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What does a booming marijuana market mean for food security in Canada?

Last year Canada made international headlines for a nation-wide legalization of recreational, adult-use cannabis. Although the overall reaction seems to be positive, many religious leaders have voiced concerns. For example, the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops published their statement on the Cannabis Act the same day it came into effect, underlining the ethical problems with the recreational use of cannabis, including psychological and physical health and society’s increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Both leading up to, and following, its legalization, debates have focused primarily on the social implications. One issue that has not received enough attention is how legalization will affect Canada’s food systems. 

‘Food’ product
Full legalization in Canada means that cannabis is now listed as an agricultural product. How will cannabis cultivation influence the rest of the industry? As an agricultural product, cannabis has equal rights to be grown on what would be traditional cropland. Considering the deep pockets of cannabis producers, it’s easy to suppose that traditional greenhouse farmers might be inclined to either sell their greenhouses to cannabis producers or convert them for cannabis cultivation themselves. What would this mean for food security in Canada?

Some people have already been raising the alarm. Lois Jackson, the mayor of Delta, B.C., is calling for regulations to protect farmland for food production. According to a recent Global News article, she believes that the prospect of prime farmland around the city being glassed in or paved over for cannabis production is concerning for her community. Considering that only about 1.5 percent of land in B.C. is considered prime farmland, increased cannabis production could pose a threat to regional food security. 

Leading up to the official legalization of cannabis, pot producers were active in acquiring greenhouse space across the country to meet the accurately forecasted heavy demand for their product. That meant snatching up existing greenhouses and converting them from their previous function (in many cases, vegetable production). For instance, the medical cannabis company Aphria partnered with Double Diamond Farms in Leamington, Ontario, to convert 32 acres (1,400,000 square feet) of greenhouse space from vegetable to cannabis cultivation. 

As of the October 17 legalization, cannabis producers, with all of their new greenhouse space, have still encountered shortages, with producers only able to meet roughly two-thirds of the market demand. This will likely lead to further acquisitions of food producing greenhouses to fill the gap.

Cannabis producers such as Aphria, Aurora and Canopy Growth have been actively participating in what could be deemed as a cultivation arms race by acquiring greenhouses. This expansion of growing space will likely continue as other foreign jurisdictions outside of Canada warm up to the idea of medical cannabis or fully legal adult-use cannabis.

Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, told CBC that consumers should not be worried about reduced vegetable production. His organization estimates vegetable producing greenhouses will still grow next year, though not as much as they’d anticipated before cannabis became legal.

A larger problem, according to Sbrocchi, is that “Cannabis can afford to pay workers more at this point. We could lose some of our best young people.” The subsequent demand for employees with expertise in greenhouse cultivation will potentially draw a skilled workforce away from vegetable growers – further reducing food production capacity in Canada. 

With the mounting pressure coming from the cannabis industry, the question remains: What could this mean for the future of food security in Canada? For now, we will have to wait and see. 

  • Josh is a Communications Intern with The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, one of three accredited farm organizations in Ontario (christianfarmers.org).

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