December 3, 2013
In the west, we have a cultural distaste for most bugs. We’re the land of pesticides, systematically going to great lengths to avoid or get rid of them. Even the word “bug” in everyday vernacular has evolved to connote unsavory behavior.
But to the chagrin of the most aversive entomophobes, much of the scientific literature has found that as many as 1,7000 species are not only safe to eat, they’re also nutritiously more beneficial than much of the food we normally consume. Compared to beef, “a six-ounce serving of crickets has 60 percent less saturated fat and twice as much vitamin B-12 than the same amount of ground beef,” according to a PBS NewsHour report. Besides being a good source of lean protein, bugs are genetically distant enough from us that transferable diseases such as mad cow or feral pig disease won’t ever be a concern. There’s a reason why, for 80 percent of the world’s nations, insects are actually an essential part of people’s diets.
Yet, to satiate the culinary preferences of the few, an agricultural system has been set up that devotes over two-thirds of the world’s farmland to raising livestock, while ultimately yielding only half an ounce of cooked beef for every pound of feedlot grain. The sheer amount of grain that goes into producing meat in the United States alone each year is enough to feed nearly 800 million people during that time. Meat production is also responsible for 20 percent of all the greenhouse gases, according to a report in the Guardian.
For San Francisco-based software engineer Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, this approach to food production for a rapidly growing population isn’t only inefficient, it’s simply unsustainable. His response was to develop, along with a team of entomological experts, a DIY open-source bug farming kit that he hopes to make commercially available in the near future, possibly as early as the beginning of 2014.
Each Tiny Farms kit comes with all the necessary equipment, including a bug starter pack, to hatch and cultivate your choice of insect. With an instruction guide, tutorials as well as software to track, manage and interact with a community of bug farmers, novices will be guided through all aspects of the process. Though a purchase price for the kit hasn’t been determined, the company promises the materials will be low cost and readily available worldwide.
The concept was designed for enthusiasts to take advantage of the fact that though the world is already crawling with these potentially edible critters, only a few large-scale, food-grade insect producers exist. Assurances of food-grade sanitation matters because wild insects may be contaminated with pesticides, metals and other chemicals. With the enclosed kits, owners can rear herds for personal consumption (silkworm pancakes, anyone?), to feed other animals or to sell them on the market for as much as $15 per 1,000 crickets.
“The bottleneck now is supply,” Imrie-Situnayak writes on Xconomy. “With only a couple of food-grade insect farms like World Ento and Chirp, the industry’s total production capacity is relatively small. At this moment, any entrepreneur with the resources to start a cricket farm has a guaranteed market for their produce.”
As cold-blooded invertebrates, insects generally don’t expend energy to keep warm and thus require less natural resources to thrive. For instance, they use their exoskeletons to seal in and preserve water when it’s hot rather than sweating the way mammals do. The United Nations, in encouraging insect consumption, points out that insects, such as crickets, require six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs to reap the same amount of protein. On the whole, they’re much easier to raise.
“Insect rearing can be very simple and low-tech. Also, unlike grazing mammals, they don’t need large horizontal areas to live in, and they can be stacked in a vertical environment for maximum efficiency of limited space,” Phil Torres, a conservation biologist at Cornell University, tells Modern Farmer. “Many insects certainly do adapt well to farm-like environments. Numerous species can be raised in high densities, especially compared to mammals, so you can get a much higher nutritional output per unit area used to raise them.”
Besides Tiny Farms, a growing number of eco-conscious bugstock advocates are exploring various tacts to help change people’s perceptions of insects as food. In Spain, bug farmer Laetitia Giroud raises crickets to be milled into an unrecognizable fine powder that can be used as an ingredient in desserts such as cookies. And in Montreal, a team of students from McGill Univeristy has been awarded the 2013 Hult Prize ($1 million) to start grasshopper farms in developing regions in Mexico, Thailand and Kenya. The resulting yields would then be grounded and turned into flour for bread and other baked goods.
Tom Turpin, an entomologist at Purdue University and fellow insectivore, argues however that the only way for insect farming to reverse some of the environmental strain brought about by meat production is to scale it up to a similarly massive level. “It doesn’t mean we couldn’t do it,” he tells Business Insider. “But we haven’t spent the time culturing insects in the way we have cultured plants and animals for that food purpose.”
But for now, perhaps the biggest hump continues to be that much of the world’s food-producing systems and the communities built around them also depends on the eradication of bugs, rather than the harvesting of them. While agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and British Locust Control are geared toward preserving important crops such as wheat and barley, there’s a certain misguided irony in such efforts to wipe out swarms of insects that are essentially complete proteins in order to protect an incomplete one.
