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How to succeed in vertical farming

Vertical farms can be set up almost anywhere, making it possible to grow crops in the middle of populous urban centers, meaning that it is possible for crops to reach consumers within minutes of harvest.

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Vertical farming is an emerging technique within agriculture that involves growing crops indoors under controlled environmental conditions. By carefully tailoring the environment to the exact requirements of the crop, such as through using LED lighting to produce the exact light spectrum needed for optimal photosynthesis, it is possible to obtain yields hundreds of times higher than traditional agriculture.

Vertical farms can be set up almost anywhere, making it possible to grow crops in the middle of populous urban centers, meaning that it is possible for crops to reach consumers within minutes of harvest. This contrasts with traditional agriculture, where fresh produce can take weeks to reach consumers, losing freshness and increasing contamination risk along the way. The recent IDTechEx report, “Vertical Farming: 2020-2030” explores the technologies and markets around the fast-growing vertical farming industry.

Vertical farming has been the subject of a lot of hype in recent years, with supporters claiming it could revolutionise food production. Industry advocates, such as Columbia University Professor Dickson Despommier, have presented visions of a future world where fresh food is grown inside skyscrapers to feed giant, high-tech metropolises (for further visions of the cities of the future, see the IDTechEx report, “Smart City Opportunities: Infrastructure, Systems, Materials 2019-2029”). Investors are also feeling the hype, with vertical farming start-ups raising over a billion dollars in investment in the last five years alone.

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Vertical farms use artificial lighting and carefully controlled climates to grow crops at far higher yields than conventional agriculture. Source: Intelligent Growth Solutions

However, despite this optimism, the industry does face some major challenges and the sector has more than its fair share of bankruptcies. PodPonics, once the most well-funded vertical farming company in the world, and FarmedHere, which once operated what remains the largest vertical farm ever built, both went bankrupt. David Rosenberg, Chief Executive of New Jersey based vertical farming outfit AeroFarms, recently said he wouldn’t be surprised if 90% of the players in the industry went out of business within the next three years.

Broadly, many vertical farms struggle for the same reasons. As well as costing a lot of money to set up, vertical farms can be very expensive to run, largely because they require continuously running artificial lighting and climate controls. This is compounded by high labour costs and logistical difficulties that often get more difficult as the vertical farm gets larger. This all makes it very difficult to compete on price with produce grown on conventional farms, which typically have razor-thin profit margins. Because of these challenges, vertical farmers generally only grow crops where the whole of the plant can be consumed, in order to maximise space efficiency and avoid wasting energy on growing inedible stems and leaves. Therefore, almost all vertical farmers are restricted to growing herbs and leafy greens. These are still a large market, but fall somewhere short of the lofty claims made by some supporters of the industry.

It is certainly possible to run a successful vertical farming business, as fast growing players such as Bowery Farming and InFarm will attest to, however it requires a carefully planned out strategy and consideration of all the variables and trade offs involved in vertical farming, in addition to a fair amount of investor capital.

The keys to success in vertical farming are outlined in the recent IDTechEx report, “Vertical Farming: 2020-2030”. The report discusses several factors that can contribute to the success or failure of a vertical farm, including:

  • Whether or not to automate. Automation can significantly reduce labour costs while streamlining the logistical processes. However, investing in advanced automation equipment can lead to extremely high start-up costs.
  • Choice of crops. Should vertical farming try to branch out beyond leafy greens, or should it corner the market it has? What about higher value crops inaccessible to conventional agriculture?
  • How large is too large? Larger centralised facilities could lead to economies of scale but could also face spiralling logistical difficulties. However, smaller localised facilities may face much higher start-up costs relative to the output capacity.
  • The importance of location: is a city centre location really the best place to set up a vertical farm?
  • The need for experience in the food industry. Crops are living organisms and are not always predictable. Despite this, there is a relative lack of food and agriculture experience in the vertical farming sector.

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AXA PH volunteers join forces for good

In the Philippines, the volunteer activities kicked off with two simultaneous events: a meal packing session for the benefit of Rise Against Hunger Philippines, and solar light building in partnership with Liter of Light.

