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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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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