Reasons to Be Thankful — 8 Food and Farm 'Good News' Stories
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.
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Home gardening is having a boom year across the U.S. Whether they're growing their own food in response to pandemic shortages or just looking for a diversion, numerous aspiring gardeners have constructed their first raised beds, and seeds are flying off suppliers' shelves. Now that gardens are largely planted, much of the work for the next several months revolves around keeping them healthy.
Start With Prevention<p>Just as preventive steps like maintaining a balanced diet help keep humans healthy, home growers can take many actions to help their gardens thrive.</p><p>One key step is assessing soil fertility – the ability of soil to sustain plant growth – which can vary widely depending on your location and soil type. Low soil fertility limits food production and predisposes plants to disease and pests. University extension <a href="https://soiltesting.wvu.edu/" target="_blank">soil testing labs</a> can help evaluate the quality of garden soil and identify nutrient deficiencies and acidic soils, often at no charge.</p>
Using weed barrier landscape cloth for planting rows and mulching between rows is an effective way to suppress weeds. Matt Kasson, CC BY-ND
Diagnosing Problems<p>Common plant pathogens include <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/viral/introduction/Pages/PlantViruses.aspx" target="_blank">viruses</a>, <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/prokaryote/intro/Pages/Bacteria.aspx" target="_blank">bacteria</a>, <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/nematode/intro/Pages/IntroNematodes.aspx" target="_blank">nematodes</a>, <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/oomycete/introduction/Pages/IntroOomycetes.aspx#:%7E:text=The%20oomycetes%2C%20also%20known%20as,foliar%20blights%20and%20downy%20mildews." target="_blank">oomycetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/fungalasco/intro/Pages/IntroFungi.aspx" target="_blank">fungi</a>. All of these microorganisms, especially at an early stage of infection, are too small to see. But when they proliferate, they cause changes in plants that we can recognize.</p><p>Unlike insects, which move around on six legs or on wings through the air, pathogens can move unseen and unchecked from leaf to leaf on the wind, through the soil or in droplets of water. Some microbes have even formed intimate relationships with insects and use them as vehicles to move from plant to plant, which makes these pathogens even more challenging to manage. Unfortunately, by the time some pathogens make their presence known, the damage is already done.</p><p>We recently conducted a <a href="https://twitter.com/kasson_wvu/status/1265989041725624323" target="_blank">Twitter poll</a> of gardeners nationwide to find out which culprits plagued their gardens. People named <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/aphids" target="_blank">aphids</a>, <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/squash-vine-borer" target="_blank">squash vine borers</a>, <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/squash-bug" target="_blank">squash bugs</a> and <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/flea-beetle" target="_blank">flea beetles</a> as the most problematic insect pests. Their most troublesome pathogens included <a href="https://extension.wvu.edu/lawn-gardening-pests/plant-disease/fruit-vegetable-diseases/powdery-mildew" target="_blank">powdery mildew</a>, <a href="https://plantpath.ifas.ufl.edu/rsol/Trainingmodules/BWTomato_Module.html" target="_blank">tomato bacterial wilt</a> and <a href="https://extension.wvu.edu/lawn-gardening-pests/plant-disease/fruit-vegetable-diseases/downy-mildew" target="_blank">cucurbit downy mildew</a>.</p><p>To manage such perennial challenges, the first step is to spend time closely looking at your plants. Do you notice any insects consistently hanging around, or molds colonizing leaves or other plant parts? How about symptoms such as blight, stunting, or leaves that are yellowing, browning or wilting?</p>
This white fungal growth is an early sign of powdery mildew on a leaf of susceptible summer squash. Matt Kasson, CC BY-ND
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Value of air conditioning imports in selected OECD countries. ScienceDirect
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