Green Common

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Green Monday is a social enterprise that promotes vegetarian diets by cooperating with restaurants, schools, hospitals and other enterprises. Vegetarian diets have been widely recognised to provide both health and environmental benefits. “Green Monday” is an ingenious way to get non-vegetarians to start thinking about eating a vegetarian meal once a week. It publishes meat-free menus and recipes, hosts vegetarian cooking classes and provides educational talks on diets and nutrition. Recently, they expanded their business to retail, opening a vegetarian supermarket in Wanchai called Green Common. I dropped by one afternoon to check it out.

The decor is minimalist and cool. Organic vegetables are prominently displayed near the entrance. Some of the produce is locally sourced. Shelves inside are full of vegetarian products - gone are the days of vegetarian food being bland and uninteresting. The wide array of ingredients and seasonings from all over the world lets you experience vegetarianism without sacrificing flavour, nutrition or variety.

It also caters to the many office workers nearby by selling vegetarian sushi and cold noodle lunch boxes. Unfortunately, since I stopped eating take-away food for a number of years (because I don’t want to create unnecessary plastic waste), I was unable to try any of the yummy looking vegetarian meals. In addition to vegetarian food, there are healthy drinks. In the display fridge, are fresh fruit juices in plastic bottles ($28 for 250ml) and coconut water in glass bottles (not sure why coconut juice needs to be bottled when it comes naturally in a perfectly good container).

This brings back memories to when I used to work in this neighbourhood. At that time, there were many fresh fruit juice stands on this section of Queen’s Road East. After lunch, I would buy a freshly squeezed fruit juice from one of these stands ($6 per cup). Time flies and a decade has since passed. With Urban Renewal projects, all the fruit juice stands were eliminated to be replaced by vendors that could afford higher rents.

However, you don’t have to buy a drink at Green Common – they offer filtered Water for Free if you bring your own bottle. It used to be very difficult to refill your water bottle on this part of Queen’s Road East. You actually needed to go up to the 9th floor of the Social Welfare department headquarters or the 23rd floor of the senior citizen centre to find a water dispenser. The irony is that while the Social Welfare department understands the public’s need for free drinking water, the Environmental Protection Department’s Resource Centre located on Queen’s Road East (opposite of Green Common) doesn’t realise that they can reduce plastic waste simply by installing a water dispenser. Fortunately, Green Common is bearing its social responsibility by offering filtered water for free to the public (no purchase required). We really hope that there are more enterprises and organisations that will do the same.

If you spot new water fountain or dispenser which are not already shown in our app Water for Free, please kindly notify us via email waterforfreehk@gmail.com。

GM Foods Part 2: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?

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Spraying Roundup herbicide on Roundup Ready crops to kill weeds

By Kristian Johnson. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.

In Part 1, the potential of GMOs to fundamentally change the way we grow food was explored. Of course it isn’t all upside and there is risk when transitioning technology from the lab to the field. But as GM technology is just a plant breeding tool, it’s more pressing to look at the context in which it’s being used and to what end. As of now it has been reduced to a bandaid for maintaining an unsustainable system of industrial farming. Because of this, claims that GM crops can benefit humans (by improving the nutritional content) and the environment (by reducing chemical use on farms) have not been realized.

GM crops are by current metrics safe to humans and the environment. They are without a doubt less harmful than pesticides sprayed on open fields that contaminate water supplies and nearby forests. Regardless, there are reasons to be careful, changing the complex dynamics of ecosystems will have consequences. Crops engineered to kill insects could disrupt natural ecosystems. Another concern is the unlikely possibility that the engineered genes may be passed on to other species via cross-pollination. This could spread herbicide resistance on to weeds or unintentionally kill beneficial insects.

The biggest issue is what GM technology is being used in service of – propping up our current system of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture involves growing monocultures or miles and miles of a single crop. While maximizing efficiency, it sacrifices the resiliency of a farm in the face of pest and plant diseases by completely destroying the ecology for the purpose of growing one crop. With only a single crop, pest and diseases can spread like wildfire causing great damage. Hence, these fields require extremely potent chemical pesticides to protect them.

