The Quiet Hero

IMG_2439 Everyday, after finishing his field work at Mapopo community farm, Farmer Chi Ho can been seen collecting food waste from local restaurants and drink shops around Leun Wo Hui. He brings 100kg of egg shells, shredded coconut, soya meal, tea and coffee grounds back to the farm where it is composted and turned into organic plant nutrients used to grow vegetables. Since he works every day, this amounts to Herculean 3 tons per month of reclaimed waste.

Unlike the organic vegetables grown at Mapopo, most of the food we eat today is grown on large scale industrial farms, and shipped from hundreds if not thousands of miles aways. Our food waste, instead of being recycled back into plant nutrients, is discarded into the landfill.

According to government statistics, food waste constitutes  36% of total landfill waste. Hong Konger’s generate 1.99kg of waste per person per day (in Japan it is 1.71kg, Singapore 1.49kg, and South Korea 1.24kg) and our landfills will be full in a couple of years. The governments position is that this requires a massive expansion of landfills that are vigorously opposed by the public, the building of unpopular incinerators  and a few token food waste processing plants. Places such as Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have experienced decreases in landfill waste with the implementation of municipal waste charging fees and recycling programs. These common sense measures, while supported by the public, are opposed by the powerful business interests that select our political leaders.

Landfill expansion is only half the story when food waste is dumped into a landfill. When organic matter, such as food waste, enters our landfill it decomposes anaerobically. This results in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2. Anaerobic decomposition is also what causes the stink from the landfill. In contrast, the aerobic composting method used by Chi Ho not only reduces landfill waste and methane emissions, but also virtually eliminates the stomach churning smell. This method mimics natures closed loop process where nothing goes to waste. It was also used by our ancestors to recover nutrients before the advent of cheap chemical fertilisers and distant farms made composting economically uncompetitive.

Local farms reduce the distance our food travels. This benefits both the environment and the consumer. It benefits the environment through reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And according to a Harvard paper, locally grown produce is not only fresher but also retains more of its nutrients because it spends less time in transit.

While compost has many benefits, without demand for it from growers, it is not economically viable. This is where local farms can play a role in reducing landfill waste by creating demand for compost. Growers in the UK for example, use composted municipal green waste as a growing medium.

Most governments have agricultural policies that encourage local production because they recognise its contribution to food safety and security. The UK’s strictly enforced green belt policy protects agriculture and the countryside from being overwhelmed by real estate development. In contrast, at the behest of powerful business tycoons, the Hong Kong government is trying to ram through the North East corridor development that will displace villagers and turn vast tracts of agricultural land into more concrete jungles.

While the government policy seeks to continue its environmentally destructive path, Chi Ho, with quiet determination, works to turn back the tide of waste one bucket at a time. Although he still does freelance work as video producer and editor, his decision to transition from being media professional to full-time farmer can only be described as making little financial sense. His back-breaking efforts collecting and composting food waste requires heavy physical labor with absolutely no personal reward. We can support his efforts by buying the produce that he grows.

The Business of (Urban) Farming


In a previous article we explored the benefits of urban farming in Hong Kong. The term “urban farming” is commonly used to describe what is in fact gardening – a leisure activity for city dwellers whose hobby is growing vegetables. Farming on the other hand is an industry focused on the production of food. As such, is has entirely different objectives, requirements, scale, methods and business models. Urban farming is subject to the same market forces that affect traditional field farming.

Urban farming, in the food production sense, faces two types of challenges: business and technical. The technical or horticultural challenges unique to urban farms include overcoming the limitations and micro-climate conditions specific to rooftops – which we will explore in the future. Here, we will address only the business challenges. These include (but are not limited to): government policy and space, financing and the business environment, and skilled labour and supplier base.


The first challenge to farming of any kind is securing space. Government policy in Hong Kong explicitly and implicitly favours the property development sector. By definition, it does so at the expense of other sectors such as agriculture. Policies that favour property development encourage speculative, short-term investments that push farmers out of even rural land markets.

Urban farming could theoretically side-step these speculative side effects by putting to use rooftops that have virtually no other use. Unfortunately, the gap in rent between what would be sufficiently financially rewarding for a landlord and what would be financially sustainable for a farmer is simply too large to bridge.


