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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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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