For industrial farms to switch to alternative systems based on creating diversity and balance to counter pest and disease (such as organic farming) requires a complete transformation and significant input of labor. Rather than radically change, industrial agriculture is turning to GMOs, in some cases to replace chemicals. The reality is that GM technology when paired with monocultures leaves it vulnerable to adaptation by weeds and insects, quickly making the technology obsolete.

Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a naturally occurring bacterium that is commonly sprayed on crops by organic farmers to kill pests. Monsanto developed a line of corn seeds genetically engineered to produce it’s own Bt, thereby eliminating the need to spray it. In order to ensure pests do not develop resistance to Bt, scientists recommended planting 50% of a field with ‘refuges’ of non-Bt engineered crops. Insects in the ‘refuges’ would not develop resistance to Bt (because they are not exposed to it). These non-resistant insects would ideally mate with any surviving resistant insects from the fields that were planted with Bt-engineered crops thereby diluting the overall genetic resistance of the insect population.

Arguing that the requirement to plant 50% of a field with non-Bt engineered seeds would effectively cuts yield in half, agribusiness and farmers lobbied to bring it down to 5%. These refuges were so small as to be ineffective. Thus the whole system had to rely on the performance of the Bt toxin to kill all the pests so that there would be no survivors to transmit the resistance gene. However, not every plant produces the same level of the Bt toxin. This creates a chink in the armor that some insects, like the corn rootworm, can exploit. In 2009, rootworms developed resistance to two strains of Bt toxin, resulting in heavy crop losses for farmers. Interestingly, organic farmers have been spraying Bt on crops for decades with no reported incidences of resistance to Bt developing in pests. This illustrates some of the unforeseeable consequences of genetic engineering.

GM research has also been focused on developing crop species that are resistant to herbicides or weed killers. In order to enable farmers to spray herbicide without also killing their crops, the crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to the weed killer. Roundup, Monsanto’s most successful herbicide is highly effective, less toxic than alternatives and above all cheap. Monsanto engineered a line of corn and soya seeds that are resistant to Roundup. This created a double win for Monsanto – sales of both Roundup Ready seeds and Roundup herbicide increased.

Farmers began to indiscriminately spray Roundup because they could now kill weeds without also damaging crops currently planted in the ground (previously they were limited to spraying herbicides before planting). This quickly led to the rise of superweeds that are resistant to it. In order to deal with the superweeds, farmers resorted to also spraying more toxic alternatives, like 2,4-D (a cousin of infamous Agent Orange). Predictably Monsanto is developing GM crops that are resistant to both 2,4-D and Roundup.

This increased use of herbicides completely offset the decrease in use of pesticides. Pesticide sales fell as a result of Bt-engineered crops, but herbicide usage jumped by 239 million kilos. From 1996 to 2011, total chemical use on farms increased by 7% thanks to genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops. Genetic engineering thus created unknown risks without providing any benefit to the environment.

In spite of all these drawbacks and risks, what can’t be ignored is that GM technology is one of the cleanest new tools of modern agriculture. While technology can improve how we breed new plants, the result is ultimately dependent how and to what end we apply it. GM technology should not be used to try and save an unsustainable system of industrial agriculture. The next wave of GMOs also shouldn’t be used to create seeds to promote the use of toxic herbicides such as Roundup or 2,4-D. GM technology should be used instead to develop disease resistant and nutrient enhanced versions of global staples such as cassava, thereby improving the lives of many in the developing world. Combined with sustainable practices such as those found in organic farming, GM technology when used responsibly could point to a new way forward for agriculture.

GM Foods Part 1: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?

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By Kristian Johnson. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm.

Part 1 explains the history and benefits of GMOs. Part 2 will examine the risks and issues. 

