FERN’s Friday Feed: Animals’ genius GPS

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

Why animals don’t get lost

The New Yorker

“In 2013, after an indoor cat named Holly went missing during a road trip with her owners to Daytona Beach and turned up back home two months later, in West Palm Beach, two hundred miles away, the collective ethological response to the question of how she did it was ‘Beats me,’” writes Kathryn Schulz. “And that bafflement is generalizable. Cats, bats, elephant seals, red-tailed hawks, wildebeests, gypsy moths, cuttlefish, slime mold, emperor penguins: to one degree or another, every animal on earth knows how to navigate—and, to one degree or another, scientists remain perplexed by how they do so.”

In Florida, Big Sugar gets what it pays for

Tampa Bay Times

“Florida’s powerful sugar industry spent more than $11 million on Florida campaigns in the 2020 cycle,” writes Mary Ellen Klas. In return, the industry’s supporters in the statehouse are pushing a bill that critics say will shield the industry from “a class-action lawsuit over its sugarcane burning and … prevent more lawsuits like it.” The burning of cane leaves to prepare for harvest, from October through May, “causes smoke and plumes of soot to fall in what is commonly known as ‘black snow.’” Residents who live near the cane fields complain that it diminishes their property values, causes long-term respiratory problems and prevents the area from growing economically.

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The fish pepper’s long and winding road


“[F]ruity and spicy, similar in texture to a serrano, but without any bitterness in its bite,” the fish pepper is thought to have migrated in the early 1800s from the Caribbean to the gardens of “African Americans all along the Chesapeake Bay,” writes Debra Freeman. “Fish peppers were not only used to season food, though. They were considered a powerful remedy for joint pain and were employed to discourage bugs from destroying tobacco plants. Oral history describes how enslaved people rubbed fish peppers on their feet in order to disguise any scent and throw off the dogs who tracked them as they escaped to freedom.”

From your Twitter feed to your Peloton, Big Food is watching


“[B]ig foodmakers are finally warming to analytics as they try to become nimbler and more responsive to consumer whims,” write Deena Shanker and Henry Ren. “A pandemic-driven rise in online shopping and grocery delivery has widened the trove of data available to food companies that have long struggled to gain insight into shopping trends.” And it isn’t just “Twitter feeds or delivery orders. Some companies are grabbing cell-phone tracking info, scouring customers’ grocery receipts and keeping tabs on how long it takes to clean up dinner. Conagra is even monitoring Peloton subscriptions to gauge whether shoppers would be more inclined to buy health food versus junk food, and tweaking its marketing accordingly.”

The Farm Bureau’s faux environmentalism

The New Republic

After publicly “throwing its weight behind” President Biden’s plan to pay farmers for sequestering carbon, the American Farm Bureau Federation now says its support is conditional, writes Charlie Mitchell. The first condition is that Biden’s carbon bank “‘mitigate potential market impacts’ … While they didn’t specify what these impacts on the market might be, it’s certainly possible that if the government pays a decent price for carbon … farmers might choose to plant for carbon in lieu of commodity crops, and this would cut into the sales of agrochemicals and raise livestock feeding prices for the agribusiness giants Farm Bureau represents.” In other words, the bureau is all for dealing with climate change—as long as the agricultural status quo remains untouched.