How can cannabis help free us from our dependence on pesticides? This is the first article of a series about the potential of cannabis as a companion crop in industrial agriculture.Cannabis enables organic agricultural scalability as a natural pesticide.Click To Tweet
Conventional, Low-input, and Organic Crop Management
Researchers at the University of Michigan are interested in better understanding the striking difference between yields that are produced by various methods of commercial agriculture. The three main methods of crop management are conventional, low-input, and organic.
For large scale agricultural endeavors, researchers found that low input and organic crop management produced a 30% less yield than had occurred on smaller plots when practiced in the real world versus under applied conditions in the lab.
This makes sense because convential crop management, which uses pesticides, is the most uniform way to cultivate crops on a large scale, and it also requires less labor and resources. Even when applying organic methods by using cover crops like red clover, which enriches nitrogen, they still saw uneven soil health and reduced yields on an industrial scale.
The experimental lab conditions showed promising results for scalability, but once their organic methods were applied in real life, the results were not favorable. Researchers hope to conduct more field-scale experiments because scalability is a huge challenge to researchers in agriculture who would like to move away from using pesticides and herbicides for mass produced agriculture.
Pesticides allow us to keep up with the expanding human population, yet serve as damaging to the health of current and future generations. Because of all of the industrial and financial agricultural gains that have been globally attained through pesticide use, it has been difficult for scientists looking for a more sustainable and environmentally conscious agriculture solution to gain much traction.
This is becoming an even more pressing issue, as pesticides are generously used in 85% of industrial agriculture worldwide.
Pesticides have been in use since the beginning of agriculture, but only in the past 100 years have they totally transformed global agriculture, making it so that crops are consistent, uniform, abundant, and resistant to common strains of viruses, fungus and bacteria that have in the past decimated crops and therefore communities that relied upon them.
The pesticide and herbicide market has now been consolidated into a couple of handfuls of massive global companies that also distribute GMO seeds and that work in tandem with their pesticides.
Bayer, a German company, sells health products and agricultural products globally for both commercial and consumer availability.
Monsanto is one of the largest seed sellers in the U.S., and is known for its top-selling pesticide, Glyphosate, which is better known as Roundup. As of 2009, Glyphosate itself accounted for 10% of Monsanto’s $15 billion USD annual revenue.
Glyphosate is one of the most common pesticides, along with Atrazine, a weed killer. Atrazine is used mostly in corn production in North America, and studies have shown that exposure to the chemical is linked to birth defects, infertility, and cancer.
Although pesticides have completely transformed our global agriculture industry, they are also responsible for global environmental concerns, such as loss of biodiversity and elimination of important pollinators (like bees), water pollution, and soil contamination.
Growing pesticide resistance, too, creates the need for increased application of pesticides, or formulation of alternate pesticides. This creates a cycle in which we are constantly dependent on new, often-damaging chemicals.
The Importance of Scalability
Researchers from the Atmospheric Trace Gases and Remote Sensing Division of KIT’s Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research (IMK-ASF), the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México have detected ammonia in the upper troposphere. This area has been the subject of little research so far, but it is the first time that ammonia has been discovered here.
Ammonia is a chemical compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that originates from agricultural processes, “in particular from lifestock farming and fertilization”.
Traditional industrial agriculture produces large quantities of ammonia in the atmosphere, and it will only continue to grow alongside the industry. Mass application of ammonia as a base for fertilizer was made possible over 100 years ago after the development of artificial ammonia synthesis in Karlsruhe.
Most atmospheric ammonia is found in Asian monsoons, where the most large-scale industrial farming in the world exists. These concentrated areas of ammonia affect not just the air quality, but can also have an effect on water and agriculture as the particles are trapped in condensation and brought back down with precipitation.
There have even been some studies into turning the production of ammonia into a beneficial, energy saving, and electricity generating process. However, the theories are still in the research and development phases. It may be a while until we can turn synthetic ammonia into a product that is good for both agriculture and the environment.
Improve natural agricultural scalability might be the only way to change agriculture for the better and protect the environment.
Greener Pastures Ahead
Could cannabis be part of a viable solution?
In Europe, cannabis was planted for centuries as a companion crop because it acted as a natural pesticide. Pesticides are currently a major limitation for scalability in both conventional and sustainable farming, but research into the anti-microbial and anti-parasitic effects that cannabis has in relation to other crops offers a potentially lucrative and chemical-free solution to the pesticides problem.
This means that pending regulation and devoid of the drug issue, marijuana and industrial hemp have enormous economic potential for several key industrial sectors including food and manufacturing–all while encouraging more sustainable cultivation using less water and virtually no pesticides.
Choose One: Quality or Quantity
Despite these solutions, ultimately, we have to accept the fact that we need to reduce the present scale if we are really interested in making farming practices more sustainable and ensuring quality products. To produce anything on an industrial level, some degree of quality must be compromised in favor of increased production.
Producing “smaller” batches locally, using sustainable pest deterrents like pesticidal companion plants, will help create circular economies, increase efficiency and boost quality and ease of access. Cannabis continues to expand on its many useful applications.