Modern agriculture’s practice of growing monoculture crops with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers makes it one of the most environmentally destructive human activities. Almost nothing compares to the catastrophic levels of deforestation, toxification of water resources, and soil exhaustion that results directly from conventional chemical farming. But we need low-cost food to feed the world and therefore we need modern agriculture. Genetically engineering staple crops, to reduce pest infestation and boost their nutritional content, may be able to reduce the impact of modern agriculture, increase yields for a hungry planet, and lower rates of nutrient deficiency in the developing world.

The portrayal of DNA in popular culture unhelpfully overemphasizes its influence. DNA is not a rigid blueprint dictating our fate, but rather a library stretching beyond view, crammed with manuals describing in detail how our body works. Depending on environmental conditions, some manuals are pulled from the shelf and read while others remain untouched. Each cell carries this library within its nucleus. The function of DNA is to provide these manuals, written in a code, for directing protein creation. Proteins are multipurpose workers that do the most important tasks in the cell. Scientists can cut DNA strands and insert new, lab-made code that alters which proteins are created, thereby altering the functioning of the cell itself. Genetic engineering stripped down is simply that, cutting and pasting bits of genetic code in an effort to alter the functioning of the cell. The most difficult part is deducing if the code leads to a protein that produces the desired effect, and if so, how will it affect other cell processes.

The first GMO product appeared on the market in 1982: insulin harvested from modified bacteria (Humulin by Genentech). Higher up in the evolutionary chain, plant cells are more complex and have a protective cell wall, which complicates access to the nucleus. Independent scientists along with deep pocketed agro-chemical companies first unlocked the plant cell with the help of a bacterium. This particular bacterium is a pest that inserts code into the plant genome, causing tumor growth. Its ability to access and alter plant DNA means it can be outfitted as a shuttle for transporting engineered genetic code, rather than its own disease causing code. This method of insertion is applied to a single plant cell on a petri dish, which is then coaxed into a fully-grown GM plant, producing seeds for sale with the desired modification. Much has changed since the 1980s, and the process can now also be done with gene guns, and even electric shocks to reliably insert DNA into targeted cells.

The DNA inserted into the target plant’s genome can originate from within the same species (cisgenic) or from a foreign species (transgenic). The most famous example of the latter concerns a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that produces a toxin (harmless to mammals), which kills insects considered pests to common crops such as corn and soy. The genetic code for the toxin was identified within the bacterium’s genome and then pasted into corn, soy, and cotton. The resulting modified plant produces the Bt toxin itself, immediately killing pests that attack it, and thereby dramatically reducing the need to blindly spray highly toxic chemical pesticides. Bt plants indicate the enormous benefits of transgenic genetic engineering, because with access to all genes scientists can approach problems in completely novel ways. Cisgenesis uses the same method, but restricts itself to the genome of the same species. It’s currently being used to engineer resistance to late blight in potatoes, a pathogen that instigated the Irish Potato Famine.

GM crops even have the potential to improve the nutrition of our food. Much of the world doesn’t have the luxury of choosing what ends up on the table every night. Instead there is a heavy reliance on a handful of staple crops, like rice and soya. This is a problem when the crop doesn’t contain the necessary nutritional content. Rice does meet our vitamin and mineral needs, but only if we eat the stalk or bran found on ‘brown’ rice. However, brown rice spoils faster due to the fat content in bran, hence the popularity of white rice, which has far less nutritional value. One consequence of eating just white rice is Vitamin A deficiency in children, which leads to blindness and compromises the immune system. A solution is GM “Golden Rice”, which incorporates vitamin A precursors into the actual grain through transgenesis of genes from daffodils and bacteria. One bowl can supply an estimated 50% of daily vitamin A intake. Further ‘bio-fortification’ of foods is being carried out by the Gates Foundation on bananas, beans, and cassava.

Are GM foods safe? In short, there is no credible evidence indicating any kind of negative effect from eating GM foods. Evidence of health effects may be hard to find due to the very prevalence of GM foods – 80% of all processed foods in the US contain GMOs. The widespread consumption of GM foods makes it extremely difficult to identify causal links to health issues. There have however been longitudinal studies done over 29 years on livestock raised on GM feed, and they have uncovered nothing of note. DNA does not survive the stomach intact, so there is next to no chance of us or the bacteria in our body interacting with GM DNA.

