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News: September 2018

Biodegradable films to save crops and cut farming costs

Photo: LIFE MULTIBIOSOL Photo: LIFE MULTIBIOSOL

27 September 2018Spanish researchers have created a plastic film that protects crops before biodegrading completely after harvest. Inventors at the Aitiip Foundation, a research centre near Zaragoza, Spain, claim that their new mulching film could reduce plastic contamination in the environment and cut running costs for European farms.

“Agriculture in Spain alone consumes over 60 000 tonnes of plastic mulching film each year,” says Dr Carolina Penalva at Aitiip. “Most of these films either end in landfills or incinerators.” She points out that contrary to the European circular economy strategy, disposing of the waste in this manner depletes natural resources, while also releasing plastic contaminants into the ground and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As part of the LIFE MULTIBIOSOL project, Dr Penalva and her colleagues have mixed biodegradable materials into formulations that are robust enough to withstand the elements but that break apart naturally when mixed with soil. Their adoption could shift European agriculture towards a more efficient use of resources, as set out in the EU’s environment action programme to 2020.

Saving soil

Photo: LIFE MULTIBIOSOL Photo: LIFE MULTIBIOSOL

The innovative bioplastic also incorporates trace elements that nourish soils, such as zinc and iron. They enter the ground while the film decomposes, enriching the soil and resulting in higher quality produce in subsequent years. Upon studying the soil makeup of each site, and ascertaining which nutrients are lacking, Aitiip can now alter the chemistry of the mulching film to meet local needs.

Another key selling point of the material is that it does away with the labour-intensive disposal of conventional plastic mulching films. At present, this costly process squanders valuable soil. Some 90% of the waste discarded with old mulching films is fertile earth that clings to their plastic.

“Farmers are essentially paying someone to come and remove their top soil,” explains Dr Penalva. In its current state, she says that the price tag of AITIIP’s biodegradable film may be twice as high as conventional plastic alternatives, but cutting disposal costs and saving soil could easily tip the economics in its favour.

Read the label

Various forms of purportedly biodegradable film have been on the market for over a decade, but many have disappointed farmers in the past, by either decomposing too soon or not biodegrading completely.

As part of LIFE MULTIBIOSOL, project partners Cooperativa Agraria Aragonesa and GroenCreatie have recruited farmers in Spain, France and Belgium to test the films on vegetable crops.

Photo: LIFE MULTIBIOSOL Photo: LIFE MULTIBIOSOL

Initial results are encouraging. In addition to proving the biodegradability of their prototype, field trials have shown that the quality of agricultural produce grown under the biodegradable mulching equals, and in some cases surpasses, that of conventional plastic films. Thus, the project has great potential to contribute to the goals of the EU plastics strategy, which calls for greater recycling of plastics used in agriculture.

To demonstrate the quality of the new biodegradable plastic, Italian project partner Laboratori ARCHA has been running preparatory tests to obtain the ON biodegradable SOIL quality label. This strict certification is only awarded to bioplastics that are proven to meet high standards, including full biodegradability and zero negative side-effects for the soil on which they are used.

“There are very few materials that comply with it,” says Dr Penalva. “If we can label this plastic as ON SOIL OK, it would reassure farmers considering buying it.”

Building a better LIFE with citizen science

Photo: Volha Kaskevich Photo: Volha Kaskevich

26 September 2018Online technology has led to a boom in citizen science. Can LIFE direct that voluntary interest in recording the world around us in ways that better support the implementation of nature policy? That was one of the topics under discussion at a LIFE platform meeting on volunteering for nature conservation, which took place in Tartu last week. The meeting was hosted by LIFE Mires of Estonia.

Bird-watchers and other amateur naturalists have long been a source of useful data for conservation organisations. But, as Dani Villero Pi from the European Bird Census Council explains, “the emergence of online bird recording portals and mobile applications has exponentially increased the amount of information collected in the last decade.”

