The offices of G2V Optics, hidden away in a dingy basement of a commercial building on Edmonton’s 104th Street, don’t look like the kind of place where budding ideas could change the way we grow food for our plates. But that’s exactly what may eventually happen, thanks to high-tech growing solutions developed for Canada’s red-hot cannabis industry.
In a rabbit-warren of small rooms, G2V co-founder, operations and strategy lead Ryan Tucker and his colleagues, including partner Michael Taschuk, engineer and assemble complex light emitting diode (LED) lighting systems that not only mimic sunlight, but have the potential to improve on it.
In their digitally controlled world, these engineers can assist growers or farmers by helping to create optimum indoor growing conditions. For example, the light needed to produce the robust high-quality crops of South American cannabis plants is slightly different from the light needed by cannabis strains originating in Afghanistan. If either of the plants need more blue light, for example, the lighting can be tweaked to meet that plant's optimal specifications; the same goes for reds and all the other colours, from ultraviolet to infrared.
“The spectral conditions for their natural seasons are different.” Tucker says. “We can actually do better than nature because we can build in an ideal Farmer’s Almanac year.”
And if that is possible for cannabis, Tucker sees no reason why it can’t be equally useful in growing vegetables for the table. Scientists around the world are also working on improving other areas of indoor agriculture, including pest control, nutrients and computer control systems to accurately run complex artificial growing systems.
“We are really interested in applications to expand agriculture,” Tucker says. “We are highly interested in our ability to impact that business.”
Although the company is still in the early stages of unraveling the huge amount of data needed to accomplish such a feat, the effort is being pushed along by huge investments into cannabis cultivation, which is already a multi-billion-dollar industry in Canada months before the first legal recreational bud is rolled into cigarette paper on October 17th.
“The baseline technology was already invented and being used by researchers,” Tucker says. “The cannabis industry has provided an economic situation where the research and technology is affordable.”
Because of the value of that crop, the payback period on expensive technology in the cannabis industry could theoretically be as little as a couple of harvests. That same investment could take greenhouse and indoor vegetable farmers years to pay back.
To get an idea of just how much money is going into cannabis operations, consider that, in general, cannabis companies pay an average of about $75 per square foot for lighting alone and some operations cover nearly a million square feet, Tucker says.
Cannabis companies pay an average of about $75 per square foot for lighting alone and some operations cover nearly a million square feet.
Perhaps the biggest benefits of cannabis technology will go to vertical farming operations, in which foods such as strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, herbs and now even carrots and beets are grown indoors in stacked trays. The industry began in Alberta in 1985 to grow high-quality, local produce - especially in winter – to compete with field grown, but these are often artificially ripened and not quite as tasty fruits from the southern U.S. or Mexico. Vertical farmed produce can be grown under ideal circumstances to ripen naturally with the best taste – just like the tomatoes and cucumbers from your backyard garden.
“People love variety, they love nutrients, they love good smells,” Tucker says.
However, according to some industry observers, the real benefits of cannabis production for other agricultural pursuits may still be years away.
“I have dealt with the greenhouse industry for more than 40 years now, and supply and demand is the key,” says Mohyuddin Mirza, a greenhouse crop and hydroponics consultant who is also involved with medicinal cannabis growers. “Right now, you can buy cannabis for between $8 to $40 a gram, based on the strain and everything. When more supply becomes available and with more production from smaller growers, then the price could likely drop. It will be $2 or $3 a gram. It is like any industry and I’m worried a crash will occur.”
He says the cannabis industry is currently learning more from the greenhouse and indoor growing industries than the other way around.
“But I’m sure in future, new technologies will come,” he says. “But they need to be investigated more.”
The total cost of a facility for indoor production that relies completely on artificial light – as opposed to a greenhouse that lets in sunlight – is about $350 a square foot, he says. The best greenhouse can be built for about $100 a square foot complete. A third type of facility combines natural light with supplemental electric light. Two greenhouses in Lacombe, Alberta, for example, use supplemental light to grow cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.
“So we already know quite a bit about light quality,” Mirza says.
The ultimate example of an artificial environment is the tightly regulated medical cannabis industry. The plants are rooted in sterile rock wool – a technique borrowed from vegetable growers. Air is filtered to keep out all insects and pests. The cannabis receives no stimulation from actual sunlight. Workers who enter these facilities are clad in Tyvek suits to protect plants from disease. When cannabis is prescribed to patients, doctors want to know what’s in it. Every variable is controlled for safety and quality, unlike cannabis grown for the illegal drug trade, where dangerous pesticides have been used.
“It’s a big level-up from any other type of greenhouse production,” Jim Hole says. The popular gardening personality and co-owner of St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre and Hole’s Greenhouses and Gardens is partnering with Atlas Growers, a medical cannabis producer near Lac Ste. Anne. “We grow pharmaceutical and medicinal cannabis and it is of a really high standard. Health Canada doesn’t mess around.”
He says cannabis is made up of roughly 540 chemicals and that composition can be manipulated by growing conditions. The plants only absorb nutrients added to the water. Adjusting light can make for big differences.
“Anybody can grow a cannabis plant,” Hole says. “But can you grow a high-quality, maximum-yield-per-square-metre [plant]? Because that is what it is all about.”
The same thinking and benefits of new technology can also apply to food crops, where success is measured in kilograms rather than grams as in cannabis.
“Sure in your backyard you can grow tomatoes and get four good ones from one plant, but I can’t make any money because I need to get 40 from every plant,” he says. “So it is about tweaking fertilizer, temperature, light and humidity so by the time I come to sell I’ve got so many kilos per metre.”
This is particularly true for high-value crops, he says. New technologies, perhaps spawned in the cannabis industry, will only help.
“There already is technology to produce a good quality tomato, but this is going to go a lot further,” Hole says. “Think of it as taking a tomato apart and finding out what is in there for vitamin A, what is in there for other components. What is in there for lycopene (the chemical that makes tomatoes red), which is apparently good for the prostate.
“So that is what it has really changed. There are sensors for fertilizing and nutrition, but lighting is the big thing right now.”