November 26, 2013
No one will ever confuse Detroit with Eden. Many, in truth, would consider it just the opposite—a place rotting from the the inside, broke and blighted and iconically grim.
So it’s not just ironic, it actually borders on inconceivable that the city is now being cited as a pioneer in urban rejuvenation—specifically, the trend of bringing farms and gardens back to the inner city.
Detroit took a big step in that direction last month when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement allowing the Hantz Group, a Michigan-based network of financial services companies, to take over about 1,500 parcels of land on the city’s east side and start demolishing abandoned buildings. Once the lots are cleared, the company plans to plant 15,000 trees, mainly maples and oaks.
Originally, Hantz floated the idea of converting the land to fruit orchards and Christmas tree farms, with the notion that they could provide neighborhood residents with both jobs and fresh produce. After objections that all that fruit could attract rats, the company scaled back to only hardwood trees, for the time being. The first step, Hantz officials acknowledge, is to show a commitment to getting a lot of trees in the ground while building trust with neighbors. There could, after all, be some dicey discussions ahead on such touchy subjects as the use of pesticides.
Critics say Hantz got one sweet deal—it paid a little more than $500,000 for the lots, or about $350 per parcel—and they’re dubious about its long-term commitment to the greening of Detroit. Company officials insist they’re in this for the long haul and say that they will spend another $3 million over the next three years, not to mention that they’ll be paying property taxes on land that hasn’t been generating any revenue for the city.
A lot of other cities are watching closely to see how this plays out. Is it an answer to reviving city neighborhoods in a relentless downward spiral? Will it make a difference only if built around large-scale projects like what Hantz has in mind? Or is all the talk of inner-city farms and orchards just the latest urban renewal fantasy?
For several years now, Mayor Dave Bing has been boosting urban agriculture as one of the keys to revitalizing Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now running the bankrupt city, signed off on the Hantz deal in October. Also, last year, the city became one of the partners in a Michigan State University program focused on developing innovative ways to grow crops and trees on vacant city lots.
Detroit has a lot more of those than most cities—more than 60,000—but this is becoming a common problem. A Brookings Institution study found that between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. jumped by 44 percent.
That’s a lot of empty space out there.
For dramatic effect, no trend in the greening of cities can top vertical gardens, which started out as plant-covered walls, but have evolved into skyscrapers draped in vegetation. It’s only fitting that French botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the concept back in 1988, is behind what will soon become the world’s tallest vertical garden, one that will cover much of the exterior of a 33-story condo going up in Sydney, Australia. Almost half of the building’s exterior will be covered in vegetation—actually, 350 different species of plants. The effect, says Blanc, is to replicate the side of a cliff.
It’s easier being green
Here are other recent developments in the urban agriculture boom:
- Let’s go downtown and pick some apples: Earlier this year, a Vancouver business named Sole Food Farms converted an old gas station into North America’s largest urban orchard. It grew 500 fruit trees, mainly apple, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, with the goal of not only selling organic food to local restaurants, but also providing jobs to recovering addicts and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
- Bargain basements: On Cleveland’s East Side, a designer named Jean Loria has created what she says is the “world’s first biocellar.” It follows her notion of reusing abandoned homes by tearing them down, then reinforcing the existing basements and topping them with slanted, greenhouse-like roofs that would make it possible to grow crops inside. Powered by solar energy and irrigated with harvested rain water, the odd-looking structures, says Loria, could be used for growing strawberries, mushrooms and other organic food.
- You too can be a farmer: Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing local municipalities to lower property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners commit to growing food on them for at least five years. The program is voluntary, but it’s designed to motivate cities to create “urban agriculture incentive zones.”
- And here’s a new twist: The design of a skyscraper planned for Berlin is, on its own, pretty imaginative—its curved design creates a figure-8 shape. But the architects want the building, called Green8, to to wrap around multiple levels of vertical gardens that fill up the structure’s hollow sections. And all the greenery isn’t cosmetic—the intent is to include gardens, small orchards and mini-farms to provide fresh produce for the people who live there.
- Dirt is so overrated: For those who want to get in on the urban ag boom, but don’t have much farmable land, there’s GrowCube. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a device that works like a rotisserie of circling shelves while spraying a nutrient-filled mist directly on a plant’s roots. Its inventors acknowledge that since no dirt is involved, the growing process is “much more fragile” than conventional agriculture, but they point out that it uses 95 percent less water.