The Flemish nature NGO Natuurpunt, a beneficiary of numerous LIFE projects, has over 30 million species observations in its database, waarnemingen.be. “We have more and more volunteers submitting data – way more than when the database started in 2008,” says Kristijn Swinnen from the Natuurpunt Study department. These observations by ordinary citizens are already having an impact on policymaking – and current LIFE projects. “For instance, we have more than 100 000 reports of roadkill in the last 10 years. So you can start focusing on certain locations, see if certain species are more vulnerable. If there's an important highway you can see the number of kills over the last 10 years – that's already being used by the government for planning,” says Mr Swinnen. It is also being used by a LIFE project in the Sonian Forest to analyse the impact of a new ecoduct near Brussels that will connect habitats and allow key species to safely bypass roads.

Structuring the data

Image rights: Euro Bird PortalYearly crane migration patterns
Image rights: Euro Bird Portal

One of the challenges with citizen science has been how to structure and integrate the huge amount of information generated. Dani Villero Pi is involved in a LIFE Preparatory project called EuroBirdPortal which is combining data from a dozen existing online bird portals into a common data repository that will display reliable Europe-wide patterns of bird distribution in near real time. “This should have strong insights for EU conservation policies,” he says. It will also be a best practice example for compiling and displaying citizen science information on a European level.

“You need a solid network of fieldworkers to collect large volumes of high-quality information. It is important that people feel that any contribution is useful,” believes Dr Villero.

More volunteers

Another challenge for those looking to harness the citizen science boom is to get more people involved. “We have 27 000 people that have submitted records, but it's a general trend within citizen science that a small number of people are very involved,” explains Mr Swinnen. “Eighty percent of observations in our system are recorded by less than 10% of people.”

'Bogtastic van'
Photo: MoorLIFE 2020

Volunteers tend to be either in their late teens and twenties or senior citizens. “We have lots of students and recent graduates, desperate to build skills and get experience; and lots of retirees looking to give something back,” says Thomas Aspinall from the Moors for the Future Partnership, coordinating beneficiary of the MoorLIFE2020 project. The partnership has attempted to broaden its volunteer network through a 'Bogtastic van' which shows the importance of moorland and blanket bogs, and through simple surveys done on postcards or through an app. “You need a low level way for people to initially make that step to involvement,” adds Mr Aspinall. “Simple surveys are a good way of getting people who might not normally get out into the landscapes to go and do some recording.”

The platform meeting identified other important lessons for recruitment and retention of volunteers – as well as offering solutions. For instance, the European Solidarity Corps project CHOO-NA ('Choose Nature') has had considerable success in recruiting young volunteers in Italy through Instagram and by encouraging supporters to share very short videos with their WhatsApp groups. “Two things are crucial to getting good results,” says Greta Regondi from the project team: “A quick response – otherwise they lose interest – and speaking their language, the language of youth.”

CHOO-NA has also come up with a solution for the thorny problem of project administration: a volunteer relationship management app that simplifies the process of submitting timesheets and expenses. This could have great potential for replication. “The big thing our volunteers want to avoid is administration. That's not why they go into volunteering for nature conservation,” says Kristijn Swinnen.

Lessons for LIFE

Photo: Marches Mosses BogLIFE Photo: Marches Mosses BogLIFE

The organisations represented at the Estonian platform meeting work with around 90 000 volunteers in total. Their insights are thus grounded in extensive experience of engaging the public in citizen science and other forms of conservation volunteering (e.g. site clearance, awareness campaigns). One of their key recommendations is for the LIFE programme to provide training for coordinators and managers of volunteers. “Managing volunteers is a job in itself – it requires adequate support at all times,” says Thomas Aspinall. “Managers and local coordinators are critical,” agrees Dr Villero. “Training the managers is a crucial thing.”

Local managers build personal relationships with volunteers that help them feel valued. LIFE projects and conservation NGOs are also providing regular updates through newsletters, Facebook groups and so on about what volunteers have achieved. To build on this positive engagement, the citizen science working group at the meeting in Estonia asks whether the LIFE programme could provide more formal recognition of volunteer involvement through an awards scheme or an online platform? Watch this space.

EU food sector raises the bar on biodiversity

Photo: Pixabay Photo: Pixabay

25 September 2018Environmentally-friendly farming practices such as lining fields with hedges and rotating crops are finding their way into mainstream agriculture. Adopting them could become the norm across Europe as companies and non-profits rally to safeguard our declining biodiversity and the long-term productivity of the food industry.

