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Organically-produced cannabis has proven itself capable of commanding premium pricing in legal pot markets. Cultivating using organic methods tends to cost more, but an increasing number of business models are being built around the notion that the higher profit margins will more than make up for the more expensive production. Some, however, are going even further, spending more on even greener growing methods.

Aquaponics, which uses dramatically less water and energy to grow plants by using fish to create a closed ecosystem, is slowly gaining popularity among pot growers. So far, a small-scale micro-cultivation facility in the interior of British Columbia called Habitat Craft Cannabis remains the only aquaponically-based legal pot producer in Canada, but on the east coast, Aqualitas intends on utilizing the process on a much larger scale over the course of 2020.

Myrna Gillis, CEO of Aqualitas, poses in the company's office in Halifax on Monday, January 14, 2019. Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Products sold under the Nova Scotia company’s recreational brand - Reef - are currently grown in a low-energy living soil system capable of producing roughly 4,000 kg of dried cannabis flower annually. Aqualitas is in the process of bringing its aquaponics system online, which is expected to meet and eventually exceed the living soil system’s annual 4,000 kg capacity before the end of this year.

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“We were getting about 120 grams per plant with the living soil,” CEO Myrna Gillis said in an interview, “but we got up to 360 grams per plant with the [trial of the] aquaponics system.”

Below, in Ms. Gillis’ own words – lightly edited for length and clarity – she explains the origins of the innovation behind the company’s commercial aquaponics system, it’s potential and the challenges it faces.

Getting started

As far as the concept is concerned, when we started out looking at the cannabis space, it was important to us to have something that was organic and also efficient, sustainable and potentially renewable. There weren’t a lot of options at the time, most of the conventional growing was indoors and the standard was hydroponics using high-pressure sodium lights. That, to us, wasn’t something that we wanted to embrace. We wanted to try and look at things that were a little cleaner and greener.

We knew of some growers under the old MMAR [Medical Marijuana Access Regulations] that were using aquaponics and they said it had a lot of challenges in the flowering stage. Otherwise it was a very sustainable process. This would have been 2015 when we had just applied for our license, so we took several years to start doing R&D into aquaponics. We worked between Dalhousie and Acadia and set up a system where we focused only on flowering plants.

Generally people use commercial fish such as tilapia or salmon or trout so you have a viable protein, but the recommendation that [Dr. Russell Easy of Acadia University] had for us was koi would be a much better option because the focus here is on biosecurity, meaning less opportunities for any contaminants or disease to come into the system. The cannabis plant also likes cold water and koi can tolerate that.

We are able to really dial in all the inputs and outputs in our aquaponics system. The first was how do we get nutrients to flowering plants and then it was how do we improve the fish health. Most of the fish food that is out there is to make fish bigger so we can eat them and that diet is not necessarily ideal for plants because it takes out phosphorous, there is more salt than we would want. That is part of what makes us different.

In conventional systems you would separate out the solids and it is the ammonia that gets secreted through the gills or the vent of the fish, that gets converted into nutrients. But we also put the solids in a digester and we get nutrients that are rich in phosphorous out of that as well.

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The economics of aquaponics

The third-highest input expense for producers is nutrients, so that is the biggest cost savings for us. The other area is electricity and labour. Our process reducing two of those three variables very significantly, it is a lot less expensive to feed fish than to buy plant nutrients. Our all-in production costs is not the cheapest but also not the most expensive. We are still in that above dollar-per-gram range now because we are not at scale.

Even something as simply as when you dry and cure, there is less water in an aquaponic plant than there would be in a soil or hydroponic basis because of the density of the trichome production and the oils. The weight of it will stay heavier after drying than another plant grown in the exact same conditions.

The consumer is very demanding in this space, especially if you are asking them to pay a premium price for a product, you absolutely have to justify that. Just look at the millennials, our research has shown that 86 per cent of millennials care about how a product is grown, so that is part of our story.

Key advantages

One of the challenges for the commercial viability of aquaponics systems is due to the protein crop. We don’t have to worry about harvesting the fish because they live out their life cycle, which could be up to 25 years, in your system.

We worked for a number of years, just dealing with nutrient deficiency in the flowering stage of an aquaponics system. That technology we had won a Spark Innovation Award and a Clean Tech Energy Award. Now we are also working on the variable of the fish food. We are making our own fish food that is unique to the flowering stage of the cannabis plant. As the nutrient needs of the plant changes, so does the feeding cycle and things for the fish.

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