Growing Strong: Cultivation Innovations in the Cannabis Industry
Medicinal and recreational legalization in a number of jurisdictions is prompting cultivation innovations in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis is a plant. This is a simple and obvious little fact that can be strangely easy to forget due to past and present discourse around it as a medicinal or recreational substance.
Within our lifetimes, this plant has been illegal contraband, a social menace, a miracle cure, an enhancer of music and food, a regulatory headache and now it is a multi-million-dollar consumer industry. We’ve built cannabis up to be so many different things but when it comes down to it, cannabis is an agricultural product just like corn or tea.
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For agricultural products, there are countless variables to consider when raising a crop that can have a huge impact on the quality, consistency and yield. Now that legalization has allowed cannabis to come out of the shadows, we are witnessing a renaissance in the realm of cannabis agricultural research and development (R&D). Cannabis producers are spending millions to optimize their growing operations in the hopes of developing a superior product with a lower production cost and a smaller environmental footprint.
Cultivation innovations in the cannabis industry: Water consumption
Water consumption is one of the primary issues for growing cannabis from both an economic and environmental standpoint. Cannabis is a thirsty crop. The average cannabis crop requires about significant amounts of water per day. As water conservation becomes an increasingly large concern around the world, it becomes all the more important that producers find innovative ways to grow their bud with less net water usage.
The good news is that the cannabis industry has come a long way towards conserving water with commercial grows. Hydroponic systems reduce water usage by as much as 70 percent by using less soil and collecting excess water in an overflow reservoir. Nutrients like zeolite, which has a cation exchange capacity, are used in this process. These days, however, hydroponics don’t even represent the cutting edge. Aeroponic growing systems, for instance, cut back on water usage even further by suspending plants by the roots and spraying them with a nutrient-rich solution in the form of an atomized mist. The remaining mist solution is then collected for future use, reducing water usage by an incredible 90 percent over traditional in-ground cultivation.
The vast majority of commercial grow setups today still use soil however, and that’s why, for any serious cannabis producer, it’s important not to use just any old dirt. As with other types of commercial crop, factors such as pH level, texture, nutrient makeup and, importantly, water retention determine the value of a soil for cannabis cultivation. When focused on reducing net water usage, it’s very important for cultivators to use soil that is as water efficient as possible.
The development of engineered soil is one area where the legal cannabis industry is driving innovation and development. Canadian company Progressive Planet Solutions (TSXV:PLAN) has recently entered the cannabis space by contracting InnoTech Alberta (TSE:9880) to test the efficacy of zeolite rich soil for growing cannabis. Progressive Planet has extracted zeolite at its Z-1 Zeolite Quarry in British Columbia, Canada, and has supplied the material for the ongoing tests, which applied various concentrations (from 5 to 15 percent) of zeolite to pots in two different grow media.
To date, the tests have shown that the company’s zeolite offers greater yield potential for cannabis as well as less water and nutrient leaching. According to the company’s most recent announcement, zeolite was shown to improve the retention of the 19 elements tested, 10 of which were cannabinoids. In the peat-based grow medium, the highest average bud yield per category was 162.8 grams per plant in the seven pots that contained 10 percent Z1 zeolite. This is compared to a baseline (no zeolite) of 59.1 grams. In both the five percent and 10 percent categories, the plants also saw a greater production of the tested cannabinoid compounds.
Additionally, zeolite has a cation exchange capacity, meaning that it helps keep the nutrients contained in the fertilizer from leaching out of the soil. This means that zeolite could be very effective for stimulating early growth and promoting disease resistance.
Cultivation innovations in the cannabis industry: Lighting and energy consumption
Energy consumption for grow light setups is another top concern for cannabis producers. Cannabis plants need around the clock access to high quality light in order of produce the quality yields that the market demands. This means that one of the primary expenses of any commercial grow. The industry is in need of lighting solutions that provide the right kind of light as efficiently as possible.
Traditionally, the go-to lighting system for the cannabis industry has been a combination of metal halide lights which emit a bluish light which is beneficial for cannabis in the early stages and high-pressure sodium lights for plants at more mature stages. However, these powerful but energy intensive lights are beginning to lose ground to LED lighting systems which can reduce energy consumption by as much as 50 percent. Most LEDs in the past have lacked the variance across the light spectrum required for agricultural purposes but in preparation for legalization companies have been working to develop systems that offer the efficiency of LEDs while giving growers greater control over the light spectrum.
Canadian company Lumigrow has developed a system that allows growers to control levels red and blue light for various stages in the growing process to tailor the crop for different levels of THC.
Cultivation innovations in the cannabis industry: Waste product and waste disposal
Cannabis waste product is an issue for growers that sees relatively little attention but can still cause significant problems. Local waste disposal laws in Canada and legalized US states vary significantly with many treating cannabis waste as a medical byproduct, making legal disposal complicated and potentially costly.
The waste disposal issue is yet another problem that’s bringing on innovation in the cannabis space. Companies like Micron Waste Technologies (CSE:MWM) are developing solutions that allow producers to dispose of waste product on site. Micron’s system uses mechanical and microorganism processes to break waste product down to a grey water that can then be repurposed in the growing process. This system frees cannabis growers from having to pay third parties for waste disposal and saves on water.
There will always be a way to grow a better product, at a lower cost, in a more sustainable way. The world of cannabis agriculture there is no shortage of opportunity for innovation. Next generation improvements to water management, soil, grow lights and waste disposal are only a few examples of this. Opportunities exist to improve greenhouse ventilation, climate control and just about any other factor in the growing process.
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