The second major challenge is the lack of financing mechanisms and market distorting subsidies. The problem for urban farming is that many of its benefits, such as reducing CO2 emissions, accrue to society at large and are thus not captured by the investor. From a societal perspective, this results in underinvestment.

Investors also require predictable cash flows. Farm production, unlike other industries, is subject to the vagaries of the weather. In many other regions, farming is supported by generous government subsidies and crop insurance that mitigates the financial impact of bad weather. Without these tools, the business case for farming makes even less sense. (Hong Kong does have a very limited crop insurance program).

The Hong Kong government and many investors favour hydroponic Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) as a technological solution to overcoming the challenge of bad weather, albeit with very high energy use and great environmental costs.

Hong Kong farmers also have the additional burden of competing against “farms” set up by churches and social organisations (YMCA, New Life, Hong Chi, etc) with access to significant financial resources and government subsidies that can operate at a loss indefinitely. This creates market distortions that exacerbates the issue of underinvestment.


Finally, like all industries, agriculture requires skilled labour, know-know and an established supplier base. With the hollowing out of agriculture in Hong Kong, that know-how and supplier base have simply vanished. This however is merely symptomatic of the the preceding issues. When the government levels the playing field for local agriculture, suppliers and practitioners will slowly return.

So what would it take to move the needle on urban farming? First, public pressure for  government policies that create a safer, more secure food system by levelling the playing field. Second, consumer support for local farmers and a cultural shift towards eating seasonal vegetables. Finally, enlightened investors and landlords that integrate environmental sustainability in their core business decision making rather than as an afterthought. Corporations need accounting systems that take into account both the positive and negative externalities of their actions.

As an individual, what can you do right now? First, shop at your local farmers market. Second, when you go to a restaurant, ask “where do these vegetables comes from?” This sends a signal to restaurant owners and suppliers that you care about safe, sustainably sourced produce.

The Pursuit of Love, Success and Happiness

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein, Barak Obama, Dean KamenKarl Lagerfeld, Carolina Herrera, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Micheal Kors, Tom Wolfe, Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol

What do all these accomplished people have in common? They are not pursuing the latest fashion trends and basically wear the same thing all time.  

Hong Kong government statistics show we create 293 tons of textile waste per day. While this is in itself astounding, what is even more vexing is how counterproductive it all is. The purpose of this consumption is ostensibly to make us feel more confident and create a memorable impression. Ultimately helping us find love, success and live the good life. Unfortunately, the pursuit of the latest trends has two huge drawbacks. 


Albert Einstein, the man with undeniably the greatest allocation of human brain power ever to exist on earth, wore the same thing all the time because he didn’t want to waste any of it deciding what to wear. According to Michael Lewis, Barak Obama also does it for the same reason “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. What does this mean for us mere mortals? Should we be wasting our significantly more limited brain power on the trivialities of what to wear? How is it we consider creativity, innovation and problem solving to be keys to success, yet degrade our own mental capacity on a daily basis?

Confidence and Personal Branding

While the rest of us pursue the latest fashion trends trying to “express ourselves” and stand out from the crowd, what are the fashion designers themselves wearing? Uniforms. Dope pushers don’t take dope. According to this fashion insider “When you wear something that just feels right, you are confident. And it is also great to have a trademark look. It makes you memorable and distinctive.” The irony is not only that most successful purveyors of fashion trends encourage us to express our “personal style” by constantly “updating” our wardrobe with mass produced items, but that they do so while wearing the same thing all time themselves.

The worst thing about chasing the latest fashion is how counterproductive it is. By constantly changing our wardrobe, we are not only creating massive amounts of waste (not to mention wasting our money), but are diluting our personal brands, reducing our intellectual and decision making capacity, and ultimately distracting ourselves from what it is we are truly trying to achieve in life. 

At the end of the day, it’s not about what you wear, but what you accomplish.