At first glance the concept of tinkering with the very stuff of life inspires a feeling of unease, tapping into a biblically long line of thought warning of catastrophe due to human hubris. There are definitely real worries when it comes to GM foods, and they will be addressed in Part 2. Ultimately, we can’t afford to reflexively discount a tool that may help tackle the wholly unnatural problem of feeding 7 billion people on Earth.

Soil Matters!

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By Kristian Johnson. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.  

In Hong Kong, it’s easy to forgive the impression that we have transitioned to a post-soil society, where with enough concrete and wifi all of our needs can be met. We aren’t there yet and never will be, as soil is an irresistibly efficient way of providing nutrients for food crops to grow. It is the most valuable asset of a farm. Before we get the chance to finally appreciate soil, it may soon disappear. Agronomists predict that within 60 years global soil systems will be irreparably degraded.

Soil is a simple word that describes a complex ecosystem consisting of five essential components. Much of soil is a combination of minerals essential for plant health. Organic matter is made up of plant and animal remains that have been broken down by microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria. Microorganisms are nature’s diligent nutrient recyclers. Soil needs to be loose to allow gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide) that are essential to the life processes of microorganisms and roots to circulate. Finally, water dissolves and transports nutrients to plant roots. Ideally, all five components are present in relative abundance. Soil composition and quality can vary widely, which is why organic farmers add compost and organic fertilisers to soil.

It may be tempting to grow crops without soil by using water-based hydroponic systems. These systems however have significant drawbacks. First, they can only provide for a fraction of our food needs. They are unable to grow large quantities grain such as rice, wheat, soya and corn that account for 60% of our diet (much of this is fed to the animals we eat). Second, they are capital and energy intensive, making them uneconomical except in circumstances where there is an abundance of both and a shortage of arable land (such as the Middle East). Continue reading

Farming in the Summer

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Amaranth or Yin Choi

By Kristian Johnson. A recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.  

It’s easy to condemn the use of synthetic fungicides, insecticides and herbicides by conventional farmers. They, however, are at the mercy of conditions over which they have little to no control. These unsafe toxic compounds provide effective solutions for plant diseases, insect attacks, and weed infestations. Conventional farmers tend to overuse these cheap chemical tools, rather than risk suffering a poor harvest.

An organic farmer, without these potent tools, must instead rely on a deep understanding of the land and the lifecycles of common pests, as well as the characteristics of various plant species. Before deciding what to grow, every farmer must take into account the growing conditions of the upcoming season. Here are some of the challenges of growing in the Hong Kong summer.

Heavy rains (Avg. May to Sept. is 379 mm per month)

Too much water will cause rooting (carrots, radish) and fruiting (tomato) vegetables to crack and also lose much of their flavor. The high clay content prevalent in Hong Kong soils often makes drainage difficult, thereby causing the roots of many plants to die off.

Punishing humidity (Avg. May to Sept. is 81%)

High humidity makes it difficult for many plants to transpire thereby significantly reducing the growth rate of temperate climate species, such as lettuce or spinach. Coupled with warm temperatures, it increases the chances of fungal diseases especially for plants such as zucchini.

High temperatures (Avg. May to Sept. is 28 C)

Plants ill-suited to high temperatures, such as lettuce, wilt or become bitter in summer. Most temperate climate herbs, such as mint or lemon balm, become dormant.

High temperatures also result in prolific weed growth. Competing for sunlight and nutrients, weeds are one of the biggest threats to yield. The Japanese Knotweed is a pernicious invasive species common in Hong Kong. It thrives in warm weather, and has a deep, dense network of rhizomes that spread both vertically (2m deep) and horizontally effectively choking any competition. Removal is nearly impossible as small rhizome fragments can sprout new growth even after 3 years. On organic farms, countless hours are spent manually removing weeds.

