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Reasons to Be Thankful — 8 Food and Farm 'Good News' Stories

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Reasons to Be Thankful — 8 Food and Farm 'Good News' Stories
Sometimes gratitude feels like a stretch. Foxys_forest_manufacture / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Karen Perry Stillerman

Sometimes gratitude feels like a stretch, and this fall has been one of those times. We're in the home stretch of a difficult year. Bad news abounds, and even the holiday that many of us will celebrate this week is complicated — a day of thanks that also evokes loss and grief for many Native people, along with expressions of resilience. With Thanksgiving approaching, I went looking for hopeful stories, scanning the news of food and agriculture for signs of progress and promise.


And though I'm sure I've only scratched the surface, I actually found quite a lot. Here's a roundup of good news food and farming stories.

And happy Thanksgiving.

1. The story of the first Thanksgiving feast is being retold — more truthfully.

The Thanksgiving story most of us were taught as children was … well, it was a lie. It papered over a genocide that included the systematic destruction of indigenous food systems that had kept Native American peoples nourished for centuries (and which are healthier and more sustainable than modern diets). But a story in Time this week explores how and why teachers across the country are (at last) updating the Thanksgiving curriculum from false feel-good stories and cultural appropriation to helping students grapple with a difficult history. In an NPR feature this past weekend, teachers shared their stories, including this one from a kindergarten teacher in Colorado: "I spend the whole month of November talking about the different Native American groups. I make it a point to tell them and show them books and videos that are current and have Native American representation so they don't think they were just in history. And then the week before Thanksgiving, we talk about how the colonists came over. And I call them colonists instead of pilgrims." We have a lot more work to do, but that's a start.

2. Farmers are agitating — and organizing — for the climate.

As 2019's crazy Midwest weather made clear, climate change is here and it's bad news for farmers and our food system. A spate of recent news articles has focused on ways farmers can build resilience and become part of the climate solution. Now, as more and more farmers recognize the dangers of more frequent floods and droughts, they're speaking up, with thousands organizing behind the Green New Deal and one fifth-generation Iowa farmer educating presidential candidates on the issue as they traipse through the state on the campaign trail.

3. Some big food companies are also calling for climate action.

If you heard that a coalition of huge multinational companies was weighing in on President Trump's decision to initiate the process of pulling the U.S. out of the Paris agreement on climate change, you might not expect them to be taking him to task for it. But that's what Unilever, Mars, Danone and Nestle — major players in the food industry that came together in 2018 as the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance — did last month. See their press release on the need to stay in the Paris agreement, and also their climate policy principles, which include "partnering with farms to reduce emissions and promote regenerative soil health management."


4. States are banning a dangerous pesticide in the face of EPA inaction … and it's about time.

I've followed the saga of the brain-damaging insecticide chlorpyrifos since the Trump EPA's disturbing about-face on a national ban in 2017. This year, states started taking matters into their own hands to protect children from chlorpyrifos residues on fruits and other common foods and farmworkers from exposure in the field. Following a 2018 ban in Hawaii and another in New York in early 2019, this fall California became the third state to act to protect public health.

5. Soil-protecting, pollution-preventing solutions are gaining ground.

Cover crops are a powerful tool for building healthy, living soil that is resilient to extreme weather, thwarts pests and weeds with fewer chemicals, prevents fertilizer runoff into water and stores carbon. As we reported on this blog earlier this year, adoption of cover crops on U.S. farms grew by 50 percent over five years, from 10 million acres in 2012 to 15 million acres in 2017. Led by Iowa (which saw a whopping 156% jump), every state in the Midwest increased its cover crop plantings, and seven states saw at least a doubling of acreage in cover crops. Moreover, more farmers may soon get insurance discounts for planting them, if a three-year, $3 million Iowa demonstration project shows they reduce farmers' risk.

6. New research shows how farmers can grow crops under solar panels for a win-win.

The emerging field of "agrivoltaics" can help farmers boost revenue, generate clean energy and use less water. In a study published in September, researchers in Arizona showed all those benefits for cherry tomatoes grown in agrivoltaic systems in that hot, dry and sunny state. Dual-use solar systems also seem to work with leafy greens, which benefit from the cooling shade of the panels. Now, cranberry growers in Massachusetts are now experimenting with the system, which — if it's successful — could make everyone's "favorite" holiday condiment more sustainable (no matter how you like it prepared).

7. Obesity rates are falling for young children enrolled in a federal nutrition program.

In recent years, public health practitioners have fought an uphill battle to counter rising childhood obesity, which impacts nearly 1 in 5 children and costs an estimated $14 billion in direct medical expenses each year. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows promising declines in obesity among young children ages two to four whose families are enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (commonly known as WIC). These declines, which occurred across 41 states and territories, may be a reflection of program changes back in 2009 that brought WIC food packages into closer alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but it's likely that other concurrent efforts happening at federal, state and local levels helped.

8. Food can help revitalize communities — both in cities and in rural areas.

With a new book, author Mark Winne argues for the power of "good food" to spark community development. In Food Town USA (see also a book review in slideshow form), Winne points to seven cities and towns across the country — from Sitka, Alaska to Jacksonville, Florida — where local entrepreneurs and activists are reshaping food landscapes for the better, addressing racial inequities, climate challenges and urban decay. And it's not just cities that can benefit from local food system development. A recent New York Times story puts a spotlight on rural areas that have lost grocery stores, documenting how residents have launched cooperative markets and other creative solutions to bring back fresh food and a sense of community for their neighbors.

Now, pass the cranberry sauce …

Karen Perry Stillerman is a senior communication strategist and senior analyst in the Food & Environment Program at UCS.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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