Article By Aron Rosenthal
The cannabis industry is exploding in the wake of legalization and demand is rising for peat, a natural resource that, when exploited, has the potential to bring us face-to-face with an environmental catastrophe.
Confronted with this crisis, it’s vitally important the cannabis industry understands what peat is, how it helps regulate the planet’s ecosystem, and the role cannabis growers will play in the international effort to protect our greatest ally in the fight against global warming.
WHAT IS PEAT?
Peat is the general word used for the estimated 380 species of sphagnum moss and is the distant cousin of some of the oldest lifeforms on Earth – early cryptogams that slowly broke down the Earth’s rocky surface and created the first fertile soils which gave rise to the plant kingdom and eventually we animals who eat them.
Peat thrives in wetland habitats; in English we call them mires, fens, bogs, and swamps. Collectively, they are simply called peatlands. Permafrost is a frozen peatland. The spongy surface of a boreal forest is a peatland. The humid Floridian swamps where the mosquito to human ratio seems to be five trillion to one are peatlands.
Peatlands play a critical role in our global ecosystem by providing wetland habitats to species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also the temporary home to billions of migratory birds. They naturally filter water from rivers and lakes making it safe for millions to drink. They also help prevent both floods and droughts.
Throughout history, peat has primarily been exploited for use in agriculture. It’s believed the Chinese were the first to use peatlands on a large scale over 8,000 years ago to cultivate rice, the tiny grain that gave rise to one of the world’s great civilizations. Today, peat continues to be used on nearly every continent as farmers and cannabis growers around the world celebrate its ability to improve native soils, retain water, provide essential nutrients to plants, and create a near-perfect environment for robust root development.
In the U.S., giant bags of peat can be purchased in every garden center, every local nursery, every big box store, every hydroponics retailer and easily online. The next time you walk through a greenhouse, it’s likely that every plant you see is growing in peat. If you’re a commercial cannabis grower, or even a small-batch enthusiast, you’ve likely used it – literally tons of it. Yet despite peat’s storied history and myriad benefits, it’s most valuable to us when it isn’t used at all.
OUR GREATEST ALLY
Peat, like all plants, inhales atmospheric carbon (CO2). Photosynthesis then helps to convert CO2 to sugar – a more complex compound plants use to power their growth. This is how plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in their stems, leaves and roots.
What makes peat special, and important to us, is its unique cellular structure that allows it to absorb twenty times its weight in water. Over time, peat becomes completely saturated until it is permanently submerged under water where it dies. New peat grows on top of the dead peat and inhales ever more CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for global warming. In the right conditions, this process can go on for thousands of years creating bogs tens of feet deep. In an underwater tomb of muck, sequestered in its cells, the dead peat holds on to all that carbon. And in that spot, in a few hundred million years, you’ll find coal.
Exactly how much carbon is stored in our peatlands? According to a 2008 report funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), peatlands, while covering only 3% of the planet’s land surface, are estimated to contain 550 billion tons, or gigatons, of carbon. This is equivalent to “30% of all soil carbon, 75% of all atmospheric carbon, as much carbon as all terrestrial biomass, and twice the carbon stock of all forest biomass in the world.” However, we are now just learning that, based on a 2019 study recently published in Nature Geoscience, the total carbon sequestered in peatlands might actually be double this original estimate and as much as 1,050 gigatons. This is a major discovery and although we may now be questioning the true amount of carbon stored in peatlands, what is unquestionable is the fact that peatlands are Earth’s most effective terrestrial carbon store. They are global coolers and one of our greatest allies in the fight against global warming.
When we “drain the swamps” and mine peat, our onetime ally becomes an unmanageable threat as it releases its vast stores of carbon back into the atmosphere. More atmospheric carbon = a warmer planet. As temps inch up, more permafrost (frozen peat) melts and releases ever more carbon. This vicious cycle is what climate scientists call a “positive feedback loop” and eventually a nightmarish, and potentially species-ending amount of carbon could be released into the atmosphere which would cause global warming to spiral out of control.
