FERN’s Friday Feed: The costly war on weeds

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

The biodiversity crisis is at its core a crisis of seeing


“My father saw two things in lawns: grass and not grass. Botanists have labeled this ‘plant blindness’; as fewer people farm or learn botany in school, fewer people can identify plants or even notice them. Society has come to see plants as the backdrop, the setting, rather than the actors. But plants are alchemists, really, converting sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen, the energy and breath that constitute and sustain life on Earth. They are dazzlingly diverse, with … more than 350,000 worldwide,” writes Laura J. Martin. “Most of these species go unnoticed, as does their decline. This is true across the tree of life, but it is especially true with plants. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 44,000 species are currently threatened with extinction, including 34% of coniferous plants. To date, humans have nearly halved the total number of trees on Earth. Meanwhile, as species struggle, more than 40 million acres of the United States are planted as lawns, an area the size of Washington state and three times larger than that of any irrigated crop.”

In Italy, we live to eat. Except in the hospital.

The Guardian

“As one of our [Italy’s] most noted writers, Elsa Morante, put it: ‘The truest display of affection, the only one indeed, is “Have you eaten?”’ That’s right: not the decrepit, abstract ‘I love you,’ but a concerned question about your dear one having had a meal or not. There is only one place where this food-cherishing narrative fails,” writes Viola Di Grado, “and it’s the hospital. As every Italian knows, as soon as you’re admitted as a patient, the opulence of tastes is replaced with miserable food worthy of a medieval jail. The meals served to patients not only lack variety (you can count on one hand the available options throughout the year) but are chewy, hard and strictly devoid of any taste or seasoning. So widespread is this practice, with no exceptions (even, as far as I know, in expensive private clinics) that no one has ever wondered where it came from. In fact, I hadn’t either until last summer.”

California crawfish dreaming


“Despite what the festival’s turnout might imply, northern California has not always been a crawfish-eating destination. While this expanse of western land was once home to three native species, since Europeans began arriving in 1769, crawfish were primarily used as fishing bait,” writes Katie Carter King. “Even so, all three are now either endangered or extinct. Other species of crawfish are the primary culprits, chief among them the red swamp crayfish. In the Gulf South, these are affectionately termed Louisiana reds. No one knows exactly how they first came west, but there are plenty of theories … As Isleton Crawdad Festival founder Susan Ramon explained to me, ‘In the late 1930s, early 1940s, a Frenchman from Louisiana trucked in Louisiana red crawfish and infiltrated the northern California rice fields.’ … Others suggest they crept up from southern California after a bullfrog farmer in San Diego County imported them to feed his army of amphibians in 1932. No matter how they arrived, armed with oversized vermillion claws and a notoriously aggressive nature, reds quickly conquered irrigated and leveed waterways throughout the state.”

FERN’s farm bill series gets shout out from John Oliver!

A few months ago, FERN published a series in collaboration with Mother Jones that weighed in on the country’s most important – and most intractable – food system legislation: the farm bill. In one of the articles, reporter Tom Philpott argued that as Congress negotiates the farm bill, it should consider making conservation compliance mandatory for farmers. The article got a mention in this week’s episode of ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.’ (Skip to timestamp 22:42 for the mention!)

Tracking illicit Brazilian beef from the Amazon to your burger

ProPublica and The New Yorker

“Hansen’s bosses never told her that PFOS was toxic,” writes Sharon Lerner. “In the weeks after Johnson left 3M, however, she felt that she was under a new level of scrutiny. One of her superiors suggested that her equipment might be contaminated, so she cleaned the mass spectrometer and then the entire lab. Her results didn’t change. Another encouraged her to repeatedly analyze her syringes, bags, and test tubes, in case they had tainted the blood. (They had not.) Her managers were less concerned about PFOS, it seemed to Hansen, than about the chance that she was wrong.”

Chain restaurants gone glam

Knowable Magazine

“In 2018, the actor B.J. Novak went on a podcast called Air Jordan, which is hosted by the food journalist Jordan Okun,” writes Ryan Bradley. “On it, the two chat for a while about Instagram and pizza — Novak says he’s partial to Papa Johns — before Okun says, ‘You had an interesting idea you were telling me about, for a restaurant.’ ‘It’s a restaurant called Chain,’ Novak replies. ‘It’s a chain-themed restaurant … the red leather booths, the onion blossom, the sports bar TVs, a big laminated menu. But it’s done really well, and there’s only one of them.’ Novak goes on to say how, because this restaurant would have a single location, you could put it in a hip neighborhood, the kind of neighborhood that specifically does not welcome a Chili’s or TGI Friday’s. But, of course, a spot like this, with all that comfort, all the nostalgia, all that familiar food but done better, would kill.”