce paper could reduce deforestation.
Hemp paper can be recycled up to eight times, compared with only three times for wood pulp paper.
It also uses much less water and chemicals than wood-based paper.
The clothing industry makes up around 10% of our carbon emissions, dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams. On top of that, about 85% of clothing ends up in landfills.
Hemp has been used as a fabric for about 10,000 years. However, hemp production was virtually banned during the worldwide crackdown on cannabis over the past 50 years.
Hemp fabric is 100% biodegradable. It’s comfortable and gets softer with every wash.
It’s also one of the strongest and most durable organic fibres on earth, said to have three times the tensile strength of cotton.
Hemp uses less than a third of the water needed for cotton and produces 220% more fibre.
Can medicinal cannabis be good for the planet?
Given the many wonderful environmental benefits of the cannabis plant, the medicinal cannabis industry faces an important challenge.
That is: Can the medicinal cannabis industry operate in a way that improves the health and wellbeing of people and the planet?
A recent study by McMaster University found the pharmaceutical industry releases significantly more carbon emissions than the global automotive industry.
The medicinal cannabis industry must take a more sustainable approach than Big Pharma.
The main factor that drives up the medicinal cannabis industry’s impact on the environment is indoor cultivation.
Indoor operations are sometimes preferred to have greater control over the growing conditions and improved security.
However, this requires a lot of energy for artificial lighting, ventilation systems, dehumidifiers and heaters.
Growing indoors also requires more water.
Thankfully, there are steps medicinal cannabis companies can take to reduce energy and water usage and minimise their impact on the planet.
Ora Pharm’s commitment to environmental sustainability
Ora Pharm co-founders Zoe and Karl Reece. Credit: New Zealand Herald
Ora Pharm’s commitment to supporting health and wellness extends to the whenua (land).
We see it as our responsibility to preserve and protect our environment and the planet we call home.
It wouldn’t feel right to talk about the environmental impacts of the medicinal cannabis industry without sharing the sustainability measures we’re taking here on the farm.
Our new greenhouse is specially designed to reduce energy consumption and make optimal use of the natural light and warmth provided by the sun.
The greenhouse has a concrete floor that stores thermal energy from the sun during the day and keeps the space warm at night.
Shade curtains allow us to keep the greenhouse cooler during the day so we don’t need to use a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC).
All of this means we can maintain an optimal climate for growing high-quality cannabis plants year-round while minimising the amount of energy we need.
We’re collecting rainwater from all of the roofs at our Waikato facility, which we use for irrigating our plants.
Cannabis naturally requires less water than many other crops, but this means we’re making the best use of the water that nature gives us.
Integrated pest management
We’re using an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach on the farm.
This is an effective, environmentally sensitive and economically sound approach to managing pest organisms in the greenhouse.
We’re also using natural pest deterrents such as neem and garlic oil so we’re not relying on conventional pesticides.
Protecting native wildlife
The Ora Pharm property has more than an acre of native forest and we have implemented a trapping programme to help control invasive predators and increase native bird populations.
New Zealand has a goal of eradicating predators by 2050. This is our small contribution to protecting native wildlife and ecological diversity.
Ora Pharm is committed to exploring sustainable solutions at every stage of the value chain — from cultivation to waste management.
We are open to new and innovative ideas for reducing our impact and doing business in a way that better serves patients and the planet.
We believe that when the planet is healthy, people are healthy — and vice versa.
If you have ideas for how Ora Pharm can do things in an environmentally sustainable way, please feel free to contact us.