A view from the fence
Organic vs. synthetic nutrients in Cannabis cultivation
By: Paul Josephs
Beginning in the 1940s, the “Green” Revolution began with the introduction of mass-produced synthetic fertilizers. Today there is a growing “Green” movement away from the use of synthetic nutrients that embraces the use of “organic” fertilizers in many farming circles, especially small community-based operations. What is the difference between the two approaches for a Cannabis grower? What are the impacts for the cultivator and for the environment?
Chemically, organic refers only to compounds containing carbon, so in the strictest sense this definition is flawed. Most nutrients, except for the carbon in CO2, would be classified as inorganic; however, it is commonly accepted to refer to fertilizers that derive from plant and animal sources as organic as well as certain crushed rock products that contain trace elements. The National Organic Standards Board (1995) published the following as part of their definition of ‘organic’ in reference to the production of crops:
‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. (http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml)
Examples of organic materials that contain plant nutrients would include worm castings, composts, plant and animal meals like alfalfa or bone meals, fish emulsions, and many others.
Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured. Some nitrogen-based fertilizers are made from natural gas and nitrogen from the air in a chemical reaction. Other synthetic fertilizers use minerals in ore rocks containing potassium and phosphorous that are converted by industrial processes and chemicals to forms easily dissolved in water and readily usable by plants.
Indoors — organic
Growing organically indoors is usually confined to growing in soil containers or, in some cases, hydroponically. True Living Organics, a method for Cannabis cultivation pioneered and written about extensively by The Rev, lies at the extreme organic end of indoor soil growing. This approach embraces the natural cycles and processes that take place in living soils which are rich in microorganisms that convert materials in the mixture into useable forms for plants and encourage container growing. At the other end of the spectrum are applications that use organic fertilizers exclusively but may not be as concerned about the micro life in the soil, or soilless media if growing hydroponically, such as beneficial bacteria and fungi.
Although organic fertilizers tend to cost more than their synthetic counterparts and may not be as efficient as synthetic ones in supplying nutrition quickly to the plant, many growers swear by them because plants grown solely with organic nutrients usually thrive. Though the nutrients may not be as rapidly available as some synthetic ones are, it is important to remember that plants evolved growing in soils with no deliberate introduction of any fertilizers. The roots of plants actively interact on an atomic scale with soil and water to free up nutrient ions and utilize them. Bacteria and fungi in soils also play a large role in processes that make nutrients available to plants. As far as maximum yield potential is concerned, high-quality organic fertilizers will not hinder a plant from reaching its potential. Factors such as temperature, container size, light levels, and CO2 levels have as much to do with reaching potentials as nutrients. It is the ideal combination of all factors that results in an incredible crop.
Indoors — synthetic
Most hydroponic systems use synthetic nutrients. It is considerably less complicated to rely on synthetic nutrients that are easily absorbed by plants and have more predictable effects on water chemistry than their organic counterparts. Many soil growers also use synthetic nutrients with great success. The products are easy to mix with water and the exact composition is already known to be in forms readily available to plants. Plants grown using synthetic fertilizers will thrive if all the nutritional needs are met and, as mentioned previously, it is a number of factors that combine to allow plants to grow to their best potential.
Outdoors — organic
Unlike synthetic products, organic fertilizers do not adversely affect microorganisms in soil. Organic methods such as using composts, compost teas, crop rotations, and other sustainable practices allow the soil to remain healthy and able to support productive harvests without the use of synthetics. These practices generally involve more labor and time but are also more sustainable in the long term.
Outdoors — synthetic
The “Green” Revolution allowed crop productions to increase dramatically with the introduction of synthetic fertilizers. Farmers could apply synthetic nutrients to acreages that were becoming nutrient-depleted and see record yields being produced. Crop rotation, letting fields lay fallow, manure spreading and other techniques did not have to be used to realize good yields. Synthetic nutrients allowed mechanized means to apply fertilizer over large areas that made the operation of very large farms manageable. Organic methods do not always work well as the scale of operation increases and there is generally more labor and cost involved — especially the cost of organic fertilizers compared to the cost of synthetic ones. Synthetic fertilizers do not improve or maintain soil health, and therefore they are not as sustainable as their organic counterparts.
Differences in the final product
In food crops the differences in nutrient levels are not significantly different if grown with either synthetic or organic fertilizers. Plants use the elemental forms of nutrients the same way regardless of their source. Some studies of food crops have reported a statistical bump in the presence of phenols in organically fed plants, but otherwise there is no chemical difference. In Cannabis, the quality is improved by flushing the plants with plain water for the last two weeks to keep the plant from absorbing any more nutrition and allowing the existing nutrients in the plant to become incorporated and metabolized prior to harvest. This flushing, coupled with a good cure, will produce very high-quality Cannabis regardless of the type of fertilizer used. The slight increase in phenols noted with organic fertilizers may be seen as an increase in terpenoids and thiols in Cannabis grown organically. These compounds are responsible for most of the aroma and taste in Cannabis flowers. There have been many subjective reports that organically grown Cannabis tastes and smells better, but until research on the crop increases this will remain speculation.
The impact of synthetic fertilizers is obvious. Many are made from petroleum products that require large machines to transport the raw materials, and the manufacturing processes of these machines consume considerable energy. Soils subjected to repeated applications of synthetic fertilizers have a depleted biological population that decreases the overall soil nutritional quality. This creates a cycle of forcing the grower to continue adding synthetic nutrients to the soil. Excess synthetic fertilizer runoff from fields can adversely affect nearby aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, many of the components involved in the production of synthetic fertilizers are not renewable.
Organic fertilizers have an impact of their own. Manure has a significant carbon footprint when composting and products such as guano may have to be transported very long distances. Products need to be produced, refined, packaged and transported therefore impacting the environment. Runoff of organic materials high in nitrogen or phosphorous can also negatively impact aquatic ecosystems. On the positive side, many organic fertilizer components are renewable and not all of these require a long distance to travel. For example, worm castings and compost can easily be produced locally or at home.
Both methods are effective ways to cultivate Cannabis and there is no clear measurable difference in the nutritional composition of products grown either way when thoroughly flushed prior to harvesting. If foliar applications are used, a good rinse of the foliage will eliminate any potential concerns for the consumer. It can be easy to overdo it with both types of fertilizers and harm plants with over fertilizing. At the end of the day, it is up to an individual’s preference whether to use organic or synthetic nutrients. The choice is similar in getting to work — people have the choice to walk, ride the bus, ride a bike, carpool, or drive alone to get there. Different circumstances make some options more feasible to individuals than others and some may not even be considered as an option. Each choice has different degrees of impact on the environment, both positive and negative. So the choice is yours — once nutrients are in their available forms it is “all aboard” as far as the plant is concerned, regardless of the original source.