Video bonus: It’s a TED talk, so this video is a little long, but it would be hard to find a better evangelist for city farming than Ron Finley, who wants to train residents in South Central LA to grow their own food.
Video bonus bonus: One of the better-known urban farming operations in the U.S. is the Brooklyn Grange, which has been making a go of growing crops on large city rooftops. Here’s the trailer from the new documentary, Brooklyn Farmer.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And, to add a little snark to the mix, here’s a take on being an urban farmer from Funny or Die.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 1, 2013
During World War II, amid a gasoline shortage, many European commuters had to improvise, often resorting to installing clunky power generators that converted wood into fuel for their engines. (Check out this rig!) But once fossil fuels were readily available again, these briefly popular machines were, for the most part, tossed into the dustbin of history.
Today, in a renovated former artists’ space in Berkeley, an alternative energy startup, has slowly begun resurrecting this more than century-old technology known as gasification. Over the course of five years, All Power Labs has sold over 500 made-to-order versions of their signature invention, a $27,000 refrigerator-sized biomass-converting device called the “Power Pallet.” Customers, most of whom reside in poorer countries like Ecuador, Haiti, Thailand and Nicaragua, obviously are drawn to the fact that the contraptions can generate clean burning fuel for about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, about one-sixth of what power companies typically charge. But that’s not the only perk.
Syngas, the synthetic fuel that’s produced from gasification, is created by putting biomass such as corn husks or wood chip through a decomposition process known as “pyrolysis,” where the combination of a low oxygen environment and heat removes impurities while leaving behind a byproduct known as biochar. A nutrient rich charcoal, biochar can be used as fertilizer to help grow trees, crops and many other kinds of plants that scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Technically speaking, the Power Pallet system may be the only carbon-negative energy technology on the market, meaning the entire gasification process removes more carbon dioxide than it generates.
“When you think about it, nature’s most tried and tested tool to take carbon out of the air is plants,” says Tom Price, the company’s sales director. “If you can grow a tree, you can capture a big chunk of what’s causing global warming.”
The company, made up of artists who occupied what was an artist space known as “The Shipyard,” can credit the city of Berkeley for inadvertently kickstarting their enterprise. A series of code violations left officials no choice but to shut down the facility’s electricity, thus forcing the residents to experiment with alternatives like solar, which didn’t work out so well due to higher costs. Gasification came about as an accidental discovery that began the day the company’s CEO Jim Mason found an old instruction manual and decided to piece one together using old plumbing parts. Since then, Price says the standard art has gone away and the new art has been about looking at ways to hack the global energy problem.
Since we’re talking about resurrecting old technology, many of the kinks that made gasification an unappealing option back then still exist. For instance, gasification machines require a large amount of water filtration, which leaves behind what Price calls a “toxic mess.”
“Solid fuel is very difficult to use compared to gas. You basically have to charcoalize biomass to create a vapor rich in hydrogen to run an engine, which isn’t as easy as piping it out of the ground and refining it,” Price explains. “So liquid fuels, in most cases, are preferable in all respects except one; they are killing the planet.”
Undeterred, the team tapped into the unwavering “maker spirit” that Silicon Valley’s tech scene has become renowned for and started testing out ways to apply the latest automation innovations, such as sensors and process computerization, to regulate parts of the reaction chain. The idea was that if they could control crucial aspects like the smoldering temperature and cracking of the tar with precision, they could eliminate the need for water filtration. Ultimately, what they did was give the old gasifier a high-tech makeover.
Over the phone, Price mentions that he recently sold a Power Pallet to a family living in a rural part of Iowa. Yet, he doesn’t think gasification would make sense for filling the need for energy in the developed world—not now at least. Pumping out hydrogen gas to the degree that it’s practical involves bringing in truckloads of wood and whatever usable forms of biomass are available. And in urban settings, like New York City, for instance, infrastructure is already built so that centralized power plants can supply electricity in a manner that’s convenient for everyone. Even so, Price finds this approach to be not only environmentally unfriendly, but also very inefficient, considering that communities have to rely on sources like coal and constantly-maintenanced power lines to keep buildings and streetlights running. The most fertile ground for developing and implementing a new, less centralized power grid system, he argues, are undeveloped regions of the world that have remained largely agricultural.
“We don’t have the automation to where you can push a button and it goes. This is machinery that requires a trained operator,” Price says.”But when you’re in a place in which the alternatives are either nothing or something very expensive, the effort becomes worth it.”