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Annually, insurance company AXA organizes one full week dedicated to sustainability. The AXA Week for Good, the highlight of the purpose-led company’s year-long corporate responsibility activities, aims to celebrate the ability of AXA employees to take positive action by offering their time and skills to support our two sustainability pillars: climate change & biodiversity and inclusive protection.

In the Philippines, the volunteer activities kicked off with two simultaneous events: a meal packing session for the benefit of Rise Against Hunger Philippines, and solar light building in partnership with Liter of Light. Rise Against Hunger is an organization committed to ending hunger and malnutrition, while Liter of Light is a global non-profit organization that provides sustainable and affordable lights to people with limited or no access to electricity.

Employees also volunteered for Rise Against Hunger’s mobile soup kitchen activity in communities around Taguig. These soup kitchens serve Filipinos that are especially in need of nutrition, including pregnant mothers, the elderly, and children.

Through the combined efforts of these activities, volunteers were able to pack a total of 5,400 meals, assemble 250 solar lamps, and feed 1,500 children.

The company also organized a blood donation drive, which served as their response to the current blood shortage in the country due to the ongoing pandemic. A total of 44 bags of blood were collected from this initiative.

AXA Philippines employees also participated in mangrove planting activities held in Batangas and La Union, with volunteers working together to plant a total of 550 mangrove seedlings to help maintain the ecological health of the area.

In addition to the multitude of activities arranged by AXA entities locally, the Paris-based AXA Group also organizes a ‘Global Challenge’ with all members of its volunteer program, AXA Hearts in Action.

AXA entities worldwide celebrated Week for Good via special activities in partnership with The Good Planet Foundation. These include climate- and biodiversity-themed workshops that help raise employees’ awareness on climate change issues.

In the Philippines, employees volunteered at the Rise Against Hunger Good Food Farm to learn about sustainable agriculture practices and help harvest produce from vegetable and fruit gardens. Volunteers harvested 35kg worth of vegetables with the local farmers, which will be used in meals for the adopted communities of AXA Philippines and Rise Against Hunger.

“AXA has always been committed towards leaving a positive impact on the planet, which is why we are glad that we are able to once again gather together as a team to participate in our sustainability efforts as we celebrate Week for Good. We take pride in our employees’ passion and enthusiasm in dedicating their time and skills to do good for society and for the environment,” said Gael Lapie, CEO In-Charge and Chief Financial Officer of AXA Philippines.

To know more about AXA Week for Good, visit https://www.axa.com/en/about-us/community-corporate-responsibility-week.

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Down on Vitamin D? It could be the cause of chronic inflammation

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Ang Zhou, says the findings suggest that boosting vitamin D in people with a deficiency may reduce chronic inflammation.

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Inflammation is an essential part of the body’s healing process. But when it persists, it can contribute to a wide range of complex diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases.

Now, world-first genetic research from the University of South Australia shows a direct link between low levels of vitamin D and high levels of inflammation, providing an important biomarker to identify people at higher risk of or severity of chronic illnesses with an inflammatory component.

The study examined the genetic data of 294 ,970 participants in the UK Biobank, using Mendelian randomization to show the association between vitamin D and C-reactive protein levels, an indicator of inflammation.

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Ang Zhou, says the findings suggest that boosting vitamin D in people with a deficiency may reduce chronic inflammation.

“Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting your tissues if you’ve been injured or have an infection,” Dr Zhou says. “High levels of C-reactive protein are generated by the liver in response to inflammation, so when your body is experiencing chronic inflammation, it also shows higher levels of C-reactive protein. This study examined vitamin D and C-reactive proteins and found a one-way relationship between low levels of vitamin D and high levels of C-reactive protein, expressed as inflammation. Boosting vitamin D in people with deficiencies may reduce chronic inflammation, helping them avoid a number of related diseases.”

Supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology the study also raises the possibility that having adequate vitamin D concentrations may mitigate complications arising from obesity and reduce the risk or severity of chronic illnesses with an inflammatory component, such as CVDs, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases.

Senior investigator and Director of UniSA’s Australian Centre for Precision Health, Professor Elina Hyppönen, says these results are important and provide an explanation for some of the controversies in reported associations with vitamin D.

