When the Government of Canada changed the Criminal Code and legalized cannabis, it raised very few eyebrows in the agricultural community.
It was debated as a crop on all levels and later recognized as an agricultural product. Where it was grown and by whom was left to other jurisdictions. It was viewed as an opportunity for investment, a job creator, and a good use of square footage. Many farming communities were game for investment.
Canada did not expect to run out of weed but judging by past history, the folks in this nation are big users. In 2017, $5.6 billion was spent on cannabis in Canada, even though there were only approximately 300,000 registered medical patients using cannabis for treatment. Canadians also spent $22 billion on booze and $6 billion on tobacco products.
Combined, that is equal to a third of the annual expenditures of $98.5 billion that the nation’s families spend on food.
The big spend is still on food and the Canadian government has a desire to put safe food that is healthy and high quality, and which is produced by our own farmers, on the plate. Agriculture Canada’s goal is to have a world-leading agriculture sector and food economy that would benefit Canadians. Improved food security is prominent in agricultural policy and by accepting cannabis as an agricultural crop, the idea was to enhance the economics of agriculture.
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A growing trend in farming has been in Canada’s greenhouse production and in particular in vegetables. In 2016, growers produced 2.4 million tonnes — primarily tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers (just one per cent was lettuce). Many of these greenhouses used propagated plants to start, depending on propagator growers to nurture the plants from seed.
Experts say cannabis is also best grown by commercial growers from propagated plants. So there is a need for both propagators and producers in cannabis production. The income generation for tomatoes is about $200 per square metre compared to cannabis that may generate $20,000 per square metre.
And therein lays the litany of unintended consequences within agriculture.
The result in agriculture has been hundreds of acres and hundreds of thousands of square metres of greenhouse space being refitted to propagate and produce — not food — but cannabis. This is especially concerning as so few companies propagate and these starter plants are critical to the fruit and vegetable grower.
Indoor grown and processed cannabis, unlike a field of hemp, requires a lot of water and energy. Opportunities exist for export but then so does it for value-added food products. The extreme blue sky forecast by the Bank of Montreal and published in the Financial Post puts potential cannabis export values in seven years at $199 billion which is a long stretch from where it is. This level of export would seriously wound the $111.9 billion that the agriculture and agri-food industry generated in 2016 in terms of the competition for propagating and production space, water, and power.
I doubt this was an intentional or known shift when cannabis was being legalized.
Unfortunately, farmers are now pitted against farmers as some regions allow for new concrete-floored greenhouses to be built next to active farms. The soil is lost, the traffic has increased, the lighting takes away the night sky, the smell is pretty strong, and there is no food produced — yet cannabis producers can apply for agricultural funding.
Unintended consequences those stakeholders did not think of beforehand.
Perhaps one of the most moving real-life examples of unintended consequence comes from global economic consultant, Ernesto Sirolli, who tells the story of growing tomatoes in Zambia. The locals were not interested in cropping which baffled the Italian team on the project.
The consequence of growing tomatoes in this particular fertile valley was laid bare when just before harvest — hippos devoured the entire crop. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ the Italians asked. ‘You never asked,’ replied the Zambians.
Asking folks about the impact is critical in the process of managing future economic and environmental risk.
I am certain the government had no intent to move facilities and investment away from food to cannabis, but that unintended consequence is now a reality that faces not only municipalities but farming communities. It could actually jeopardize areas of agricultural growth and of food security as the lagging infrastructure and the economic incentives become bound to the higher-paying crop.
I fully appreciate that in this column, I am taking a narrow slice of the complexity of the positive or negative impact of cannabis as a crop to the agricultural industry and overall economy. I use the example to exemplify the importance of the consultation of all stakeholders over a long period of time and the transparent mapping out of the potential in consequence, both intentional and non-intentional, as an important component of risk mitigation and management at all levels of government — and on our own farms and related businesses.