FERN’s Friday Feed: Got milk? Um, no.

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

Milk has lost its magic

The Atlantic

“Last week, the FDA reported that 20 percent of the milk it had sampled from retailers across the country contained fragments of bird flu, raising concerns that the virus, which is spreading among animals, might be on its way to sickening humans too. The agency reassured the public that milk is still safe to drink because the pasteurization process inactivates the bird-flu virus. Still, the mere association with bird flu has left some people uneasy and led others to avoid milk altogether,” writes Yasmin Tayag. “That is, if they weren’t already avoiding it … For more than 70 years, consumption of the white liquid has steadily declined. It is no longer a staple of balanced breakfasts and bedtime routines, and milk alternatives offer the same creaminess in a latte or an iced coffee as the original stuff does. Milk was once seen as so integral to health that Americans viewed it as ‘almost sacred,’ but much of that mythos is gone … In 2022, the previous time the Department of Agriculture measured average milk consumption, it had reached an all-time low of 15 gallons a person.”

Rewind: Check out one of FERN’s James Beard nominees!

FERN and Switchyard

“The watermelon is a generous fruit: the flesh of one can feed a dozen people and can parent hundreds of melons with its seeds,” writes Jori Lewis in ‘Tell me why the watermelon grows.’ “Cultures throughout the ages have, and still do, interpret the watermelon as a symbol of good luck and fertility, a plant whose great fecundity might be shared with you. But in the United States, more than a century of racial denigration has cloaked and clouded this primordial symbol of solidarity, generosity, and abundance, transforming it into something almost unpalatable for many Black people. Of course, the watermelon itself is not to blame, but throughout its botanical, cultural, and social history, it has been a vehicle for our ideas about community, survival, and what we owe the future.”

From toxic fungus to soy sauce superstar

Knowable Magazine

“Nearly 9,000 years ago, around the time that humans were first domesticating corn and pigs, some people in China were taming fungi. One such fungus,” writes Rachel Ehrenberg, “the mold Aspergillus oryzae, would go on to become a culinary superstar. Through fermentation of raw ingredients like soybeans or rice, A. oryzae helps to bring us soy sauce, sake and several other traditional Asian foods. It does so by breaking down proteins and starches so that other microbes can finish off the fermentations. But A. oryzae wasn’t always so obliging. The wild version of the mold makes potent toxins that can poison the consumer and lead to cancer in the liver and other organs. Plus, it’s a destructive agricultural pest that causes millions of dollars in damage each year to crops like peanuts and corn.”

Designing a more climate-friendly cow

Anthropocene Magazine

“[T]hanks to intensive breeding and technological advances, [Peter] Hynes’s 180 dairy cows produce over twice the amount of milk their predecessors did even 50 years ago. The problem is, until recently they burped just as much methane. Far from existing in harmony with nature,” writes Katharine Gammon, “livestock farms are responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all the planet’s factories and construction combined – about 14 percent of global emissions – and rising. That’s because methane has 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and each of the world’s 1.6 billion cows produces up to 500 liters of the gas every day … Hynes’s heifers are different. His is the first commercial farm in Ireland to feed the cows Bovaer, a supplement that reduces the methane they emit by 30% or more. Hynes’s herd is at the vanguard of a new movement to reinvent the cow for a rapidly warming 21st century, a movement that includes breeding programs, genetic engineering, and even gas masks. But are such high-tech innovations a helpful step towards meeting our climate goals, or just a bandaid for our continued consumption of environmentally destructive beef and cheese?”

What a bug knows


“‘When I started studying bees in the late 1980s, the prevailing view was not just that they’re not conscious, but that they are just incapable of any kind of emotion,’ Lars Chittka, a sensory and behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, told me recently,” writes Carrie Arnold. “‘The whole notion would have seemed just absurd.’ However, a growing collection of new experiments is challenging the old consensus. Far from being six-legged automatons, they can experience feelings akin to pain and suffering, joy and desire. When Chittka gave bumblebees an extra jolt of sucrose, their favorite food, the bees buzzed with delight. Agitated, anxious honeybees, on the other hand, responded with pessimism when researchers shook them to simulate a predatory attack … Ants display rudimentary counting abilities, can understand the concept of zero and make tools … Cockroaches have complex social lives. Fruit flies drown themselves in booze when deprived of mating opportunities … In other words, insects have thoughts and feelings. The next question for philosophers and scientists alike is: Do they have consciousness?”