As part of the LIFE Food & Biodiversity project, the Global Nature Fund examined 54 quality labels used across the European food industry. In line with objectives set out in the EU biodiversity strategy, project partners have presented recommendations on policy, biodiversity management and agricultural practise to help halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services within Europe by 2020.

Assessments from the United Nations conclude that food production is largely responsible for the toll that has mounted in recent years on terrestrial biodiversity. From dwindling pollinators to eroding soils, this loss of wildlife could in turn come back to haunt conventional agricultural practices. Stefan Hoermann from the Global Nature Fund, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting the environment, says that the European food sector is starting to recognise and act on this threat.

“Food companies have a reputation to maintain among consumers,” he says. “They also understand that biodiversity underlies their supply of raw materials. It is in their long-term interest to protect species and habitats.”

Green standard

Creative Commons CC0 Team at Pilot Farm in France
Photo: LIFE Food and Biodiversity project

The LIFE Food and Biodiversity project now offers free training courses to help food company representatives and standards assessors determine risks to biodiversity and tailor protection measures.

“Standards should be clearly defined,” says Hoermann, pointing to requirements in existing labels for farmers to prepare biodiversity action plans. With no agreement on what action plans for biodiversity should contain, he says that farmers are left with insufficient guidance to take effective action. “Very often even the request for a baseline is missing. If you don’t have a baseline, it is hard to assess improvement,” he explains.

Hoermann expects to deliver workshops and web-courses to some 400 individuals over the duration of the project, and for companies and standards organisations to include the courses into their own training programs in the future.

Tried and tested

Creative Commons CC0 Flower Strips at Pilot farm in Germany
Photo:LIFE Food and Biodiversity project

Recommendations from the LIFE Food & biodiversity consortium not only push for standards that limit damage from pesticides and fertilisers, but that also reintroduce biodiversity into impoverished habitats. Hoermann says that even simple farming measures, such as lining orchards with flowers, can double the number of wild bee species observed in just a few years.

To quantify the impact, duration and cost of other interventions, project partners are field-testing agricultural techniques on 70 pilot farms across the EU. French social enterprise Solagro is developing a biodiversity performance tool and monitoring database to also track the impact of biodiversity criteria adopted full-scale by standards and companies. These tools will be made public by the end of the year, but standards and food companies can apply to use them sooner.

Some 40 businesses and standards organisations are already in talks with the LIFE Food & Biodiversity project. Food producers including Nestlé have started incorporating its recommendations into their company standards.

Hoermann expects to reach some 10 000 representatives from the food sector by 2020 and says that as biodiversity criteria become enshrined into quality labels, like Fairtrade or Qualitätszeichen Baden-Württemberg products, they could move thousands of farms towards protecting Europe’s natural heritage.

 

Climate Action project applicants seek nearly €200 million from LIFE

Climate Action projects (Click to view bigger image)

18 September 2018 Applicants have submitted 124 proposals for traditional LIFE projects under the Climate Action sub-programme in the 2018 funding round. The deadline for applications was Wednesday 12 September. Half (62) of the proposals are for Climate Change Mitigation projects, with 51 for Climate Change Adaptation projects and the remaining 11 for the Climate Governance & Information (GIC) strand.

Proposals have been submitted by organisations in 21 EU Member States, with 27 countries potentially benefitting in total (including three non-EU nations).

Where would the money go?

The candidate projects are looking to spend more than €400 million altogether on actions to tackle climate change. This includes planned project budgets of over €230 million for Climate Change Mitigation projects, some €156 million for Climate Change Adaptation and nearly €20 million for Climate Governance & Information. The 124 proposals are requesting close to €200 million in co-funding from the LIFE programme to support much-needed work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build climate change resilience, and raise awareness or improve policy implementation. 

What happens next?

Proposals will now be evaluated and applicants notified of the results by February 2019, with projects starting from July 2019 onwards. The final list of 2018 LIFE Climate Action projects will be announced to the press and public in autumn of next year.