“We have repeatedly seen evidence for health benefits for increasing vitamin D concentrations in individuals with very low levels, while for others, there appears to be little to no benefit.” Prof Hyppönen says.  “These findings highlight the importance of avoiding clinical vitamin D deficiency, and provide further evidence for the wide-ranging effects of hormonal vitamin D.”

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Fatigue, headache among top lingering symptoms months after COVID

Fatigue and headache were the most common symptoms reported by individuals an average of more than four months out from having COVID-19, investigators report.

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Fatigue and headache were the most common symptoms reported by individuals an average of more than four months out from having COVID-19, investigators report.

Muscle aches, cough, changes in smell and taste, fever, chills and nasal congestion were next in the long line of lingering symptoms.

“Our results support the growing evidence that there are chronic neuropsychiatric symptoms following COVID-19 infections,” Medical College of Georgia investigators write in the journal ScienceDirect

“There are a lot of symptoms that we did not know early on in the pandemic what to make of them, but now it’s clear there is a long COVID syndrome and that a lot of people are affected,” says Dr. Elizabeth Rutkowski, MCG neurologist and the study’s corresponding author.

The published study reports on preliminary findings from the first visit of the first 200 patients enrolled in the COVID-19 Neurological and Molecular Prospective Cohort Study in Georgia, or CONGA, who were recruited on average about 125 days after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus.

CONGA was established at MCG early in the pandemic in 2020 to examine the severity and longevity of neurological problems and began enrolling participants in March 2020 with the ultimate goal of recruiting 500 over five years.

Eighty percent of the first 200 participants reported neurological symptoms with fatigue, the most common symptom, reported by 68.5%, and headache close behind at 66.5%. Just over half reported changes in smell (54.5%) and taste (54%) and nearly half the participants (47%) met the criteria for mild cognitive impairment, with 30% demonstrating impaired vocabulary and 32% having impaired working memory.

Twenty-one percent reported confusion, and hypertension was the most common medical condition reported by participants in addition to their bout with COVID-19.

No participants reported having a stroke, weakness or inability to control muscles involved with speaking, and coordination problems were some of the less frequently reported symptoms.

Twenty-five percent met the criteria for depression, and diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea and a history of depression were associated with those who met the criteria. Anemia and a history of depression were associated with the 18% who met the objective criteria for anxiety.

While the findings to date are not surprising and are consistent with what other investigators are finding, Rutkowski says the fact that symptoms reported by participants often didn’t match what objective testing indicated, was surprising. And, it was bidirectional.

For example, the majority of participants reported taste and smell changes, but objective testing of both these senses did not always line up with what they reported. In fact, a higher percentage of those who did not report the changes actually had evidence of impaired function based on objective measures, the investigators write. While the reasons are not certain, part of the discrepancy may be a change in the quality of their taste and smell rather than pure impaired ability, Rutkowski says.

“They eat a chicken sandwich and it tastes like smoke or candles or some weird other thing but our taste strips are trying to depict specific tastes like salty and sweet,” Rutkowski says. Others, for example, may rely on these senses more, even when they are preparing the food, and may be apt to notice even a slight change, she says.

Either way, their data and others suggest a persistent loss of taste and smell following COVID-19, Rutkowski and her colleagues write.

Many earlier reports have been based on these kinds of self-reports, and the discrepancies they are finding indicate that approach may not reflect objective dysfunction, the investigators write.

On the other hand, cognitive testing may overestimate impairment in disadvantaged populations, they report.

The first enrollees were largely female, 35.5% were male. They were an average of 44.6 years old, nearly 40% were Black and 7% had been hospitalized because of COVID-19. Black participants were generally disproportionately affected, the investigators say.

Seventy-five percent of Black participants and 23.4% of white participants met criteria for mild cognitive impairment. The findings likely indicate that cognitive tests assess different ethnic groups differently. And, socioeconomic, psychosocial (issues like family problems, depression and sexual abuse) and physical health factors generally may disproportionately affect Black individuals, the investigators write. It also could mean that cognitive testing may overestimate clinical impairment in disadvantaged populations, they write.

Black and Hispanic individuals are considered twice as likely to be hospitalized by COVID-19 and ethnic and racial minorities are more likely to live in areas with higher rates of infection. Genetics also is a likely factor for their increased risk for increased impact from COVID, much like being at higher risk for hypertension and heart disease early and more severely in life.