Rooftop Farming in Hong Kong

DSC_0279The rooftop farm at the Bank of America Tower in Central

Urban farming, usually done on rooftops, has been gaining traction around the world. Its rise can originally be traced to increased awareness of CO2 emissions that result when our food travels hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres from the farm to our table. Leisure vegetable gardening on rooftops has been gaining popularity among city dwellers in Hong Kong. Gardening however, while highly beneficial, cannot scale to address environmental challenges we face. Are production rooftop farms a viable option in mitigating some of these issues?

HKU paper examining green roofs (which includes rooftop farms) concluded that:

“Apart from enhancing the city landscape and environment, mitigating the urban heat island effect and improving air quality, green roof can improve the microlimate and increase the life span of waterproof and insulation facilities on the roof. Consequently, roof greening with a sufficient large scale is conducive to energy conservation and life cycle cost saving for the urban city.

Green roofs can help reduce three of the four top problems facing the society in the next 50 years: energy, water, and environment. In this way, the green roof technology has a potential to improve quality of population health and welfare in the urban areas with dramatically reduced vegetation.”

In addition to the benefits created by generic green roofs, rooftop farms can make a dent in Hong Kong’s reliance on imports for almost 98% of its fresh vegetables. Vegetables however requires more water to grow and pumping water up a 30 story building will reduce the energy savings  of green roofs. Fortunately, growers can mulch (cover) the growing surface to reduce evaporation and install rainwater collection systems to significantly reduce the consumption of tap water.  

In addition to reducing the carbon footprint of our food, urban or rooftop farming also provides fresher, more nutritious produce for consumers. According to this Harvard paper, “foods grown far away that spend significant time on the road, and therefore have more time to lose nutrients before reaching the marketplace.”

Urban farming can also help to address the issue of our ever expanding landfills. Food waste constitutes almost 40% of total landfill waste. This food waste can instead be composted to produce a growing medium highly sought after by organic growers. In Hong Kong, most food waste is not used to make compost in part because there is insufficient local demand for it. Urban farms can create demand for compost, thereby reducing the amount of food waste entering our landfills.

Increasing demand for food waste compost has two other positive side effects. First, as a superior growing medium it can reduce demand for fertilisers. Second, dumping food waste into an anaerobic environment, such as a landfill, produces methane, a greenhouse gas 16 times more powerful than CO2. Composting can reduce the climate change impact of landfills.

While urban farming can help address many of our environmental issues, there remain many challenges that make widespread implementation difficult. In a future article, we will explore these challenges and share our lessons learned.


Economic Growth is Good…or is it?


“Only by maintaining Hong Kong’s stability can we sustain our economic prosperity. Only by sustaining Hong Kong’s prosperity can we improve people’s livelihood.” CY Leung July 1, 2014

This quote encapsulates the argument of the pro-China business groups in Hong Kong.  Their argument is two-fold: (1) that transitioning to a legitimate form of democratically elected government will cause instability and thus reduce economic growth, and (2) that economic growth is necessary to improve peoples lives. While we disagree with both, it is the second assertion that is relevant to the environment. It forms the justification for our most environmentally damaging behaviour.

This is the myth that we are setting out to debunk with some thought experiments. Thought experiments are favoured by scientist and philosophers, while complex models that are to a shocking extent unsubstantiated by empirical evidence are favoured by economists. (Disclosure: your author studied both economics and philosophy at the University of Toronto).

Look at the picture above. What do you see? Local residents sitting under a tree on a hot day? Wrong! That is a potential source of economic growth. Arborist’ could be employed to cut down the tree, drivers to transport it and factory workers to turn it into furniture or paper. It would then be transported back to a store to be sold by a clerk. At every stage of this “value creation” process, people are employed and income is earned resulting in economic growth. We could go even further, the people that had been enjoying the shade of the tree would now need to find another way of staying cool. They would need to occupy air-conditioned buildings. Coal would need to be mined and transported, and power plants operated closer to their maximum capacity. Again creating economic growth albeit without improving peoples lives (except for Li Ka Shing’s). We have not only eliminated a source of enjoyment for people, but made their lives worse off through increased air pollution.