Enabling invertebrates to play an essential role in ecosystems

Photo: Carlina HmouretPhoto: Carlina Hmouret

14 September 2018Bees, beetles, snails and other invertebrates make up 80% of the animal kingdom. Without them – and their crucial services like pollination and pest control - our ecosystems would collapse. This means that conserving bugs is of vital importance to us all – or at least it should be. LIFE is a cornerstone of EU invertebrate conservation work, supporting more than 230 projects to date. And thanks to the programme, experts in this area will be sharing know-how and plotting the way forward at a LIFE platform meeting in Scotland next week. 

Studies show that the populations of many wild pollinating insects are in decline. Their plight has been recognised at European level by the EU Pollinators Initiative, which the Commission has established to address that decline. LIFE funding will play a key role in conserving endangered pollinator species and habitats and in updating European Red Lists

“Bees, for instance, are significant for 80% of crop and plant species,” says Dr Bernard Vaissière, an expert in pollination, based at the French national institute for agricultural research (INRA) in Avignon. Dr Vaissière was involved in a LIFE project that studied wild bees in the city of Lyon and created ‘bee hotels’ both as nesting sites and to present their biology to the public.

“In cities you have more and more urban gardens: if you want to have many cucumbers, large squashes and strawberries that look and taste good, you need wild bees,” he says.

Hotel buzz

Photo: Gerland HmouretPhoto: Gerland Hmouret

Bees vary in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres for bumblebees or carpenter bees. There are around 20 000 bee species globally, including some 2 500 in Europe. For the LIFE project, the URBANBEES team installed bee hotels at 16 sites across the French city. “The goal of those was twofold. Firstly, it was to get urban citizens accustomed to seeing those wild bees. Secondly, it was to determine which species we had in Lyon and how common they were,” explains Dr Vaissière. 

On both fronts, the project, which will be presented in more detail at the invertebrates platform meeting, was a great success.

“As the project went along more and more people came to our open days, and they were very positive about it. Kids were climbing over the bee hotels – fortunately, in five years not a single person was stung by them. At our last open house, the people in the building opposite put up a big banner saying 'keep our bees alive'. We didn't know they were planning to do that, so we were surprised but very happy,” recalls Dr Vaissière.

Another pleasant surprise was just how many types of wild bees were in the city. “We had over 250 species in the Lyon urban area. That’s a quarter of the bee species in France. Nobody thought we would have that many,” he explains.

Lyon's legacy

Most of the bee hotels and other project infrastructure remains and continues to support wild bees and other insects. The URBANBEES team also created a guide to making public green spaces, residents' gardens and farmland more 'bee-friendly' through planting of particular species and so on.

“Lessons from our management guide have been applied by cities such as Metz and Besançon, as well as small towns like Saint-Maurice-sur-Dargoire,” explains the former project manager, Charlotte Visage. “In Belgium, Brussels Region and the Burdinale and Mehaigne Valleys Nature Park are both adapting the guide to their own context. We have also been invited to show our travelling exhibition in seven countries outside France, so there's been a lot of interest,” she says.

“The whole idea of having wild bees in urban areas has really picked up,” adds Dr Vaissière.

Glorious green roofs

Photo: Suzanne BurgessPhoto: Suzanne Burgess

In Scotland, the NGO Buglife has worked with local industries and land owners to create a network of green roofs within the industrial area of Grangemouth. This was part-funded by EcoCo LIFE, the project hosting the invertebrates platform meeting. “Green roofs, when designed well, provide homes for a range of wildlife, especially pollinating insects, and can be used and enjoyed by people too,” explains Suzanne Burgess, Buglife's Scotland manager. One of the roof gardens has been installed at a new secondary school (Carrongrange High School), where pupils have learned how to plant and maintain a diverse mix of native species. They have already observed butterflies, ladybirds, bumblebees and leafhoppers making use of the green roof.

Other ecosystem services

LIFE is also helping other types of invertebrates that provide important ecosystem services, such as recycling of organic material. A project in Italy is helping conserve and connect residual and isolated populations of two kinds of beetle that feed on dead and decaying wood. Both the hermit beetle (Osoderma eremita) and Alpine longhorn beetle (Rosalia alpina) thus help to maintain the health of forest ecosystems in Emilia-Romagna.

In Finland, the LIFE Integrated Project FRESHABIT LIFE IP is captive breeding the freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) ahead of planned reintroductions. This 'umbrella' species has a positive impact on entire river ecosystems. “They filtrate water, clean it and indirectly they even provide food for salmonid fish,” explains Professor Jouni Taskinen, who is leading the captive breeding programme.