An example of a situation in which the company’s technology has enabled locals to operate a fully self-sustainable business can be found in Kampala, Uganda, where product engineer Richard Scott helped another local energy startup named Pamoja Cleantech to develop gasifiers that use leftover corn cobs as an energy source for corn flour mills. Instead of being left out to spoil, growers not only can turn the crops into cash, they can also turn the discarded bits back into fuel to run the mills.
With business booming, the All Power Labs team has shifted some of its focus toward developing new reactors that can run longer, with less maintenance, and use a wider variety of biomass, like rice husks, found in abundance in large swaths of farmland in Asia. He hopes that in five years these machines can make fuel from any form of biomass.
“No one’s trying to pass this off as a new idea. Heck, there’s even open source blueprints on our website that you can download and use to build your own,” he adds. “But sometimes, the best ideas are the ones we already had.”
October 24, 2013
We have a drug problem.
Only this time we need drugs, specifically antibiotics. The problem is that more germs are becoming resistant to the antibiotics doctors have been using for a long time, resulting in “superbugs” from which even the National Institutes of Health couldn’t protect itself.
One reason, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned yet again in a report last month, is that doctors continue to be overzealous in prescribing antibiotics. Case in point: A new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of the cases where people came in complaining of sore throats—this despite the fact that only 10 percent of those patients had strep throat, the only sore throat antibiotics can cure.
On top of that, Big Agriculture aggressively uses antibiotics both to keep healthy animals from getting sick and to help them grow faster. And while all this excessive use of antibiotics is making them less and less effective, the pharmaceutical industry has dramatically scaled back research into new infection-fighting drugs because it’s not a very profitable line of business.
Some public health experts fear that unless scientists are able to develop new antibiotics soon, we could regress into pre-penicillin days, when everyday infections killed people. Even the CDC, which points out that more than 23,000 people in America die from infections caused by resistant bacteria every year, says we could be facing “potentially catastrophic consequences.”
Turning drugs off
There’s the conventional strategy to dealing with the threat—earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committed to pay the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline as much as $200 million over the next five years to try to develop new antibiotics.
But more innovative approaches are also taking shape. Consider the research of a team of scientists in the Netherlands. They’re focusing on a way to deactivate antibiotics after they’ve been used, so that they no longer accumulate in the environment, which is what spurs the development of resistant superbugs. They’ve determined that if the molecules in antibiotics can be made to change their shape, they become ineffective. And the researchers have found they can use heat or light to do just that. In short, they’re developing ways to turn off antibiotics before they break bad.
Or take the researchers at McMaster University in Ontario who argue that the typical practice of growing bacteria in a nutrient-rich lab environment doesn’t really reflect what happens when we get an infection. Our bodies can be far less hospitable than that, forcing bacteria to grow their own nutrients. The researchers did an exhaustive search of 30,000 chemical compounds, with the goal of identifying some that block the ability of bacteria to create nutrients. They honed in on three. But they feel pretty good about those three. Now the trick is to see if they can be turned into effective antibiotics.
As one scientist put it, the McMaster researchers went “fishing in a new pond.” With luck, that might be what it takes.
Here’s more recent research on the battle against bacteria:
- That inner glow: It’s not unusual for bacteria to attach themselves to medical implants, such as bone screws, and develop into serious infections before anyone notices. A team of researchers in the Netherlands, however, may have developed an early warning system. By injecting fluorescent dye into an antibiotic, they were able to see where bacteria was growing. The process could lead to a far less invasive way to check for infections with surgery involving implants.
- Thinking small: Scientists at Oregon State are taking yet another approach to attacking bacteria—they’ve narrowed their targeting down to the gene level. That’s seen as a much more precise way to battle infections, one that’s less likely to cause collateral damage. Said lead researcher Bruce Geller: “Molecular medicine is the way of the future.”
- Say no to drugs: At Duke University, scientists say they’ve developed a blood test that can identify viral infections in people with serious respiratory problems. The test, they say, could significantly reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Since it can be hard to distinguish between viral sore throats, such as those that come with a cold, and bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a lot of doctors still prescribe antibiotics that end up not doing any good. The blood test could take the guessing—and pointless antibiotics—out of the treatment.
- Now will you eat your yogurt?: It figures that one way to fight the bad side effects of some antibiotics would be by loading up on probiotics. Research published earlier this year found that probiotic supplements reduced the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by 64 percent.
- All this and super lice, too?: Public health officials in the U.S. have told doctors to be on the lookout for a new strain of “super lice” that have become immune to shampoos and medications containing antibiotics.