Lets look at a more common good. Bottled water. We know that the most efficient way to transport water is through pipes and that Hong Kong’s water quality is world class. But drinking tap water has one huge drawback. It generates almost no economic activity. On the other hand, bottle water from the tap (which coincidentally is the source for most bottled water) and viola! We have economic growth. People are employed to extract oil, to manufacture plastic bottles, to run bottling factories, to drive trucks to transport it and to stand behind counters to sell it. Every step again generates employment and economic growth. However, we can see that most of the jobs created are low skill and low paying. Not a great way to make a livelihood. So who benefits from this form of economic growth? The investors and brand owners of course. Who might that be? What a coincidence, Li Ka Shing again. And who bears the environmental cost of our ever expanding landfills when these bottles are thrown away? Not the residents of the Peak.

Based on our thought experiments we can conclude that economic growth often does not improve peoples lives (or livelihood), especially when the costs and benefits are inequitably distributed. And that the pursuit of it can result in perverse incentives, and outcomes that can be profoundly damaging to environment and humans. Stay tuned for our next article, when we’ll examine one of the pillars of the Hong Kong economy. Real estate. And you can guess who our protagonist will be.

Summer Greens for Hong Kong

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GGHK Editors Note: Eating local, seasonal vegetables has numerous benefits for both our health and the environment. We benefit from fresher vegetables that are more nutritious and contain fewer pesticides. Cultivated in the right season, plants grow more vigorously making them less susceptible to pests and diseases. By eating seasonally, we can help conventional farmers reduce their use of harmful chemical pesticides. Our usual leafy greens: lettuce, spinach, pak choi, choi sum and kai lan are cool season crops that don’t grow well in the summer.   

The article below was contributed by Joshua Keil, a registered dietitian, with a special interest in food security, and community health. Joshua has experience working with groups and individuals to achieve their nutrition goals in a wide range of conditions including chronic illness, weight loss, and general healthy eating.

Ceylon Spinach, Amaranth (aka Chinese Spinach), Sweet Potato Leaf, and Morning Glory (aka Kangkong) are all dark leafy green vegetables that can be grown in the hot Hong Kong summer. Like many leafy greens, they are very nutritious and should be included regularly in your diet.

All are great sources of Vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy skin, hair, and tissue, improve dim light vision, and new cell growth.

Magnesium is another mineral these plants contain in abundance. It is important in maintaining healthy bones & teeth, maintaining nerve function, and recently has been found to play an important role in blood sugar regulation.

Finally, folate is found in large quantities in all of these vegetables. It can help maintain normal digestion, and is crucial in red blood cell production. Folate deficiency can lead to fatigue and anemia.

We should note that spinach and amaranth (both belong to the same plant family) have popularly been labeled as good sources of iron and calcium (thanks Popeye). However the presence of oxalates, especially in amaranth, make absorbing these two minerals very difficult. You should not rely on these vegetables for these two important minerals, but these plants are still packed with nutrients and should be eaten often.

Nourishing the body through food, is a proven way to improve skin health, and overall wellbeing. Skin care, and other cosmetic products, promise results, but there is very little scientific research to back up those claims. Dark leafy greens, and other fruits and vegetables, provide a wide range of nutrients that keep our bodies healthy from the skin inwards.

Another advantage of consuming these vegetables during the summer months is that they are good replacements for more common Chinese greens, such as Pak Choi and Choi Sum, that are imported from mainland China, where pesticide use is out of control. According to a 2013 Greenpeace report, Mainland China uses more pesticides than any other country in the world, and produce analyzed from several grocery stores contained up to 10 different chemicals on a single item. Being able to purchase local, preferably organic, produce can help us avoid these toxic chemicals.

Since these four vegetables can all be grown locally in summer, it is much less likely they will contain the cocktail of pesticides that can be found on some mainland produce. Even better, seek out farmers that grow food organically, meaning that they don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Continue reading

Water for Free~ Android app is now available for download!

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GREEN RATING Deep Green. Bring your own bottle.

Water for Free is a mobile app (iPhone and Android) and website that shows the locations of public water fountains and dispensers throughout Hong Kong. It is an effort to reduce the vast amounts single-use beverage containers entering our landfills and oceans everyday.

