Get the scoop on some hot-topic environmental current events — including a repurposed plant in Chicago using sustainable vertical farming methods, an investigation into the Food and Drug Administration’s failures, new discoveries on fungi communication, and overlooked contaminated waterways.
It’s like no other farm you’ve ever seen. The crops are lettuce, basil, and microgreens — young vegetables that are 1 to 3 inches high. They grow in trays that stretch across an enormous room. LED lamps cast their eerie light on the plants. Most amazingly of all, these crops are thriving in a 97-year-old converted pork-processing facility in Chicago called The Plant.
This repurposed building is home to five vertical farms, a form of urban agriculture that emphasizes locally grown foods cultivated in pristine conditions and without chemical fertilizers. John Edel, founder and director of Bubbly Dynamics LLC, the company that owns The Plant, says, “We call this (The Plant) a vertical farm because we’re growing on multiple levels.”
In addition to the vertical farms, The Plant incubates 19 other food-related businesses, including three breweries, a bakery, a cheese distributor, a coffee roaster, and a chocolatier.
The processes used by the farms at The Plant are environmentally sustainable. Edel explains, “There’s a mix of hydroponics and soil-growers in the building. One of the advantages of growing in a building is that there are no insects.” So, there’s no need to use pesticides or herbicides.
But that’s not the only advantage of operating indoors. Urban Eden, one of the farms at The Plant, grows crops using aeroponics, in which the roots of the plants dangle in the air, and mechanical devices puff them with mist. Aeroponics systems use 95% less irrigation than traditional agriculture does. And in laboratories housed at The Plant, food scientists are also researching potential uses of algae and cellular agriculture — growing meats and vegetables at the cellular level.
The businesses at The Plant feature closed-loop systems, in which producers use waste products to help fuel the manufacturing process. For example, the Whiner Beer Company, located on the first floor of The Plant, salvages ingredients used in beer production to bake bread and to create compost.
You can learn more about this unique agricultural hub at Inside The Plant.
Who and What Is the Avian Flu Impacting?
A highly pathogenic strain of avian flu has spread through bird populations across the United States this year. As of this writing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 40 million poultry birds have been affected. This has sparked the mass culling of flocks to stem the spread. For humans, the virus has so far posed little physical threat, with only one human case reported to the CDC, but many scientists and governments are concerned about potential spillover into humans. There’s much evidence that intensive factory farming of poultry is driving up the risk of more strains — and more dangerous strains — of avian flu.
The spreaders seem to be migrating waterfowl, especially ducks. Songbirds are low-risk for catching and spreading the disease, so no need to take down the feeders, but anyone with chickens should watch for signs of the disease. Look for reduced appetite and egg production as well as a swollen head. The surest way to know is to take the animals to a lab and get them tested.
For those who buy eggs, expect high prices. Prices are just reaching the previous peak caused by the last avian flu outbreak (2015). This outbreak is worse, so egg costs may continue to climb.
Investigation Reveals FDA Focuses More on Drugs Than Food
According to a monthslong Politico investigation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been failing at half its namesake: It’s all drug and no food administration. Apparently, according to the investigation, even commissioners at the agency slip up sometimes and say the “F” stands for “federal.”
One of the most potentially harmful failures of the agency has been its inability to set standards for agricultural water to keep certain contaminants off fresh produce. The agency was instructed to set such a standard by a food safety law, which passed in the wake of a deadly E. coli outbreak in 2006. The agency has tried, but, according to Politico, its 2015 policy was too complicated and based on outdated science. It hasn’t stuck.
Politico‘s 8,000-plus-word piece offers plenty of examples of the FDA’s shortcomings regarding protecting our food, but the explanation can be boiled down to structural issues within the organization. It tells the story of a lumbering bureaucracy made more dysfunctional by intra-department competition. So, what’s an average citizen to do with this information?
In the wake of COVID-19, the FDA’s asymmetry has only gotten worse. Once we get sick, the FDA is there for us. Until then, we might be on our own.
Read the full FDA investigation from Politico.
School on Growing Offers a Course on Eating
What’s the point of organic farming if there’s no market for organic products? The Rodale Institute has a long history of helping farmers convert to organic practices, but now it’s also offering a course on being an organic consumer.
As many environmental activists have turned their energies toward effecting the production side of the economy, or “system change,” this new course from Rodale recognizes that the “system” is actually a two-way street. If activists want federal regulations pushing regenerative farming practices, for example, then they’ll need to help create the popular will for it.
The course, titled “Being a Regenerative Consumer,” is simple, with engaging videos. It provides a basic overview of what regenerative organic farming is and why it’s important for the health of consumers. In part, the course seems like a promotion for Rodale’s own food label, Regenerative Organic Certified. This label adds two criteria to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic label: animal welfare and social fairness (how workers are treated and paid).
Beyond that, the final video offers five tips on how to be an organic consumer. Some of them are specifically catered to consumers who might find organic products too expensive. One fresh tip: Try organic gardening.
Learn more and enroll in the regenerative consumer course at Rodale Institute.
Washington State Decides to Sell Preservation
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is setting aside 10,000 acres of forest to sell as carbon offsets, meaning the land will be sold to people who want to do nothing whatsoever with it. They just want to let it be.
In an Op-Ed published in The Seattle Times, Washington state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege argues that the DNR is acting against its fiduciary responsibility to the communities that depend on funds generated by the sale of logging rights in state forests. But the commissioner of public lands behind the decision, Hilary Franz, believes the sale of these carbon offsets will generate “tens of millions of dollars,” per a report from The Associated Press. If Franz is right, then it seems the carbon offset market has started to make some forests more valuable uncut than cut.
In terms of carbon emissions, the question of ‘do carbon offset programs really help pollution control‘ is still unanswered. Echoing the most common criticism of offsets, Van De Wege argues that they “allow industrial polluters to keep polluting.”
Look Who’s Talking Now: Mushrooms?
There’s a venerated history of research on the language of animals. In the 1970s, Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize for studying the rhythm of bees’ bottoms and deciphering a precise language from their “waggle dances.” Now, publishing in Royal Society Open Science, researcher Andrew Adamatzky claims to have discovered that even mushrooms have a language.
During experiments, Adamatzky plugged an array of electrodes into objects colonized by certain fungi, such as a stick or a bucket. Over stretches of hours, he measured spikes in electrical signals that seemed to resemble words.
The research builds on a growing understanding of the role of fungi in forests — not just in the process of decomposition, but in a symbiotic relationship that facilitates communication between trees as they adapt to threats, such as insects or disease. So, if the mushrooms are listening and responding, and a tree falls in the woods, there may indeed be someone around to hear it.
New Report Details Weakness in Clean Water Act
On the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a nonprofit started by a group of former Environmental Protection Agency attorneys is raising the alarm over America’s polluted waterways. In a scathing report, the Environmental Integrity Project found that, of all the tested rivers and streams in the country, about half are “impaired,” meaning you’d get sick if you swam in them or ate fish from them.
The Clean Water Act requires states to report on their waterways every 6 to 10 years, but because of lack of funding and inconsistent standards among states, not all waterways get tested. In the latest reporting, only 27% of the country’s rivers and streams were tested.
The report points out a key weakness in the Clean Water Act: a lack of enforcement for runoff, or “non-point source,” pollution. Meaning, the Act has teeth when it comes to factories piping out pollutants, but it’s got nothing on fertilizer runoff, like that which contributes to the annual dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River, or street runoff, like that which is killing salmon runs in Washington state.