If you think I’m being alarmist, I encourage you to read this article published by Salon.com and this one from Wired.com which discuss the danger posed by rapidly melting permafrost and peatland fires in the Arctic. Among many important facts, you’ll learn that when permafrost melts and the peat catches fire, a single peatland fire can release over 1,000 years of carbon accumulation. What’s also important to understand is peatland fires don’t just represent a threat to our future wellbeing. In this article published by The Guardian, you’ll learn that peatland fires emit smoke that is toxic to humans (and other animals) and how the 2015 peatland fire in Indonesia indirectly killed 100,000 people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Now that we understand how vital it is to preserve our peatlands, what’s the future of its use in the cannabis industry and do growers have alternatives?
PEAT AND THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY
In 2017, consumers in the U.S. spent almost $6.5 billion on cannabis. That’s what we spent on Netflix and $1 billion more than we spent on organic produce that year. One year later, sales grew to almost $10 billion. And according to Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, the cannabis industry is expected to reach global annual sales of $57 billion by 2027. 87.3% of those sales, or $47.3 billion, will be in North America.
The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA), a pro-industry research and lobbying group representing the largest peat producers in the world, reports that peat exports to the U.S. market are valued at $500 million annually. CSPMA expects this number to rise, thanks largely to increased demand for cannabis products.
Considering our current environmental crisis, and the potential for the exploitation of peat to cause a much larger catastrophe, will cannabis growers keep using peat or will they switch immediately to viable alternatives that already exist? This is the moral challenge the cannabis industry and growers around the country, and the world, face.
According to John-Paul Maxfield, founder and CEO of Batch 64, which provides integrated growing solutions to large scale cannabis and hemp grows, replaces peat with coconut fibers. “As we confront a climate crisis, growers need to rethink how they do things. Switching to peat-free alternatives is low hanging fruit for them and the industry as a whole,” Maxfield states.
Maxfield also believes it makes good business sense. “Like everyone in the agriculture sector, the cannabis industry is faced with big problems related to climate change. A carbon market will develop and it’s going to place a lot of pressure on a company’s operating costs. The choices these large-scale operations have now won’t be choices soon and the sooner companies make this switch the less they will be at risk in the future. This is a really innovative industry in general and there’s no reason growers can’t end their use of peat immediately.”
A GLOBAL MOVEMENT
There is now an international movement to preserve peatlands and it is high time the cannabis industry join it.
In March 2019, representatives from Europe, Asia, the U.S., and the United Nations drafted and approved a first-ever “groundbreaking resolution on peatlands.” This resolution urges that “Member States and other stakeholders give…emphasis to the conservation, sustainable management and restoration of peatlands worldwide.”
In Africa, the recently discovered Cuvette Centrale peatland in the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical rainforest on Earth, is now recognized as one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet and efforts are underway to protect it.
In Europe, Ireland is phasing out peat as a major energy source as part of its commitment to reduce GHG emissions.
Publications like Smoke on Water are educating the public and lawmakers on the role peatlands play in maintaining a healthy global ecosystem and also the dangers we perpetuate if we exploit them.
The Global Peatlands Initiative, also supported by the United Nations, is probably the single greatest source of information about the world’s peatlands. Their website is complete with articles and videos about what the international community is doing to preserve these vital habitats.
Cannabis growers who make the switch to peat-free alternatives will become members of this already diverse international community of passionate and dedicated conservationists who understand that how much the planet warms is, for the moment, still up to us.
Aron Rosenthal is an independent researcher, writer, and development consultant. He has helped implement some of the most innovative social and economic development programs in Central America designed to support women entrepreneurs. He has also worked closely with Waste Farmers, the makers of Batch 64, on many initiatives over the last 10 years and shares with the team an endless devotion to protecting global peatlands.