New app for greener travel by public transport

Photo: Phil Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0Photo: Phil Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0

13 September 2018Public transport use is relatively low in Greece. LIFE GreenYourMove is hoping to change this with its new web platform and smartphone applications, designed to help users make the most environmentally-friendly journeys on public transport, and so cut greenhouse gas emissions. The project's journey planner is already available for a number of cities and intercity routes across Greece and covers all types of public transport, including urban and suburban buses, metro systems, trams, trolley-buses and trains.

"It gives the optimal route, based on arrival time, from points A to B using public transport, while at the same time promoting the greenest method of travel for that route," explains project manager Georgios K D Saharidis. "For example, it may suggest also taking an electric bus, a train or the metro instead of a regular bus." The planner calculates the greenhouse gas emissions for different scenarios to provide the user with the most environmentally friendly option. "This might include more than one mode of transport within the same journey, to achieve the greenest result," he adds.

A world first

LIFE GreenYourMove Image: LIFE GreenYourMove
(Click to view bigger image)

While other route planners exist, the LIFE GreenYourMove one is reckoned to be the first worldwide to have this environmental aspect. It even lets users buy tickets online for the recommended journeys - or for the different legs of a journey - where available. "Users who opt to do this are redirected to the transport operator's website, where the relevant ticket details are already filled in, to simplify the process for them," says Dr Saharidis.

"Today, this option is only available for the national railway, but in a few months we'll add some intercity bus operators." Over time, other transport operators will be added as they develop online ticketing systems, making the planner even more useful for travellers.

Beyond Greece

For LIFE GreenYourMove, the most challenging part of the project so far has been digitising all the data needed for the planner (e.g. timetables, route maps of journeys, locations of stops and stations). More towns and cities - even the public transport networks of whole countries - can be added quite easily, once this information is available. "We've already started digitising the data for Cyprus, which we'll add to the planner soon," Dr Saharidis points out.

Plus, project partners in the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic will capitalise on LIFE GreenYourMove's innovation. "Online journey planners were already developed for these countries several years ago, but without the green aspect," the project manager says. "Now, this will be integrated into their systems by the end of the year."

On the move

Next on the agenda for the project is a roadshow to build up awareness and use of the journey planner. LIFE GreenYourMove team members will visit towns and cities across Greece this month during European Mobility Week to present the planner and demonstrate how it works. "We'll also use the opportunity to get feedback from travellers and see how the planner might help change their behaviour," concludes Dr Saharidis. "Now a journey planner exists for Greece, we hope it will encourage people to use public transport more instead of their cars. Our ultimate objective is to decrease car use by 5% and so reduce emissions in Greece by 2 980 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year following the project."

How LIFE is improving our seas

LIFE and the marine environmentPhoto: LIFE SAMBAH

10 September 2018 “Clean and healthy oceans are crucial to the wellbeing of our planet,” says European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella.

From boosting biodiversity to stopping marine litter, LIFE is making a big contribution to EU efforts to achieve 'good environmental status' for marine waters. Now these success stories have been brought together in one publication: LIFE and the marine environment.

 

Bringing soils back to life

Photo: ECOREMEDPhoto: ECOREMED

04 September 2018Toxic pollutants from industrial waste can accumulate in fields and enter food chains, raising serious public health concerns. ECOREMED’s innovation was to grow combinations of pollutant-removing plants and trees to rehabilitate contaminated soils in Campania, southern Italy. “Our focus was the bio-remediation of contaminated land, but with a circular economy perspective,” says Massimo Fagnano of CIRAM-University in Naples, who led the project.  

The goal was to remove toxic substances from soils using non-food plants that could then become biomass for sustainable energy or be turned into biodegradable plastics. This meant setting up four study areas in Italian National Interest Priority Sites to test the effectiveness of different plant combinations.

Unearthing heavy metal

“Once heavy metals such as cadmium or lead in bioavailable form are removed from soils, land can again be used for agriculture,” explains Prof Fagnano. Some 11 ha of land was made safe for agriculture thanks to the project.

