FERN’s Friday Feed: The West is burning. Here’s why.

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

Why the American West is on fire


“Since 1970, the annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. Since 1984, the area annually burned by wildfire has doubled,” writes Wes Siler. Currently, 137 fires are raging across the West, devouring 7.8 million acres and counting. While that’s not as bad as 2015, which saw 8.4 million acres go up in flames, the season isn’t over yet. This year, more than half of the Forest Service budget went to fighting forest fires, compared to 16 percent in 1995. So why the new level of destruction? Climate change for starters — spring comes sooner, speeding up snowmelt with record-high temperatures and record-dry summers. Montana, which has more fires (46) than any other state, also had the hottest, driest summer in its history. As more people crowd into the region, they’re building in places prone to fires. “According to an analysis by the insurance industry, 60 percent of new homes constructed since 1990 are located in what’s known as the Wildland-Urban Interface Area,” says Siler. And, ironically, as the Forest Service spends so much of its budget fighting fires, it has little left to prevent them.

Climate change is making plants less nutritious


As CO2 levels rise, plants are growing faster and producing more sugars (a.k.a. carbohydrates). That might sound like a good thing, but researchers are increasingly alarmed that all those carbs are pushing out other nutrients like protein and iron. “In 2004, a landmark study of fruits and vegetables found that everything from protein to calcium, iron and vitamin C had declined significantly across most garden crops since 1950,” writes Helena Bottemiller Evich. At first, scientists blamed the kinds of plants farmers were growing. Only recently have scientists started to research how the atmosphere itself is altering the nutritional makeup of crops, in large part because the studies necessary to look into that question are interdisciplinary — they require equal expertise in mathematics and ecology, for example, which few academics have. In other words, what might turn out to be a massive public health issue has been almost entirely neglected in the scientific literature.

Leave my bodega alone

The New York Times

When a startup named Bodega announced plans to replace real bodegas — those character-filled, usually immigrant-owned, charmingly haphazard but essential corner stores that sell everything from breakfast to condoms — with unmanned groceries, New Yorkers let out a collective, “Hell, no!” The company, founded by two ex-Googlers, was  “widely savaged across social media on the grounds that its name and business mission are culturally insensitive, morally dubious, and, perhaps worst of all, lacking in personality,” writes Adam Chandler. “[W]hat make bodegas beloved are their personalities. It seems like every one of them is oddly curated: prayer candles sit next to jarred olives which are sidled up next to boxes of organic mac-and-cheese. There is no Silicon Valley algorithm clever enough to come up with those crumbly, shrink-wrapped date bars that are inevitably piled up by the cash registers.”

Amazon’s buyout of Whole Foods is a class experiment


After buying Whole Foods for an easy $13.7 billion, Amazon cut food prices on items like avocados, signaling that the retail giant was interested in making healthy food more accessible to low-income communities. But not so fast. Whole Foods built its brand on catering to the so-called aspirational class, a term that has less to do with how much you make and more to do with what you value: “If you can hold forth on the relative merits of local versus organic versus biodynamic produce, regularly spend more than 30 seconds choosing which peanut butter to buy, and have researched the benefits of raw milk, you are definitely a member of the aspirational class, no matter what your 401(k) looks like,” writes Annaliese Griffin. In order for Amazon to reach a new customer group, it will have to make people who previously felt judged when they stepped into a Whole Foods, suddenly feel welcome — and that will take a lot more than lowering prices.

Shad planking in Virginia

Southern Foodways Alliance

“The American shad were once as plentiful in the water along the east coast as the buffalo were in the west,” says Jackie Snow. “But after decades of overfishing and pollution, their numbers plummeted and Virginia outlawed commercial fishing of shad in the 1970s.” Today, a government restoration project is fighting to bring the fish back. The number of adult shad that return to the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay to spawn each year has increased five-fold since the 1980s, though the program’s success depends on tenuous EPA funding. A shad revival isn’t just good for the fish or all the other animals that eat them, like eagles. Preserving shad also means preserving a Virginia political tradition called Shad planking. For decades, Virginia politicians, hoping to schmooze with voters, have traveled to the town of Wakefield each spring to eat the fish, nailed to a wood plank, smoked over a wooden fire and lathered with a secret spicy sauce.

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