Food Justice: Are Nanofarms the Future?

(Nanofarms in action. Courtesy of Replantable.)

Entrepreneurs and food justice activists have been cultivating new and innovative ways to get healthy, nourishing vegetables into the hands of urban dwellers and underserved communities. Vertical Farming – for example – could revolutionize the way the basic needs nonprofits acquire stocks to feed those in need through inventive kiosks that grow food in-store (or, potentially, right in the food pantry of a soup kitchen).

A similiar product is currently in the works through a Kickstarter campaign that has raised nearly half of its $50,000 goal.

Two forward-thinking designers in Atlanta founded Replantable, a startup that looks to produce and begin marketing nanofarms that can grow food right in your own home. Through LED lights, the small boxes provide nourishment to greens and utilize unique fabric pads to retain moisture. Better yet, nanofarms provide a way for people to grow healthy foods – including arugula, bok choy, and beets – without the use of pesticides or other chemicals.

The devices only require users to apply water and to trigger a timer. The hands-free operation involves a notification light that helpfully informs the user that plants are ready for harvest.

Ruwan Subasinghe, one of the designers behind the project, has more details:


The nanofarm lets people harvest minutes before eating, and only pick what they’re about to eat. The rest stays alive and growing rather than decomposing and shrinking. Our customers have shown us that they’re able to harvest every last bit of produce from the nanofarm

The nanofarm will sell for about $350, which may seem steep to many consumers. The devices, however, can produce greens for up to five years, and they work during all seasons. Nonprofits and basic needs providers could assist poor communities in procuring nanofarms, delivering constantly renewing, healthy foods to the neighborhoods that need it most.

Camp Century: Abandoned US Base in Greenland Poses Radioactive Threat

(The Greenland Ice Sheet, home to Camp Century, an abandoned US base that could leak radioactive waste)

While certain political parties and public figures (here’s looking at you, Donald Trump) may dismiss the reality of climate change as a politically expedient ploy, the overwhelming majority of scientific opinion not only confirms its existence but has also furnished a sobering look at its longterm effects. From decreased water reserves threatening vulnerable populations to rising sea levels putting coastal cities underwater, climate change poses a number of threats to the social good across the globe.

In addition to the aforementioned macro-level threats, there are also regional particularities that tie directly to climate change. Take, for example, an abandoned US military base in Greenland that has recently garnered headlines for the cataclysmic danger it may pose in the future.

The base, named Camp Century, was built into the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1959 and deserted in 1967. Ostensibly a research station, the camp was additionally used as a potential nuclear launch site, chosen for its striking distance to the Soviet Union.

Camp Century Greenland Climate Change Key Elements Group
(The entrance to Camp Century, US Military Archives)

When the camp was decommissioned, the 200 US military personnel stationed there up and left, with official opinion holding that the encroaching ice would effectively seal off residual pollutants. While this policy may have worked out until now, shrinking glaciers in Greenland may release a host of dangerous materials that could result in an environmental catastrophe.

In a statement, climate scientist William Colgan described the situation:

When we looked at the climate simulations, they suggested that rather than perpetual snowfall, it seems that as early as 2090, the site could transition from net snowfall to net melt. Once the site transitions from net snowfall to net melt, it’s only a matter of time before the wastes melt out; it becomes irreversible.

The secret nuclear program at Camp Century – called Project Iceworm – also featured a nuclear reactor that powered the base and that has most certainly resulted in radioactive waste. Other harmful materials – including biological and chemical waste – also factor into the pollutants that could escape through melting ice.

Camp Century Climate Change Greendland Key Elements Group
(Image of Camp Century, US Military Archives)

To further complicate the situation, the responsibility for cleaning up this gargantuan mess is up in the air. The base was created and funded by the United States, but was approved by Denmark, then the colonial power in possession of Greenland. Nowadays, Greenland is an autonomous country.

The case of Camp Century, while high-profile, may not be entirely unique, as Colgan explains: ”Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world, and now climate change is modifying those sites.”

As climate change progresses without a meaningful, united response from governments, agencies, and institutions around the world, threats like the one posed by Camp Century will proliferate. And, regardless of how effectively the world turns the tide on climate change, we now live in a reality where Camp Century and other toxic relics will inevitably require herculean efforts to control.

It’s just a matter of time.