“In southern Italy, it is better to use black poplar or eucalyptus because they are more drought resistant. Where toxins have accumulated in the wood, slow pyrolysis to produce biochar was found to be the best technique for reducing environment risk,” he says.

Grass growing under the poplars trapped contaminated soil particles among its roots, thus preventing heavy metals spreading to air and groundwater. In fact, vegetation combinations were a feature at all the study sites.

Plants working together

At two sites, the project used dense plantings of giant reed and common reed to speed up the bio-degradation of organic contaminants, such hydrocarbons derived from petroleum. This biomass was not contaminated and so could be used without limits to make biodiesel or biodegradable materials.

Photo: PVCFreeBloodBagPhoto: ECOREMED

“The final study case was in a landfill, where soil compaction is a major problem. We used giant reed to improve soil porosity and soil fertility,” says Prof Fagnano. “We prefer to use a mix of species, such as pasture grass as winter cover and Bermuda grass as summer cover, to give a complete and continuous vegetation covering.” In addition, a row of trees contributes to bio-accumulation, while reducing ground-level wind speed and soil erosion, to reduce the risk of contaminated soil particles spreading.

“We want to substitute artificial landfill coverings, such as concrete platforms, with an ecological structure to gain the same results at a much lower cost,” he says.

Rehabilitation protocol

ECOREMED developed an integrated method of mapping soil pollutants and produced a protocol for rehabilitating agricultural soils. These are helping policymakers develop remediation strategies for polluted sites, and they are already being used to restore further sites in Campania that are contaminated with industrial wastes.

ECOREMED is a Best of the Best LIFE Environment project 2016-17

Bringing PVC-free blood bags one step closer

Photo: PVCFreeBloodBagPhoto: PVCFreeBloodBag

03 September 2018Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden’s Jamtland region, a partner of the LIFE project PVCFreeBloodBag, is taking the next steps in its mission to create a new, safer blood bag.

“Together with two European companies, the hospital wants to establish contact with a partner who has the ability to launch PVC-free blood bags on the market,” explains Lena Stigh from the Jegrelius Institute of Applied Green Chemistry, who led the project.

Between 2011 and June 2017, the LIFE project sought to pioneer the production of PVC-free blood bags and to investigate the establishment of supply chains. Having achieved its central objectives, the project team is now exploring ways to facilitate mainstream adaptation of the blood bags.

The project was run by Karolinska University Hospital, alongside plastics companies from across Europe, including Denmark’s Melitek A/S, Italy’s Haemotronic, Finland’s Wipak, and Primo Profile from Poland.

The PVC in traditional blood bags damages the environment in both manufacturing and disposal, not least in the release of dioxins and greenhouse gases during combustion. PVC blood bags contain up to 40 percent of the toxic plasticiser DEHP which is known to cause cancer, birth defects and infertility.

Photo: PVCFreeBloodBagPhoto: PVCFreeBloodBag

Speaking at the final project meeting last year, Gustav Eriksson, Head of the Karolinska University Hospital’s Environmental Department, explained how, having been part of the project, the hospital is preparing for a PVC-free future, saying, “we are going to phase out DEHP, we don’t want it anymore. We have a reduction list, and on that list is PVC.”

The project has already stimulated a great deal of interest in the new bags by spreading knowledge and awareness, and the next step is for potential clients to express demand for the product.

“We need to collaborate at a national and international level to gather the strength and make our market so large that a supplier finds it interesting enough to take the development risks,” says Mr Eriksson.

Ms Stigh has gone on to speak around the world to promote the project’s findings and stimulate further interest in its progression. “The market for PVC-free blood bags is global and the awareness and demand for a PVC-free blood bag is increasing,” she says.

A firm intent

The current challenge is to stimulate demand for the safer PVC-free bags and encourage both their production and procurement. The mechanism the team has chosen to demonstrate demand is a letter of intent, already signed by healthcare organisations across Sweden.

Mr Eriksson also suggests how the hospital itself can support buying, with his aim being to give PVC-free blood bags a boost by internally refunding the extra cost, in line with procurement laws. “It’s up to the producers to adapt to the proven possibilities to produce a PVC-free blood bag. They will be given an advantage in our next procurement. But most important is that the supplier believes that the market is consistent in its requirements and there is money available.”

 

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