Summer temperatures mean there are significantly more harmful insects such as melon flies, flea beetles, and aphids. As consumers, we can select vegetables that grow well during the season, thereby helping conventional farmers reduce their reliance on chemical pesticides. This also ensures we ingest fewer harmful toxic chemicals into our bodies. Here are some of the highly nutritious vegetables that grow well during Hong Kong summers:

  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Yardlong beans
  • Amaranth
  • Ceylon spinach
  • Morning glory
  • Sweet potato leaf
  • Sweet corn
  • Okra

Hydroponics and Property Development

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July 2014. A Hydroponic facility under construction near Hok Tau. Turning green into desert.  

Hydroponic systems are touted by their promoters for safety and high yield. They claim hydroponically grown produce is safe from pollution because the vegetables are entirely detached from the ground. They also claim to be free of pesticides because hydroponic systems are usually housed in enclosed structures that keep pests out. According to it’s proponents, the high yield makes it suitable for a space-deprived Hong Kong.

Agriculture is an industry that exists within our economic system. As such, the laws of economics must apply to it. The law of comparative advantage, familiar to any first year economics student, states that we should specialise in areas where we have an advantage and trade with others for goods in areas where we do not. Both parties to the trade will end up better off.

Large-scale hydroponic systems were developed by the US military in the 1950’s to supply fresh vegetables to soldiers stationed on remote islands. The remoteness of the islands made the transport of fresh food costly and difficult. The barren soil made it unsuitable for growing on the land. Hydroponic facilities are factories that can produce “safe” vegetables anywhere, irregardless of the surrounding environment.

If hydroponic factories are completely safe because they are detached from the land then it doesn’t matter where they are located. The only requirements are land, labor and sources of water and electricity. Land, labor and water are significantly cheaper one hour away, in Shenzhen. If land and labor in Shenzhen are 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of that in Hong Kong, then a hydroponic facility in Hong Kong would be at a huge comparative disadvantage. The same “safe” vegetables could be produced in Shenzhen at a fraction of the cost. (It is for this reason, the law of comparative advantage, that all clothing factories have long since moved from Hong Kong to China.)

Since any first year economics student could arrive at this conclusion, might there be another reason why savvy businessmen (the owner of the facility in the photo above is the former CEO of Esprit, whose clothing factories are located in China) and highly educated bureaucrats are furiously promoting hydroponics? Continue reading

Electronic Waste Recycling

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Editor’s Note:

British Columbia (BC) is a top destination for Hong Kong and mainland Chinese tourists and emigrants. Like Hong Kong, it has uniquely beautiful landscapes with both ocean and mountain views. What makes it different from Hong Kong though, is the willingness of its people to both enact policies and pay the cost required to maintain this pristine environment. Since all Chinese can’t emigrate to Vancouver (no matter how furiously they try), can we instead learn from their experience to improve our own polluted environment?

This article was contributed by Eveline, an environmental specialist based in Vancouver, BC.

The Electronic Recycling Programs in BC

Since 2007, consumers in BC have paid eco fees (green levies) to fund the proper disposal of electronic waste. BC has been at the forefront of this fight in North America with over 15 programs in total and counting – recycling everything from smoke alarms to TVs to fluorescent lights. These programs are fully run by the manufacturers or importers of these goods in BC and funded by eco fees paid at the point of purchase. The eco fees cover the cost of collection, transportation and safe disposal as well as associated administrative costs.

These policies are based on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility, developed by Swedish economics professor Thomas Lindhqvist. It states that (a) a manufacturer’s responsibility includes taking back the broken products they produce and (b) the environmental cost of production and disposal must be included in a product’s total life-cycle cost. It has been implemented by governments worldwide as the way to best manage waste from manufactured goods.

What happens to the used electronic products after I recycle it?

After paying an eco fee upon purchase, you can drop the product off, free of charge, at designated recycling facilities located all over the city. The device is then sorted and dismantled into its various parts. Machines separate out the various metals, which are then melted down and shipped out to be turned into new products. Plastic and glass are also sold to be turned into new products.  Rare elements like lithium and mercury are also removed and re-introduced into the supply chain to make new products. Any money earned is returned to fund the recycling program. Continue reading

Agri-Park

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Here is our analysis of the new Agricultural Policy issued by the Hong Kong government.

