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3 Creative Solutions Emerging in Urban Farming

Food

The world’s current food system is flawed. With so many mouths to feed, western society has resorted to intensive agriculture that relies heavily on petroleum-based technology, like tractors, plows and seed drills. With increasing population and advances in technology, farms are now competing on a global scale. Food is often flown in from all over the world, the emissions contributing to global climate change.

Providing food for our future mega cities will not be an easy task, but it can be sustainable. Photo credit: Worldwatch Institute

Because a growing proportion of food is not grown where it is eaten, city dwellers often fall victim to “food deserts” where they have little or no access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food. By the year 2050 close to 80 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban centers. With the growth of mega cities, our current farms mandate a paradigm shift to environmentally friendly and efficient urban food systems to support the population in a sustainable way.

Urban farming presents a unique opportunity to grow crops on land that is vacant or unused. These crops can also be grown in huge skyscrapers, abandoned lots and even in used shipping containers. It is up to the farmer to be as creative as s/he wishes.

One of the largest benefits of urban agriculture is the reduced distance of shipping crops from farmer to buyer. Often produce in the U.S., especially during winter months, is grown in far away places where the weather is still warm enough to support fruits and vegetables and is then shipped to grocers throughout the U.S. The amount of gas-guzzling delivery trucks and airplanes that deliver all of this food could drastically be reduced with a shift to urban agriculture. City farms could provide urbanites with easier access to fresh and local produce.

Container Farms

Old metal shipping containers from cargo ships are converted into mobile farms. Photo credit: Freight Farms

One of the most unusual examples of urban agriculture has the potential to provide Boston with fresh produce even when the city is blanketed in snow.  Founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara started Freight Farms in 2010 with the goal of cutting down on the number of miles it takes to get greens from farm to table. The pair converts old metal shipping containers from cargo ships into mobile farms.  These “smart farms” are insulated, completely digitally controlled and have even been installed with Wi-Fi so that farmers are able to check on things without leaving the comfort of their home when there is snow on the ground.

By growing food indoors, these containers eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides. Indoor plants are able to produce food year round instead of seasonally, reducing the amount of fruits and vegetables flown in from other countries.

Freight Farms sell their containers to urban farmers looking for a new business endeavor for about $76,000 each. Shawn and Connie Cooney, two Bostonians, have taken advantage of this opportunity and have begun growing greens like kale, cilantro, mustard greens and wild mint, which they sell mostly to restaurants via wholesale distributors. They currently have four freight containers and claim to be able to grow as much produce as four acres of land could produce in a shorter amount of time and year-round.

Vertical Farms

The Plantagon has tracks that allow plants to travel up and down the building to maximize sunlight exposure and to make harvesting much easier. Photo credit: The Plantagon

Other urban farms, like vertical farms, use height to maximize growth space in cities. Many use hydroponics—growing crops in a medium other than soil, like in water—or aquaponics—using a symbiotic relationship between fish (for their nutritious waste) and plants (for their waste filtration) to grow food. These alternative growing techniques eliminate the need for soil. This new idea for a farm was first proposed by Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of Microbiology and Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia, in 1999. The idea has been gaining steam quickly with proposed buildings underway all around the world, like in Japan and Wyoming.

There is a vertical farm going up in Sweden called the Plantagon. This futuristic building, expected to be finished by the end of 2015, has tracks that allow plants to travel up and down the building to maximize sunlight exposure and to make harvesting much easier. The building will produce between 300-500 tons of food a year in a 400 square meter space. The CEO, Hans Hassle, envisions his business as not only environmentally responsible because of its commitment to corporate responsibility, but also as a way to get young people interested in becoming farmers.

Another vertical farm is underway in Chicago called The Plant, which is trying to resolve Chicago’s food desert problem that has left some city dwellers without access to grocery stores or fresh produce. The building was once a meatpacking plant and has since been converted into a closed loop system where nutrients cycle between fish, plants and even Kombucha tea, a fermented drink. The facility even includes office spaces for local businesses to lease.

An anaerobic digester takes any waste products unable to be used and converts them into a sludge used to make fertilizer. The anaerobic digester combined with a proposed heat and power system will eventually run The Plant on net-zero energy and run completely off the grid.

Personal Farms

Garden Pool combines solar power, water conservation, poultry farming, aquaculture and more to convert water-intensive swimming pools into food oases. Photo credit: Garden Pool

On a smaller scale, one family in Arizona converted their backyard swimming pool into a closed loop food production system and has since started a non-profit to help others learn about sustainable food production and how simple it can be. Garden Pool combines solar power, water conservation, poultry farming, aquaculture and more to convert water-intensive swimming pools into food oases. The concept is simple and allows a family with an average-sized swimming pool to produce their own food 365 days a year.

Moving Forward

Though innovative and unique in their technologies, these ways of growing food have their drawbacks. Freight Farms shipping containers are climate controlled and do not use natural sunlight, increasing the amount of energy needed to power them. They are also relatively expensive and may not be a viable option for providing large amounts of food to urbanites, especially those living in lower-income neighborhoods with low access to fresh foods.  The Plantagon may reduce any need for chemical pesticides and herbicides, but it requires the construction of a whole new facility and has a large energy demand to maintain climate settings. The Plant and Garden Pool are nearer to a sustainable system, using pre-existing structures, closed resource systems, clean energy sources and community networks.

Providing food for our future mega cities will not be an easy task, but it can be sustainable. Creative minds have come up with ways of turning once-wasted buildings, containers and swimming pools into sustainable farms, capable of producing a large amount of food in our cramped urban spaces.  Conventional agriculture does not have to be the answer to our exploding population and the environment does not have to be at risk to feed us.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.