According to the 2011 Waste Statistics issued by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), Hong Kong produces 100 tons of PET plastic waste daily. And the 2012 Waste Statistics shows a 32% increase.  Everyday we dump 132 tones of PET plastic waste into the landfill.  PET plastic is used primarily for single-use beverage bottles. Each bottle weighs about 50 grams and less than 4% is recycled. This means that we throw away more than two million PET bottles per day. Instead of responsibly addressing the waste issue caused by their products, beverage companies spend huge amounts on advertising designed to convince us to buy ever more of their products. The fact that their products are filling up our landfills and killing wildlife – birds, fish and sea turtles eat broken pieces of plastic mistaking it for food – is not their problem. It is ours. So we are asking for your help, please use a reusable beverage bottles.

A Delicious Irony

lettuce in hydroponic system_JPG

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. In a recent Mingpao article titled “Farming can make money”, the purveyors of hydroponically grown produce tout many of its impressive benefits. Chief among them was food safety. 

They rightly point out that much of China’s land is contaminated and its fresh water is polluted. This jeopardises our food safety since most of our food comes from China. They go on to suggest that hydroponic produce, grown in clean water without any soil, is a solution to our food safety problems. What they fail to note is that hydroponic production would in fact exacerbate the food safety problem. To understand why, we need to look at the source of the minerals used in a hydroponic system.

17 elements have been identified as essential for plant growth, 3 of which come from the air and water. The remainder come from the soil or fertilisers. In a hydroponic system, these nutrients are extracted from the earth and chemically processed to feed plants. The materials used to produce the nutrient solutions are either mined or synthesised via energy intensive industrial processesCommon chemicals used in hydroponic systems include:

Calcium nitrates, Potassium nitrates, Magnesium nitrates, Ammonium nitrates, Monopotassium phosphates, Monoammonium phosphates; Potassium sulphates, Magnesium sulphates, Ammonium sulphates, Potassium chlorideMagnesium sulphate heptahydrate; Manganese sulfate monohydrate; Zinc sulfate dihydrate; Boric acid; Sodium molybdate; Copper sulfate pentahydrate and Iron EDTA

Mining is one of if not the single most environmentally devastating activities carried out by mankind. According to the Australian government, these impacts include heavy metal contamination and leaching; the spilling and leaking of chemical agents from the minesite into nearby water bodies and erosion of cleared land surfaces. Thus, the production of minerals for hydroponic systems causes the pollution that it kindly offers to protect us from.

In contrast, organic farming relies on biological (instead of chemical) processes to accomplish the same thing. The primary nutrients are derived from composted animal manures or recycled food processing waste such as bone, peanut and soya meal. Plants with the help of microorganisms (bacteria, fungus) living in the soil extract most of the secondary elements they require for growth directly from the soil. Organic farming mimics nature to create a virtuous cycle in which nutrients are recycled to produce more food. 

Hydroponics creates another type of “virtuous” cycle – a purely profit driven one. The more we contribute to damaging the environment by buying hydroponic produce, the more we are compelled to buy hydroponic produce to protect ourselves from the damage. A great business model indeed.  

Bring Your Own Cup


PRODUCT RATING There are many reusable take-out coffee cups on the market, but the keepcup looks good and works well. It’s easy to use and very easy to clean. It feels good in your hand and against your lips (I hate the feel of those cheap disposable plastic lids against my lips). It is not waterproof, so don’t toss it in your bag when full. It’s not insulated like a thermos. It is a well designed, superior replacement for the plague of single-use cups.

GREEN RATING Deep Green. Over the course of a year, using a reusable cup instead of a disposable one, reduces landfill waste by at least 99%, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions and water use by up to 90% (water is used to make paper). Every minute, 1 million disposable cups are discarded to landfills globally. Most paper coffee cups are lined with plastic, so are NOT recyclable.