Despite Aquaculture, Overfishing Continues

Bad news for the world’s oceans.

The UN just released its biannual State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report. According to the report’s findings, rampant overfishing continues to accelerate, depleting the seas of vital fish populations while threatening other sea creatures including dolphins, whales and sharks.

For the first time, aquaculture – the farming of fish in tanks or designated coastal areas – provided the globe with the majority of its fish stocks for consumption. Wildfish populations, however, are still overexploited. The numbers are staggering: one-third of global fist stocks face biologically unsustainable levels of fishing. In the Black Sea, 59 percent of stocks face the same hyper-exploitation.

This stems largely from an increase in the globe’s daily fish diet. Per capita consumption of fish is now around 44 pounds per year.

Overfishing has long plagued the seas. The persistence of destructive and illegal fishing practices, such as the use of wide drift nets that indiscriminately capture all creatures within an area, continue to threaten the survival of aquatic birds and mammals.

In addition to ravaging the biodiversity of the oceans, overfishing takes a heavy toll on coastal communities that depend on fishing for their local economies. Newfoundland in Canada, for example, may never witness a comeback of the once economy-sustaining cod, largely due to altering ecosystems that may prevent populations of the formally abundant creature from bouncing back.

Now is an important time to not only think about your own sea food consumption, but to consider the importance of conservation as well. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation runs programs aimed at aquatic conservation. Consider supporting this or another affinity organization in order to help stave off a complete collapse of the world’s oceanic ecosystems.

Berlin Joins Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

(The Berlin skyline)

The city of Berlin is doing its part to combat climate change, voting last week to purge the German capital’s pension fund of its investments in fossil fuels. Berlin’s parliament passed the legislation as part of the city’s long-term goal to become “climate neutral” by 2050.

The new policy will rid the $852.8 million fund of investments in RWE and E.ON – two German companies – as well as the French company Total.

Berlin joins a group of other Western cities acting as examples for the divestment movement, which looks to eliminate investments in dirty energy in order to lessen the financial incentive of investing in fossil fuels.

Other cities that have taken a similiar stand against dirty energy include Stockholm, Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, Seattle, Portland, and Melbourne.

According to the activist nonprofit We Are Power Shift, a group that promotes divestment as a strategy for fighting climate change, the divestment movement

…started on university campuses, but has spread to cities, faith-based institutions, foundations, pension funds, and more, all over the world. Our goal is to diminish the influence and power of the fossil fuel industry in the market, our political system, and in the social conscience overall.

Christoph Meyer – a leading campaigner with Fossil Free Berlin – remarked on the Berlin parliament’s decision:

Berlin’s decision to blacklist fossil fuel companies is the latest victory for the divestment movement, which serves to remove the social license from companies whose business model pushes us into climate catastrophe. We will keep a close eye on the administration to make sure it upholds today’s commitment and urge the city to now take quick steps to break its reliance on coal power.

While there is debate about the effectiveness of divestment, advocates see it as a strategy to speed up the process through which investments become “stranded.” As public attention grows and support for regulation intensifies, the idea is for investors writ large to grow weary of such ventures due to the prospect of further diminishing profits.

As more of the world’s biggest urban centers jump on board, it’s safe to say that this push is gaining more-and-more momentum.

Brexit is Bad News for the Environment

(Air pollution in London)

As the world begins piecing together the ramifications stemming from Britain’s exit from the EU (also known as Brexit), one particular victim of the ensuing political chaos is becoming increasingly apparent: the environment.

Around 70 percent of environmental regulation currently in place in Britain is the result of EU legislation. As British officials begin slashing away the body of EU regulations left over from the country’s membership, important regulations designed to lower carbon levels or promote conservation could be thrown out. The climate skepticism of the “leave” campaign’s chief proponents is a worrying indicator that David Cameron’s successor may very well preside over a government that does just that.

Boris Johnson – the former London mayor and leading “leave” member of the Tories – has published editorials dismissing climate change as a fabrication, and once argued that snow is evidence that climate change is a myth. Johnson could very will be top of the list of Tories to assume the role of prime minister.

The other primary driver for the “leave” campaign was UKIP, a rightwing nationalist party that has exercised xenophobia and racist fear mongering to achieve its political ends. Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, has openly expressed his desire to cut pollution limits on power stations.

