San Carlos, Oct 4 (AP/UNB) — Brandon Alexander would like to introduce you to Angus, the farmer of the future. He's heavyset, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pounds, not to mention a bit slow. But he's strong enough to hoist 800-pound pallets of maturing vegetables and can move them from place to place on his own.
Sure, Angus is a robot. But don't hold that against him, even if he looks more like a large tanning bed than C-3PO.
To Alexander, Angus and other robots are key to a new wave of local agriculture that aims to raise lettuce, basil and other produce in metropolitan areas while conserving water and sidestepping the high costs of human labor. It's a big challenge, and some earlier efforts have flopped. Even Google's "moonshot" laboratory, known as X, couldn't figure out how to make the economics work.
After raising $6 million and tinkering with autonomous robots for two years, Alexander's startup Iron Ox says it's ready to start delivering crops of its robotically grown vegetables to people's salad bowls. "And they are going to be the best salads you ever tasted," says the 33-year-old Alexander, a one-time Oklahoma farmboy turned Google engineer turned startup CEO.
In this Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, photo bok choy is seen growing in the foreground at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, Calif.
Iron Ox planted its first robot farm in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in San Carlos, California, a suburb located 25 miles south of San Francisco. Although no deals have been struck yet, Alexander says Iron Ox has been talking to San Francisco Bay area restaurants interested in buying its leafy vegetables and expects to begin selling to supermarkets next year.
The San Carlos warehouse is only a proving ground for Iron Ox's long-term goals. It plans to set up robot farms in greenhouses that will rely mostly on natural sunlight instead of high-powered indoor lighting that sucks up expensive electricity. Initially, though, the company will sell its produce at a loss in order to remain competitive.
During the next few years, Iron Ox wants to open robot farms near metropolitan areas across the U.S. to serve up fresher produce to restaurants and supermarkets. Most of the vegetables and fruit consumed in the U.S. is grown in California, Arizona, Mexico and other nations. That means many people in U.S. cities are eating lettuce that's nearly a week old by the time it's delivered.
There are bigger stakes as well. The world's population is expected to swell to 10 billion by 2050 from about 7.5 billion now, making it important to find ways to feed more people without further environmental impact, according to a report from the World Resources Institute .
Iron Ox, Alexander reasons, can be part of the solution if its system can make the leap from its small, laboratory-like setting to much larger greenhouses.
The startup relies on a hydroponic system that conserves water and automation in place of humans who seem increasingly less interested in U.S. farming jobs that pay an average of $13.32 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly half of U.S. farmworkers planting and picking crops aren't in the U.S. legally, based on a survey by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The heavy lifting on Iron Ox's indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another, as-yet unnamed robot, which transfers plants from smaller growing pods to larger ones, using a mechanical arm whose joints are lubricated with "food-safe" grease.
It's a tedious process to gently pick up each of the roughly 250 plants on each pallet and transfer them to their bigger pods, but the robot doesn't seem to mind the work. Iron Ox still relies on people to clip its vegetables when they are ready for harvest, but Alexander says it is working on another robot that will eventually handle that job too.
Alexander formerly worked on robotics at Google X, but worked on drones, not indoor farms. While there, he met Jon Binney, Iron Ox's co-founder and chief technology offer. The two men became friends and began to brainstorm about ways they might be able to use their engineering skills for the greater good.
"If we can feed people using robots, what could be more impactful than that?" Alexander says.
Trenton, Oct 3 (AP/UNB) — U.S. regulators on Tuesday approved a modernized version of a decades-old antibiotic used to treat a number of infections.
Paratek Pharmaceuticals' Nuzyra was designed to overcome the problem of resistance to tetracycline, an antibiotic widely used until recent years.
The company said the Food and Drug Administration approved Nuzyra for treating bacterial pneumonia and severe skin infections.
Paratek plans to launch the antibiotic early next year, initially for use in hospitals. It hasn't disclosed the price.
Boston-based Paratek estimates its drug could eventually treat nearly 900,000 hospitalized U.S. patients annually
About 2 million Americans get infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year and 23,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Paratek tested Nuzyra against several types of bacteria that cause pneumonia and skin infections. The drug was more effective than two standard antibiotics given to patients in comparison groups, company testing showed.
Many antibiotics no longer work well, if at all, against some bacterial infections, due to their overuse in medicine and livestock production.
Paratek's drug, also known as omadacycline, is the first in a new class of antibiotics. It's an updated version of tetracycline, a 65-year-old antibiotic that was a workhorse against skin, respiratory and other infections until increasing resistance limited its use. Paratek created its drug by tweaking tetracycline to block two common ways bacteria use to resist it.
The FDA approved both an IV version and a daily pill that patients can switch to when they leave the hospital, the company said. It will eventually market the drug for patients treated at doctors' offices and clinics.
Last week, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced at the United Nations General Assembly a new global effort to fight antibiotic resistance and develop new treatments. The 106 initial participants included drugmakers, government agencies, medical groups and animal food producers.
Chicago, Sep 27 (AP/UNB) — Following years of reformulating at McDonald's, most of the burgers it serves in the U.S. are now preservative-free.
As of Wednesday, the world's largest burger chain says classics like the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder with Cheese are preservative-free, with reformulated buns and sauces. Pickles on the sandwiches still contain artificial preservatives, but customers can request sandwiches without pickles.