PRICE HKD 149 for 340 ml size


Many coffee shops, especially the chains, now serve their coffee in disposable cups regardless of whether you sit-in or take-out. When I attended HKU as an exchange student in 1998, there was a cafe/bistro that served its food and drinks in ceramic and glass ware (and was staffed by disabled people). It has now been replaced by a Starbucks that primarily uses disposable ware. Without waste disposal charges, it is cheaper for them to give us a disposable cup than to pay for a dish washer. As responsible consumers, we need to request a ceramic cup when sitting-in or bring our own cup when taking-out.

Most disposable cups are lined with polyethylene, which makes them NON-recyclable. EPD recycling guidelines specifically direct us NOT to recycle paper cups. This means they end up in the landfill after the 15 minutes it takes most of us to drink a cup of coffee. Annually 500 billion disposable cups are manufactured around the world; that’s about 75 disposable cups for every single person on the planet.

Using a reusable cup is not only the right thing to do for the planet, but also provides us with a superior experience. The keepcup feels solid in your hand and the lid/spout seals nicely against your lips when drinking. You can rotate the tab to close the spout and throw it in your bag when finished drinking. While it’s not completely waterproof, it is significantly more spill-proof than a disposable cup. The cup disassembles for easy cleaning. The nicely rounded edges make it easy to wash.

The keepcup has ml/oz markers on the inside so the barista can correctly measure the right amount of coffee. Some environmentally irresponsible outlets such as fuel espresso in IFC still insist on first pouring their coffee into a disposable cup before pouring it into your reusable cup, thereby completely defeating the purpose of bringing your own cup. Fortunately, there are so many great coffee shops in Hong Kong, we as consumers can chose to frequent the more environmentally responsible ones.

No matter which cup you choose, we encourage you to try bringing your own cup the next time you buy a beverage to go. Your guilt-free coffee will taste so much better.

Year End Carbon Review

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Another year has come and gone. This makes it a good time to review our personal impact on the environment. While we may all proclaim our love of nature and all the beautiful creatures, nice sentiments are not nearly enough. That time has passed, climate change is upon us. We need to be driven by facts, data and most importantly personal accountability. If we want real change, we need to, as Michael Jackson says look at the “man in the mirror”.

The WWF carbon calculator is great way to find out how much carbon pollution we emitted over the past year and track our annual progress (Mobile app for iOS and Android). This app has been localised specifically for Hong Kong residents for greater accuracy. Here is my personal record. Although I’m far from proud of it, it is only by acknowledging and taking ownership of the issue that I can begin to fix it (and reap the benefits of deeper personal development, but more on that another time). 

According to the calculator, my total carbon emissions for 2011 was 8.25 tons (all figures rounded to 0.05).  Of this amount, 2.35 tons was due to air travel which consisted of one business trip to Beijing and one 2-week leisure trip to Taiwan.

In 2012, my carbon emissions declined from 8.25 to 5.9 tons. This was as a result of eliminating air travel. The Hong Kong average is 6.5 tons per person. This average, however, does not include travel. The average would be significantly higher if it were included.

In the last year, my emissions ballooned to 10.95 tons. A trip to New York, to visit family and friends, by itself generated 6.3 tons. This one trip overwhelmed all the efforts made during the last year to reduce my emissions to 4.7 tons. From this record, we can see that the only way I can make meaningful change to my personal carbon emissions is to reduce air travel.

In our modern world, many of us see air travel as almost a necessity. We take leisure trips to get away from the stress of our daily lives. When we review these trips from end to end though, we can see that the benefits are significantly lower than perceived. Lets take a hypothetical 5-day trip to a beach resort in Bali for meditation, massage, yoga and of course the great food.

To take our relaxing trip to Bali, we first need to research, plan and book the trip. This probably takes half a day if not more. Packing our luggage and changing currency, another half day. Getting to airport, checking in, going through customs and immigration takes at a minimum 3 to 4 hours. The flight itself is almost 5 hours. So by the time we arrive in the resort another day is gone. Now we spend the next 3 full days relaxing at the resort. Finally, on our last day, we pack and rush to the airport to make our return journey. To enjoy 3-days of leisure, we have spent  no less than of 3-days doing things that few would consider enjoyable and in most cases are a downright hassle.

We often make new year resolutions to reduce our weight, exercise more, or save more money. This year, lets make a resolution to end the talk and do our part to save the planet.


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