A focus of CONGA is to try to better understand how increased risk and effects from COVID-19 impact Blacks, who comprise about 33% of the state’s population.

A reason fatigue appears to be such a major factor among those who had COVID-19 is potentially because of levels of inflammation, the body’s natural response to an infection, remain elevated in some individuals. For example, blood samples taken at the initial visit and again on follow up showed some inflammatory markers were up and stayed up in some individuals.

These findings and others indicate that even though the antibodies to the virus itself may wain, persistent inflammation is contributing to some of the symptoms like fatigue, she says. She notes patients with conditions like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, both considered autoimmune conditions that consequently also have high levels of inflammation, also include fatigue as a top symptom.

“They have body fatigue where they feel short of breath, they go to get the dishes done and they are feeling palpitations, they immediately have to sit down and they feel muscle soreness like they just ran a mile or more,” Rutkowski says.

“There is probably some degree of neurologic fatigue as well because patients also have brain fog, they say it hurts to think, to read even a single email and that their brain is just wiped out,” she says. Some studies have even shown shrinkage of brain volume as a result of even mild to moderate disease. 

These multisystem, ongoing concerns are why some health care facilities have established long COVID clinics where physicians with expertise in the myriad of problems they are experiencing gather to see each patient.

CONGA participants who reported more symptoms and problems tended to have depression and anxiety. Problems like these as well as mild cognitive impairment and even impaired vocabulary may also reflect the long-term isolation COVID-19 produced for many individuals, Rutkowski says.

“You are not doing what you would normally do, like hanging out with your friends, the things that bring most people joy,” Rutkowski says. “On top of that, you may be dealing with physical ailments, lost friends and family members and loss of your job.”

For CONGA, participants self-report symptoms and answer questions about their general state of health like whether they smoked, drank alcohol, exercised, and any known preexisting medical conditions. But they also receive an extensive neurological exam that looks at fundamentals like mental status, reflexes and motor function. They also take established tests to assess cognitive function with results being age adjusted. They also do at-home extensive testing where they are asked to identify odors and the ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, brothy or no taste. They also have blood analysis done to look for indicators of lingering infection like those inflammatory markers and oxidative stress.

Neuropsychiatric symptoms are observed in the acute phase of infection, but there is a need for accurate characterization of how symptoms evolve over time, the investigators write.

And particularly for some individuals, symptoms definitely linger. Even some previously high-functioning individuals, who normally worked 80 hours a week and exercised daily, may find themselves only able to function about an hour a day and be in the bed the remainder, Rutkowski says.

The investigators are searching for answers to why and how, and while Rutkowski says she cannot yet answer all their questions, she can tell them with certainty that they are not alone or “crazy.”  

One of the best things everyone can do moving forward is to remain diligent about avoiding infection, including getting vaccinated or boosted to help protect your brain and body from long COVID symptoms and help protect others from infection, Rutkowski says. There is evidence that the more times you are infected, the higher the risk of ongoing problems.

Rutkowski notes that their study findings may be somewhat biased toward high percentages of ongoing symptoms because the study likely is attracting a high percentage of individuals with concerns about ongoing problems.

SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have first infected people in late 2019 and is a member of the larger group of coronaviruses, which have been a source of upper respiratory tract infections, like the common cold, in people for years.

At least part of the reason SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have such a wide-ranging impact is that the virus is known to attach to angiotensin-converting enzyme-2, or ACE2, which is pervasive in the body. ACE2 has a key role in functions like regulating blood pressure and inflammation. It’s found on neurons, cells lining the nose, mouth, lungs and blood vessels, as well as the heart, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. The virus attaches directly to the ACE2 receptor on the surface of cells, which functions much like a door to let the virus inside.

Experience and study since COVID-19 started both indicate immediate neurological impact can include loss of taste and smell, brain infection, headaches and, less commonly, seizures, stroke and damage or death of nerves. As time has passed, there is increasing evidence that problems like loss of taste and smell, can become chronic, as well as problems like brain fog, extreme fatigue, depression, anxiety and insomnia, the investigators write. Persistent conditions including these and others are now referenced as “long Covid.”

The research was supported by funding from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and philanthropic support from the TR Reddy Family Fund.

Read the full study.

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