Cannabis is unlike any other agricultural crop. Because of its circuitous history — once illegal to grow, and now legal but heavily regulated — cannabis has cast a unique footprint on the environment and the communities of farmers who grow it.
UC Berkeley's new Cannabis Research Center, announced today by a multidisciplinary team of faculty, will explore how cannabis production impacts the environment and society, and how these impacts will evolve under new regulations set in place by legalization.
While other research groups in the University of California are focusing on the individual and public health ramifications of cannabis, the center will be the first in the UC system to explore oft-overlooked dimensions of cannabis growth.
Berkeley News spoke with center co-directors Van Butsic and Ted Grantham, both assistant cooperative extension specialists in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, to learn more about the state of cannabis production in California and the center's goals.
Ted Grantham: My research primarily focuses on the impacts of water use. These farms are taking water directly from streams or from groundwater wells connected to streams. Most farms are located in smaller watersheds, so even though the total amount of water taken can be small, it can have a big impact on streams that support sensitive species, such as salmon. Other potential ecological impacts relate to the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and habitat fragmentation from building roads and clearing trees.
The social scientists in the center are also concerned about equity and the sustainability of growing communities. Historically many growers would be characterized as small-scale, and there is concern that through this process of legalization, there is going to be a consolidation of cannabis production following models of industrial agriculture. We are trying to understand if there is a way to have cannabis cultivation continue to sustain local economies and rural communities, while limiting impacts to the environment.
How have legalization and associated regulations affected cannabis production so far?
Van Butsic: We're about a year into the formal legalization of recreational cannabis production and it has been a rocky start. There have been fewer participants in the market — producers — than were anticipated. Some growers appear to have gone out of production, many appear to remain in black market production and a relatively small subset of growers have gone through the process of compliance. And the grower community that has pursued legal production are very vocal about the issues and challenges facing their group. We have been trying to better understand what are the barriers to compliance and, ultimately, if there can be changes made in policies that can really help to catalyze this transition.
Van Butsic: This is a great system to study really big sustainability problems. How do we develop an agricultural system that's good for the environment and good for farmers? And cannabis is a really interesting spot to look at it because the regulations enforcing cannabis are totally different than in the rest of agriculture, so it would be really interesting to see if we get different outcomes.
How do regulations differ between cannabis production and the rest of agriculture?
Van Butsic: Cultivators need to be permitted by the state water board, by local government and by state government to grow cannabis legally, and there are environmental regulations in all three of those levels that they need to comply with that require a higher order of environmental performance than most other agricultural crops.
So you think that understanding these regulations might help you apply them to other types of agriculture?
Van Butsic: Exactly. Agriculture has been notoriously difficult to regulate in the past, and this is a system where the regulators got the upper hand, and so it will be interesting to see how the producers respond, and if cannabis producers can be profitable and meet these super-high environmental performance measures, then perhaps there is knowledge and technology that can transfer from the cannabis industry to the rest of agriculture that can improve environmental performance of food production.
We are working on a big project right now where we are mapping where all the farms are after the latest regulatory changes. We want to know, if we could take down these barriers and everybody became compliant, what would that mean for local water budgets, environmental health and for the amount of cannabis that would be produced?
Ted Grantham: This is a rapidly changing industry, and no one really knows where it is headed. Everyone is playing catch up to a certain extent, and we believe researchers have an important role in bringing independent scientific information to conversations around cannabis policy./span>
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California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.
At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.
Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.
“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.
“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”
However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.
“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”
The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.
“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”
At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.
“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”
There is still much more research to be done.
“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”
The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.
She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.
The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like.
“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”
The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.
“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”
Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.
Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.
Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.
Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.
“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.