The Pantheon 

The government is proposing to spend HKD 7 billion to encourage the development and growth of the agriculture sector by establishing a 80 hectare “Agri-Park”. While this is all well and good, the first question we must ask is: what is the governments track record in nurturing sectors other than real estate? The Pantheon of government schemes that produce nothing (other than taxpayer funded or subsidised construction projects) includes: the Science Park, the EcoPark, a CyberPort, an Innocentre and numerous others.

No Pain No Gain

The government will acquire privately-owned agricultural land (including land within the country park zone) from landowners to build the Agri-Park. In a market economy, when supply is fixed and demand increases (due to the government entering the market as a large buyer), prices will rise. The resulting increase in land rental cost will in effect be detrimental to existing farmers. This scheme will hurt the farmers that it is purportedly trying to help.

In this case the pain will be borne by the farmers and gain will be reaped by the construction industry, landowners and bureaucrats.

Innovative Bureaucrats: An Oxymoron 

A farmer’s investment is largely comprised of his time and effort in improving the land. Through weeding, cultivation, and enrichment of the soil a farmer creates an environment optimal for plant growth. Unlike a software company incubated in a technology park, the farmer cannot simply move. This scheme can only have been thought up by “innovative” bureaucrats whose experience of farming consists largely of playing FarmVille. Continue reading

Cancer and Food

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Can you guess which one is organic? Read on to find out

Many people exhibit a sudden interest in organic food when they or someone in their family has been afflicted with cancer. Are they just grasping for links or is there any factual basis for their concern that the way modern food is grown can contribute to cancer? Let’s review how conventional leafy green vegetables, such as Choi Sum or Bak Choi, are typically grown in Hong Kong. All the chemicals listed below are approved and readily available for sale in Hong Kong.

Step 1

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Prior to growing a new crop, conventional chemical farmers spray a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, such as Glyphosate, to kill weeds in the soil. “Broad-spectrum” means that it is effective against a wide a variety of plants – it is toxic not only to the weeds but also to the vegetables that will subsequently be planted. However, it’s concentration will have been diminished by the time the vegetables are planted. The residual toxicity will still weaken the vegetable and slow its growth. A weaker plant is more susceptible to pests and disease. As such, farmers need to apply higher quantities of pesticide later on to protect the crop from insect attacks.

Several recent studies showed glyphosate potential adverse health effects to humans as it may be an endocrine disruptor. It induces human breast cancer cells growth via oestrogen receptor. 

Step 2 Continue reading

Grow Your Own Greens

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As an Urban Farming and Horticulture instructor in space deprived Hong Kong, I’m often asked about using the much hated bay windows common in many Hong Kong apartments for growing vegetables. The main considerations growing edible plants indoors are limited space, light and airflow. I set out to design a highly functional indoor growing system that would not only address these issues, but also be sustainably built and have a minimalist aesthetic.

The key factor limiting the growth of edible plants indoors is lack of sunlight. Artificial light, while very helpful, creates two issues of its own. First, it consumes electricity, thereby reducing some of the environmental benefits of growing your own vegetables. Second, they must be placed at the correct distance from the plants to be effective (in addition, the correct colour bulb must also be used).

After 18 months of research and tinkering, I came up with the idea of inverting the usual relationship between the artificial light and the plants. Instead of placing the lights over the plants, I surrounded the light with plants. Light from a bulb shines in all directions. By surrounding the bulb with plants I was able to capture and make use of a much higher percentage of the light emitted by the bulb. This maximises the number of plants that can be grown, while at the same time ensuring that the plants are at an optimal distance from the bulb.

An additional benefit of this design is that the light emitted from the bulb can help our plants grow and at the same time light up our home or office. The leaves of the plant in effect act as a living lamp shade. Continue reading

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