Those in the “leave” campaign often cited the red tape of the EU as one of the primary motivations for Britain to leave the multinational body. Combined with their climate skepticism, they would likely enjoy seeing environmental regulations simply fall by the wayside along with the rest of the EU law that formerly applied to Britain.

Furthermore, Britain’s pledge in the Paris climate deal was included in the EU’s pledge. The nation would have to re-ratify the deal under David Cameron’s successor. If pro-Brexit politicians’ science-defying beliefs indicate anything, such a pledge may not be forthcoming.

Pro-environment forces in Britain will certainly keep up the fight for a cleaner, more secure future for the environment. Their job, however, may have gotten a bit tougher.

Vindictive Paul LePage Harasses Environmental Nonprofit

Main Governor Paul LePage is no stranger to controversy. The Tea Party executive has stumbled into a number of embarrassing situations with his penchant for unfiltered, expressive, and often bigoted proclamations.

When discussing Maine’s opioid epidemic, LePage blamed out-of-state drug dealers who travel to the state to sell heroine, claiming that “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

He has also compared the IRS’s actions to those committed by the Gestapo during the Holocaust, and suggested that Maine State Sen. Troy Jackson – a political rival – was the kind of person who would “give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” The illusion to forced sexual penetration is jarring indeed.

Recent scare tactics deployed by the governor only further underscore his violent and unstatesman-like character, revealing him to be a strongman leader with little patience for dissent or the right of nonprofit groups to operate free of government harassment.

According to The National Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) – the state’s largest environmental nonprofit – LePage has targeted the group’s donors in a smear campaign. The governor’s office has purportedly sent letters out to the group’s supporters, imploring them to cease their financial assistance for NRCM for its opposition to LePage’s thoroughly anti-environmental agenda.

Lisa Pohlmann – the organization’s executive director – explained the atmosphere of intimidation resulting from LePage’s anti-democratic behavior:

Over the past months the governor has produced and publicly displayed a wanted poster about NRCM, attacked us by name in dozens of speeches and radio addresses, and now this week has sent dozens of NRCM members a harassment letter about NRCM…We were founded by Maine people, and after working for 57 years in Maine we can say with total confidence that Gov. LePage is the most anti-environment governor in our history.

This isn’t LePage’s first assault on nonprofits. Last year, he attempted to increase taxation of nonprofit groups in order to cut taxes for large businesses. His proposed plan would affect food banks, Girl Scout troops, and veterans associations.

The loose-cannon LePage appears to possess the mercurial characteristics of his preferred presidential candidate Donald Trump, who he endorsed earlier than many other GOP elected officials.

Common sense would have it that LePage’s intimidation campaign could turn into a potentially ruinous scandal. Considering his political survival to this point, however, it may make no more a difference then his blatant racism. 

Philanthropy and COP21

Labeled an “act of defiance” by U.S. President Barack Obama, the UN climate change talks in Paris commenced November 30 despite ongoing security concerns in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in France’s capital. While proceeding with the conference certainly displays a degree of fortitude in the face of extremist terror, the import of the talks stems from another dangerous security threat – that of irreversible climate change.

Leaders from 190 nations are gathered for the two week conference – also known as COP21 – which aims to nail down pledges from each participating country to cut carbon emissions in order to avert the global catastrophe of temperatures rising by more than 2°C. Some scientists, however, remain skeptical that any action emerging from COP21 will be enough.

A U.K.-based organization called Carbon Brief offers a helpful list of known pledges. To name a few:

  • The EU pledges to cut emissions by 40 percent compared to the 1990 level by 2030
  • The United States pledges to cut emissions by 28 percent compared to the 2005 level by 2025
  • Russia pledges to cut emissions by 25 to 30 percent relative to its 1990 baseline by an undisclosed benchmark

Whatever the finalized pledges may be at the end of the summit, there will be no enforcement apparatus to ensure that nations follow through with their commitments. A UN panel will monitor nations’ progress, but will possess little power to discipline or alter the course of nations acting in bad faith.

Environmental nonprofits will be on scene in Paris to make their case for bold action on behalf of climate justice. 350.org is sponsoring an event lobbying for divestment from fossil fuels – a hot topic in the world of philanthropy. Proponents of the strategy hold that by removing valuable foundation assets and other institutional investments from polluting industries, philanthropists and everyday professionals can hasten the elimination of dirty energy – an end that economists say is ultimately inevitable anyway.

