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The unsustainable path of indoor cannabis (Includes interview)

A number of professional investors, along with consultants and industry leaders, are increasingly questioning the profile of the fast-expanding industry in Canada and the US.

Anthony Wile, chief investment strategist for High Alert Investment Management Ltd., said his company did business with a Canadian start-up before executives changed their minds.

“We gradually realized that indoor growing was the wrong model,” he noted. “Indoor growing is environmentally unfriendly and puts a great strain on local resources. We don’t see sustainability for any of these North American companies in their current configurations.”

Wile and other critics concede the evolution of the industry is predictable, even though they disagree with it. “It’s understandable,” he said, “because it is the logical outcome of decades of illegal cultivation.”

The industry’s profile was initially configured to avoid discovery and prosecution by authorities. When cannabis began to be decriminalized and legalized, the idea of indoor growing was perpetuated on a larger scale. It likely never occurred to growers or to investors that maybe they were following the force of habit rather than pioneering a new industry in the most efficient way possible.

Now that there are thousands of legal businesses cultivating cannabis in the US and Canada, the drawbacks are becoming clearer and the danger to the environment is becoming far more significant.

No one is building gigantic indoor farms for, say, tomatoes or cabbages. And people probably wouldn’t think of growing bananas and pineapples year-round in their backyards. But for some reason, those in the cannabis industry think it is logical to create large indoor growing facilities that require huge amounts of power and water during a naturally short northern growing season.

Cannabis cultivators — as critics like Anthony Wile have pointed out — are already the largest users of electricity in Colorado, and there is growing dissatisfaction with this nascent industry in Canada as well.

In addition to professional investors, the media has been noticing. Gizmodo recently posted an article entitled, Denver’s Energy Use Is Surging, and It’s Because of Weed.

The article reports that “weed growers” in the city are straining the electrical grid. Half of the city’s spike in energy usage was attributed to cannabis cultivation. The usage is “increasing at such a high rate that the number will swell unless the city’s weed purveyors figure out more eco-friendly growing methods.”

It goes on to explain why “weed is such an energy-suck.” Lighting is one factor, as indoor growing demands a lot of artificial light. And the heat from that lighting is intense enough in some cases to demand air conditioning. Then there are assorted ventilation fans and humidity regulators.

The article quotes Boulder Weekly on some eye-opening stats as follows: “A single light used to grow 16 square feet of pot consumes about half as much energy as the average Colorado house in a one-month time frame,” wrote Steve Weishampel. “[That is] six-times as much energy as the pharmaceuticals industry and requires eight-times as much energy per square foot as the average U.S. commercial building.

The article is not entirely pessimistic about growing cannabis in chillier climates. It lists ways that technology is catching up to the industry by creating energy-efficient lighting and new kinds of batteries that may keep expenses down.

Other observers are a good deal more optimistic. The Vancouver Sun has suggested that greenhouse marijuana is British Columbia’s “Next Great Industry.” It calls the burgeoning evolution of commercial pot “one of the greatest social shifts of the decade.”

Yet even such an optimistic article as this had to acknowledge the negatives inherent in indoor pot cultivation. “Whether in a basement or in a warehouse, indoor cultivation is both economically and environmentally inefficient,” Vancouver Sun reporter Dan Sutton writes.

The article then highlighted findings from a research report by an American scientist specializing in energy and the effects of energy consumption on the environment. “Researcher Evan Mills suggests that approximately 3 per cent of Californian electricity demand powers black market marijuana growers, and the average kilogram of cannabis requires energy input that represents an equivalent of 4600 KG of carbon output,” Mills adds. “Water consumption is also an issue when it comes to environmental impact, with each marijuana plant said to need between 3 and 5 gallons of water per day to grow to fruition.”

The Sun has some potential answers, suggesting that greenhouse technology be used to reduce electricity demand, while increasing the amount of natural light plants are exposed to. Leveraging existing technology might expand the efficiency of Canada’s non-outdoor growers and the quality of the end product as well.

However, there is surely a simpler solution, as suggested by Gizmodo: Outdoor growing! “Growing outdoors is more energy-efficient,” the article points out, “but it’s not legal in Colorado.”

Critics like cannabis industry observer Anthony Wile agree with Gizmodo that the simplest solution may be best. “It is highly unnatural to extend the growing season year-round when nature doesn’t allow it,” Wile elaborated. “We don’t see the future of the industry in high-cost indoor facilities but outdoors in climates that can support year-round growing.”

Wile also added, “Even if outdoor growing is legalized in colder climates, it still won’t address the problem of the short growing season. The future of large-scale cannabis production lies in countries closer to the equator. This may not be a reality that everyone wishes to hear, but business has its own logic focused around production and cost efficiencies.”

When questioned as to where the best places to produce large-scale cannabis crops might be, Wile pointed to several countries in South America.

“Venezuela is right on the equator and has a great climate,” he said, “but unfortunately, the political climate is quite questionable. Colombia is another country that comes to mind – in fact, it already produces a good deal of the world’s fresh cut flowers and has a workforce that is motivated and well-educated.”

“The future for the cannabis industry is one that seeks high quality at a low cost,” Anthony Wile concluded, “within an environment that doesn’t strain resources or add to already present industrial pollution.”

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