Friday 17 July 2020 8:09 am

Green fingers: How cannabis can fuel a British agri-tech revolution

George McBride is chief executive of legal cannabis consultancy Hanway Associates

Since time immemorial, the human race has slashed and burned its way through wilderness to fuel its rapacious growth. 

Food, medicine and building materials have required more and more deforestation, with the resultant decline in biodiversity and rise in the emission of greenhouse gases. Finally, comprehension is dawning about the impact of climate change and environmental destruction, with renewed political focus on ensuring our way of life remains sustainable.

The only solution is one which dramatically reduces the land used in farming. As with so many existential challenges, the solution lies in innovation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to localise supply chains and ensure our food security. Controlled environment agriculture is an essential tool in achieving this.

If the UK is to thrive in a competitive global marketplace for food, it needs to dramatically improve its production output and lead the world in agri-tech. Technologies like indoor farming — currently a relatively fledgeling industry, but one that has huge potential — open up the possibility of food self-sufficiency without ever more destructive land use.

But in order for indoor farming to make the leap from exciting technology to common method of food production, it needs the government to get on board and support progress. There is one policy change that could turbocharge this exciting new sector: legalise cannabis.

Supporting agri-tech innovators by facilitating the growth of the legal medical cannabis industry could help transform the UK economy post-Covid into one of abundant job opportunities, food security, pharmaceutical leadership, conservation, green energy and reduced carbon emissions.

Why is cannabis such an agri-tech success story? Ironically, it was drug prohibition and the necessity of clandestine cannabis cultivation indoors under lights which spurred on some of the largest leaps in agricultural innovation. 

Where alcohol prohibition gave us moonshine and speakeasies, cannabis prohibition gave us indoor agriculture cannabis and vertical farms.

What was developed as a very expensive and energy consuming way of growing plants away from prying eyes is now on its way to becoming big business. And it’s a technology that could be crucial for food production at a time when land is becoming a scarce resource.

But building a multi-million-pound automated indoor facility is still not cost competitive for all but a vanishingly rare few crops — which brings us to cannabis. High margin and bred to be grown indoors, it is the ideal crop on which to trial and perfect new agri-tech methods, kickstarting a flourishing industry while laying the groundwork for the food production processes of the future.

We’re already well on our way. Despite the Home Office’s reluctance to relax rules and enable a legal market, the UK is home to the world’s single largest legal cannabis cultivation site, 18 hectares at British Sugar’s Wissington facility. The number of high-THC licences granted by the Home Office has nearly doubled over the last year. Meanwhile, post-Brexit the UK is now able to forge a bold new path away from the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Now we need to take the UK’s black-market cannabis cultivation out of basements and into pristine factories, incorporating them into Britain’s world-leading life sciences infrastructure. In doing so, we will be building the foundations for a modern, efficient and environmentally friendly UK agricultural sector, and ensuring our food production for decades to come.

Main image credit: Getty

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