In a previous piece, Key Elements Group LLC explored the ongoing campaign cosponsored by 350.org and The Guardian to encourage The Gates Foundation and The Wellcome Trust to divest from fossil fuels. In response to the campaign, Bill Gates dismissed the merits of divestment, a stance he has since reiterated in the lead-up to the summit in France. Instead, Gates champions a carbon tax.

According to proponents, a carbon tax – long favored by economists – would simultaneously deincentivize burning fossil fuels while generating the resources necessary to develop alternative forms of energy. Marrying government, the private sector, and nonprofit intermediaries, this strategy would also involve contributions to nations that face a disadvantage further developing without the fossil fuel expenditure that enabled developed nations to reach their advanced state.

The debate may present a false binary; the two strategies together would probably be more effective than either one in isolation.

The fact that all major players – including the United States and China – are at the table is a step in the right direction. The consensus on the risks of climate change is now more established than ever, and the governmental will on display in Paris is welcome. Nonprofit professionals and advocates for the social good, however, still need to keep pushing the envelope in order to win a more secure future for the earth’s inhabitants.

Pressure Mounts for Gates Foundation to Divest

Sometimes, the altruistic mission behind a foundation is contradicted by its investments.

The world’s largest foundations command immense financial resources. The Gates Foundation – funded by both the foundation’s name sake Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – holds a $42 billion endowment. The England-based Wellcome Trust possesses an endowment of over $27 billion.

The considerable resources behind these foundations are indispensable for world philanthropy. From promoting agricultural advancements in underdeveloped regions to combatting malaria, The Gates Foundation has taken a leading role in the fight for global health. The Gates Foundation’s funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) is so integral for the UN agency that it – somewhat controversially – affords the foundation the power to make certain programmatic decisions.

In order to keep endowments funded and foundation staff capable of bankrolling these important projects, foundations manage trusts that contain valuable investments. But what’s profitable doesn’t always correspond to what is most socially just.

The Gates Foundation, for example, possesses $1.4 billion in fossil fuel investments. While Gates is outspoken on climate change (you can read his passion and concern for global wellbeing with regard to the environment on his blog), this sizable investment appears to contribute to global health issues that The Gates Foundation spends money to mitigate. Spending resources on both sides of the equation, this complicated relationship between social justice work and financial investment appears self-defeating.

Many institutions have begun practicing divestment – cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry in recognition of the urgency of addressing climate change. An ongoing campaign is trying to convince The Gates Foundation – the largest charitable entity in the world – to do the same.

In an unprecedented step for a major news publication, The Guardian’s editorial board launched a campaign this year that looks to encourage the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust (the two largest health charities in the world) to divest from dirty energy. Launched in conjunction with the environmentalist nonprofit group 350.org, the campaign has so far been unsuccessful. Bill Gates has rejected the campaigns premises in a series of interviews, including one with The Atlantic in which he declared that divestment is a “false solution.”

He remarked:

If you If you think divestment alone is a solution, I worry you’re taking whatever desire people have to solve this problem and kind of using up their idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon – because only a few people in society are the owners of the equity of coal or oil companies  As long as there’s no carbon tax and that stuff is legal, everybody should be able to drive around.

By Gates’ own thinking, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases – the United States and China – have only until 2050 until they can no longer contribute anymore carbon to the atmosphere. In order to limit the adverse effects of climate change. Gates believes in a carbon tax designed to generate funding for a government-led research and development program for next-generation renewable energy technology. He has pledged $2 billion of his own funds to supplement the hypothetical program.

Other institutions, however, are heeding the call to align their investments with their philanthropic, pro-social missions. More than 400 organizations around the globe have divested over $2.6 trillion collectively. Including Stanford University and the Church of England, these institutions may not represent a lion’s share of the world’s wealth, but they have contributed to the larger conversation.

Perhaps once enough organizations with smaller endowments move away from these investments – and display the financial feasibility of doing so – larger institutions will follow. Corporate Knights, a Canadian research company, released a report arguing that the Gates Foundation would have $1.9 billion more to spend through its endowment annually if it fully divests from fossil fuels. The long-term costs of ignoring climate change are too great for nonprofits, social benefit corporations, and social impact investors to overlook the dangers of investing in dirty energy.

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