Editor’s Desk: FERN’s independence at work

Varieties of Mexican corn displayed at a restaurant in Oaxaca City. Photo by Omar Torres/AFP via Getty Images.

By Theodore Ross

I’m coming up on my first year working with the good folks at FERN, and I’ve been spending some time thinking about what we do. If you don’t already know it, FERN is an “independent, nonprofit news organization that produces award-winning, high-impact investigative and explanatory reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.” Good stuff! (Did you know you can donate to us?)

Most of what that means is pretty self-evident. But some of you might be curious about what the word independent means to us. Yes, as a nonprofit, we can raise money from like-minded institutions and individuals who care about the issues that make up our mission. (Did I mention that you can donate?) As a result, we are not beholden to advertisers to support our staff and the people we work with. 

These are, as you are probably aware, highly polarized times, politically and socially. But at FERN, we believe that our issues — all that food, agriculture, and environmental health stuff — are rooted in fact, not partisanship. They span the spectrum of this country’s disagreements. And that diversity is reflected in the breadth of publications we partner with when we co-publish.

This past week is an excellent example. We published two deeply reported feature stories with two very different publications.

The first was “The U.S.-Mexico tortilla war,” by Alexander Zaitchik, which we co-published with The Nation, a venerable magazine of the political left. It is a sharply argued analysis of a trade conflict with our neighbor to the south. It is about corn — tortillas, really — on one level, but in the bigger picture it looks at genetically modified foods and specifically, the use of the herbicide glyphosate in raising GMO corn. Zaitchik writes:

Defending food supplies is an ancient cornerstone of the social contract, one enshrined in 21st century trade pacts including the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the successor to NAFTA. In December 2023, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador invoked this right when he banned genetically modified corn for human consumption and phased out the use of glyphosate, GM corn’s signature herbicide, which the World Health Organization calls “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The measure, said López Obrador, was necessary to guarantee Mexicans’ “rights to health and a healthy environment, native corn, [and] ensure a nutritious, sufficient, and quality diet.”

The day after, we published “The Crab Kings,” by Andrew S. Lewis, in partnership with Bloomberg Businessweek, another venerable publication, but not of the political left. This is a story about a highly prized ocean species, the red king crab, and how global political policies, the demand of diners, climate change, and the war between Ukraine and Russia have changed the fortunes of a a fishing village in Norway, which happens to be one of the largest sources of the Paralithodes camtschaticus. A U.S. embargo on crab from Russia has driven prices up, which has been good for the bottom line of the seafaring residents of Bugøynes. But will they manage the population, or drive the crab into extinction? Lewis writes:

Quotas are almost always the subject du jour. They’ve created and destroyed fortunes, as well as made the difference between kids’ leaving for the cities or staying home. While the village’s new status quo feels less fixed than it did a year ago, locals are still talking in whens, not ifs. “I think it will be four or five years before the bigger crabs return,” Ingilæ says. In the meantime the highest-end restaurants with the wealthiest customers still want to believe the seafood they eat is as sustainable as is possible in a world where humans consume 344 billion pounds of fish and shellfish each year.

I don’t mean to imply that either The Nation or Bloomberg Businessweek are beholden to anyone or anything, politically or otherwise. They just approach journalistic problems from different angles — openly, ethically, and with great skill. So does FERN, reporting on the world of food and environment with an independence that allows us to go wherever the story takes us. And I’m proud to be a part of it. 
Proud enough to ask you to donate three times in one Editor’s Desk, possibly a FERN record! If you like what we do, please consider making a donation.