- Then again, they are termites: According to scientists at the University of Florida, the reason termites are so disease-resistant is that they use their own feces in building their nests. That promotes the growth of bacteria, which stifles pathogens. The researchers said that their findings could eventually result in new antibiotics for humans, but it might be better if they spare us the details.
Video bonus: Here’s another take on the superbug threat.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 26, 2012
Over the next few days you’re going to see a lot of the London Eye, the giant slow-spinning Ferris wheel along the Thames River, particularly since during the Olympics it will be portrayed as a massive mood ring, changing color every night to reflect what people have been tweeting about the Games. If tweeters are feeling good about what’s going on, it will glow yellow. If not, it will turn morosely purple.
What you’re less likely to see is the vertical garden covering the corner of the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair or the one at the Edgeware Road Underground station or the one climbing 14 stories up the side of an apartment building on Digby Road in Central London.
Which is a shame, because while none of these walls are able to change color to reflect the whims of Twitter Nation, they are choice examples of one of the more pleasing architectural innovations trending in cities around the world.
But they’re much more than urban eye candy. Last week a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that green walls planted strategically could help cut pollution in cities by as much as 30 percent, almost 10 times more than previously thought.
The key, say the researchers, is that green walls can filter out pollution not just at street level, as trees can, but much higher up in urban canyons. Their computer models suggested that grasses, ivy and flowers attached to the sides of walls and buildings could be even more effective at cleaning the air than plants in parks or on rooftops.
Some have taken to calling this “vegitecture.” Not so easy on the ears, but the point is to give props to vegetation as a valuable component of architecture. It’s how the firm Capella Garcia Arquitectura describes the vertical garden it built to cover an unsightly wall on a Barcelona apartment building last year. Using steel scaffolding erected next to building, they essentially created a stack of huge planters layered more than 60 feet high. And, thanks to an interior staircase hidden by the plants, a person can enter this hanging garden from the inside and take a break from the city’s whirl on one of the wooden benches.
But for all the talk of urban canyons, you don’t see many vertical gardens on the sides of skyscrapers. Most are still about style more than function, such as the verdant coating around the windows of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, or the wild, multi-layered facade of the CaixaForum Museum in Madrid. Both are the creations of Patrick Blanc, a botanist turned landscape architect whose hair matches his walls and who designed the system of metal frame, PVC pipe and nonbiodegradeable felt that makes it possible for plants to take root on vertical surfaces without the need for soil.
Architects in Mexico City, working for a non-profit called VERDMX, have taken a slightly different approach. They’ve erected three towering “eco-structures,” shaped like upside down L’s and U’s and ringed with vegetation. The hope is that they will help clear Mexico City’s notoriously nasty air. But pollution dies hard. Exhaust from cars on nearby streets already is causing some withering on the vines.
Here are more recent examples of cities going natural:
- Yes, we have new bananas: What do you mean, you can’t grow bananas in Paris? Sure, you can’t now, but SOA, a French architectural firm, wants to make it so. They just unveiled plans to build a vertical banana plantation inside an old building on a busy Paris street. The place would be gutted and turned into an urban greenhouse, with trees, under artificial lights, growing inside. There will be a research lab, a restaurant and the obligatory gift shop, but mainly it will be banana trees. And all will be visible from the street through a clear glass wall.
- Trees and supertrees: Probably the most spectacular urban homage to nature is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which opened last month. It has two lakes, two glass conservatories, many gardens and 700,000 plants. But the real showstoppers are the 18 steel supertrees, some more than 150 feet tall. Each is a vertical garden, its “trunk” wrapped in ferns and tropical climbing plants. Many are also solar towers, with photovoltaic cells on their canopies creating the energy that lights them up at night.
- Down on the farm in Motor City: Detroit and Michigan State University announced an agreement last month to develop a major urban agriculture research program that likely would include converting abandoned buildings into multi-tiered farms.
- Waste not, want not: A former pork processing plant in Chicago is being transformed into a combination urban farm, fish hatchery and brewery. Called The Plant, it’s set up so the waste from one part of the operation serves as raw material for another, making it a net-zero energy system.
- Start spreadin’ the moos: Who’d have thunk it? New York has become a leader in the burgeoning world of rooftop farming. And it’s no longer just little community gardens up there. Now two for-profit companies are in the mix, Gotham Greens, which started a farm on a Brooklyn rooftop last year and has three more in the works, and Brooklyn Grange, which has been farming a one-acre roof in Queens and now is also growing squash, tomatoes and scallions atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Video bonus: See where it all started in this BBC piece on Patrick Blanc, the green-haired Frenchman who turned vertical gardening into urban architecture.
More from Smithsonian.com