Cannabis is the cash crop of our age, but at what cost?
Research shows that over half the marijuana grown in the United States originates in California. However, it’s not alone. California’s rich soil and fertile climate has also made it the fruit and vegetable basket of America. Eighty-nine percent or more of the entire nation’s supply of artichokes, walnuts, kiwis, plums, celery, garlic, and cauliflower are grown in California soil, using California water.
The Golden State is now experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, with water reaching crisis levels. Environmentalists have deservedly begun scrutinizing how the state is using its precious water resources. One of the first points of contention: cannabis cultivation, namely in the Emerald Triangle (Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties) where much of the state's cannabis is being grown--both legally and illegally. According to the Press Democrat, there are more than one million marijuana plants growing in Mendocino alone.
How Much Water Does it Take?
Cannabis is a thirsty crop. Researchers estimate each marijuana plant requires between 3-6 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by an average 150 day grow cycle, and we come up with each plant requiring 450-900 gallons of water.
If we use the metric that each cannabis plant yields about 1 lb of cannabis flower, that would mean that each pound of cannabis requires 450-900 gallons of water. (Note: the actual yield varies widely depending on strain and growing conditions.)
For reference, let’s see where cannabis' water consumption sits in comparison to other consumable crops.
Admittedly, cannabis ranks on the high side of consumable plant matter. However, for those looking to reduce their water footprint, these numbers pale in comparison to another industry's water consumption--one few people are eager to talk about.
Agriculture uses about 70% of the world's available freshwater, and a third of that is used to grow grain and other feed for livestock. Beef is by far the most water-intensive meats, and dwarfs water usage needed to grow all other plants.
California is the fourth largest cattle producer in the US, with 5.25 million cattle produced in 2014.
Even the Prince of Wales brought up conspicuous water consumption by Americans--and thus by anyone emulating the standard American diet:
“In a country like the United States, a fifth of all your grain production is dependent upon irrigation. For every pound of beef produced in the industrial system, it takes two thousand gallons of water. That is a lot of water and there is plenty of evidence that the Earth cannot keep up with the demand.”
Let's take a look at the numbers, adding in water consumption by meat production.
These numbers are rough--mainly because judging how much water a crop needs varies depending on soil types, irrigation plans and climates. Similarly, the amount of water needed to produce a pound of meat varies depending on how the animal was raised.
It does however bear mentioning that one of the key crops raised in California as cattle feed is alfalfa. Grown on over one million acres within the state's borders, alfalfa sucks up more water than any other plant in the state. Increasingly popular grass-fed beef operations typically rely on alfalfa as a supplement to pasture grass.
To make matters worse, according to a 2014 New York Times article, California is currently shipping much of its alfalfa, and thus it's water, to Asia.
"It's more profitable to ship alfalfa to China than from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley," writes James McWilliams in the New York Times. "Alfalfa growers are now are now exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year from this drought ridden region to the other side of the world in the form of alfalfa. All as Asians are embracing the American-style, meat-hungry diet."
And this doesn’t include the water required for cleaning and dissemination the waste around raising livestock--the truly gargantuan amount of urine and feces generated by animal agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of tons of untreated waste, much of which ends up in “manure lagoons”, sometimes leaks into groundwater, or overflows during floods, endangering the health of nearby communities.
Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right
In the face of these grave injustices, what can a concerned, eco-conscious cannabis and/or meat consumer do?
The first step is education. Knowing the truth for yourself is the most empowering thing you can do.
Second, if you are a meat eater, consider your consumption. Replacing half of your animal product consumption with plants, legumes, and nuts results in a 30% reduction in an individual’s food related water footprint. Better yet, going vegetarian reduces your water footprint by almost 60%.
Third, if you are a cannabis consumer, seriously consider the source of your bud and cannabis-related products. Illegal grows on federal land in Northern California are responsible for widespread environmental degradation, along with land-grading, river diverting, dam-making, wanton use of pesticides, and according to this shocking Mother Jones article, "discarding of trash and haphazard management of human waste." That seriously threatens the human and wildlife populations in the surrounding areas.
Cannabis legalization would vastly improve cannabis growing conditions and allow the process to be more easily regulated. This in turn would allow growing efficiencies and water usage to be more closely monitored by state officials without fearing for their lives. For example, the collecting of rain water in permitted tanks and ponds could be used instead of diverting water illegally.
"I think it's really important that this industry, which has brought so much wealth to our communities and the region, take responsibility for its impacts," said Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, in the Press Democrat.
Marijuana’s illegal status has given illegal growers little incentive to care about anything other than not getting caught. In the process of growing cannabis, they have taken huge liberties and put the wildlife, land, and the people who live near it at risk. As one activist in the Emerald Triangle was quoted saying, "It is not the growers who are a disease. They are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war."