McDonald's has been gradually removing preservatives from its menu for several years in an effort to appeal to more health-conscious buyers. In 2016, it removed high-fructose corn syrup from its buns and took artificial preservatives out of its Chicken McNuggets.
The Chicago-based company says around one-third of its sandwiches still have artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, including Egg McMuffins and Filet-O-Fish. It hasn't set a timeline for removing those ingredients.
Geneva, Sep 23 (AP/UNB) — Drinking too much alcohol killed more than 3 million people in 2016, mostly men, the World Health Organization said.
The U.N. health agency also warned that current policy responses are not sufficient to reverse trends predicting an increase in consumption over the next 10 years.
In a new report Friday, the agency said that about 237 million men and 46 million women faced alcohol problems, with the highest prevalence in Europe and the Americas. Europe has the highest global per capita alcohol consumption, even though it has already dropped by 10 percent since 2010.
Around a third of alcohol-related deaths were a result of injuries, including car crashes and self-harm, while about one in five were due to either digestive disorders or cardiovascular diseases. Cancers, infectious diseases, mental disorders and other health conditions were also to blame.
"Far too many people, their families and communities suffer the consequences of the harmful use of alcohol through violence, injuries, mental health problems and diseases like cancer and stroke," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO. "It's time to step up action to prevent this serious threat to the development of healthy societies."
The average daily consumption of alcohol by people who consume it is about two glasses of wine, a large bottle of beer or two shots of spirits. Globally, about 2.3 billion people are current drinkers.
The report, the third in a series after ones in 2010 and 2014, relies on information from 2016 — the latest data available. WHO said the trends and projections point to an expected increase in global alcohol per capita consumption over the next decade, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Americas.
"The policy responses which are currently in place in countries are definitely not sufficient to reverse the trends, which we observe in several parts of the world, or to improve significantly this situation," Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, coordinator of WHO's management of substance abuse unit, told reporters.
"When we look at the trends of alcohol consumption in many countries from 2000, you can see ups and downs — which are determined by different factors," said Poznyak, citing countries' levels of social development, economic backdrops, policy measures and cultural trends.
He said the data showed, for example, that alcohol consumption tends to drop in countries facing an economic crisis.
Poznyak said it was "imperative for the governments to put in place measures that can mitigate the harms associated with this increase."
The Distilled Spirits Council, which advocates for the industry in the U.S., said in a statement it supports the WHO's goal to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.
"However, we are concerned that some policy recommendations such as increasing alcohol taxes are misguided and don't effectively address harmful consumption," it said.
Dhaka, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) - The Coca-Cola Company said Monday it is "closely watching" the expanding use of a cannabis element in drinks, another sign cannabis and cannabis-infused products are getting more acceptance in mainstream culture and a harder look from long-established pillars of American business.
The statement came after reports the beverage giant was in talks with a Canadian cannabis company to create a health drink infused with cannabidiol, a naturally occurring non-psychoactive compound derived from the cannabis plant. Shares of the company, Aurora Cannabis Inc., closed up nearly 17 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange after the report.
Spokespeople for the companies declined to comment on the report but acknowledged their interest in that segment of the cannabis market.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, does not produce the high commonly associated with marijuana. It is believed by many to have anti-inflammation and pain-relieving properties, and numerous CBD-infused products have emerged recently.
Aurora spokeswoman Heather MacGregor said her company "has expressed specific interest in the infused-beverage space and we intend to enter that market."
A Coke spokesman said the beverage giant has made no such decision.
"Along with many others in the beverage industry, we are closely watching the growth of non-psychoactive CBD as an ingredient in functional wellness beverages around the world. The space is evolving quickly," Coke spokesman Kent Landers said.
Coke's interest is another indication of the growing acceptance of cannabis by established companies and of the importance of Canada to the development of those businesses. Marijuana becomes legal across Canada on Oct. 17. Cannabis companies from the U.S. — where marijuana remains illegal at the federal level — have flocked to Canada to raise funds and establish businesses there.
American companies interested in making a play in the cannabis space can try things out in Canada without risking doing something illegal at home.
Constellation Brands, a giant spirits company that counts Corona beer among its labels, bought a multibillion-dollar minority stake in Canopy Growth, a Canadian medical marijuana producer.
Coca Cola's statement shows the company has learned from its past missteps picking up on new drink trends, said Ali Dibadj, a senior analyst at AllianceBernstein with an expertise in U.S. beverage and snack food companies.
"The company has been caught flat-footed in the past in not keeping up with trends in beverages. They missed the energy drink phenomenon, they missed — and then had to buy into — the functional waters like Vitamin Water and coffee," Dibadj said. "I think what they're saying is what they should be saying on this very new and emerging beverage."
But testing the waters of cannabis-themed drinks could backfire, he said. Many Americans aren't intimately familiar with the cannabis plant and might not understand that CBD has no psychoactive properties.
Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plants, and both contain CBD, which can be extracted as an oil that can be added to everything from dog food to hand lotion to drinks.
"I think you have to be very, very careful with this as a large brand. There are different viewpoints on a product category, and you don't want to offend too much," Dibadj said. "You don't want to be too far ahead on any curve."