FERN’s Highlights of 2014

In 2014, FERN covered 20 incredible stories on food, farming, and environmental health— from fracking in California to a tussle over the rights to quinoa germplasm in Bolivia. Our stories appeared with 14 media partners—some of whom we’ve worked with before, and some of whom we joined forces with just this year.

As we gear up for next year, we thought we would share a few of our favorite long-form stories from 2014.

Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm The Young Brain,” by Susan Freinkel, The Nation, March 2014.

When Susan Freinkel’s article “Warning Signs” appeared on the cover of The Nation, parents across the country had reason to be alarmed. Delving into a groundbreaking, 15-year study by UC Berkeley, the story examines the impact of pesticides on young children. The study, known as CHAMACOS, has monitored the health of more than 800 children of farmworkers in Salinas, California since 1999, and what the researchers have found is disturbing.

“As it turns out, [pesticides] can pass through the placenta, gaining access to the baby’s bloodstream and, eventually, its delicate, developing brain,” writes Freinkel. Exposure, she explains, is linked to increased rates of Asperger’s’ Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder and lower IQ scores. Yet often the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fails to protect workers and families from exposure, while the pressure for higher yields encourages many farmers to treat their crops with dangerous chemicals.

Nervous Energy,” by Barry Yeoman, Sunset magazine, March 2014.

In “Nervous Energy,” Barry Yeoman led Sunset magazine’s one million readers to California’s fracking frontier. Yeoman tells the story of winemakers Paula and Paul Getzelman, whose property falls atop the Monterey Shale—a 1,750-mile patchwork of rock that scientists say holds nearly four times the amount of oil as North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

“Fracking and related activities have […] been linked to water and air pollution, health problems ranging from asthma to low birth-weight babies, wildlife habitat disruption, and boomtown ills such as homelessness and crime,” Yeoman writes. But with the potential to earn $24.6 billion in state and local taxes and create 2.8 million California jobs, the technology has its champions. Yeoman’s even-handed approach shows how little we know about fracking’s effects and how much is at stake, as oil and gas extraction encroaches on farmland.

A companion radio piece by Amy Quinton of Capital Radio in Sacramento aired on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Plowed Under,” by Joceyln C. Zuckerman, The American Prospect, April 2014.

In this startling portrait of the American Midwest, Joceyln C. Zuckerman maps the demise of the nation’s grasslands to row upon row of corn and soybeans. “While few seem to be aware of it, a massive shift is under way in the Western plains, with ramifications for the quality of our water and food, and most fundamentally, the long-term viability of our farms,” writes Zuckerman. Navigating the latest data, she reveals how high commodity prices and poor federal policies spurred the destruction of 1.3 million acres of native grassland between 2006-2011–the most devastating loss of prairie since the 1920s. As more land is claimed by the plow, Zuckerman warns, farmers themselves will bear the heaviest costs of soil erosion and man-made drought.

The Quinoa Quarrel: Who Owns the World’s Greatest Superfood?” by Lisa M. Hamilton, Harper’s magazine, April 2014.

In one of FERN’s first international stories, Lisa M. Hamilton travels to the Bolivian Andes to follow the intellectual property battle over quinoa. As Hamilton reports, quinoa’s recent popularity as a “superfood” has brought new money to poor Andean farmers who can grow little else on their harsh land. In fact, their land is nearly the only place that quinoa does grow successfully. Agronomists believe that if quinoa could be bred for other climates, it could feed millions of hungry people around the globe. But “[this] leads to an uncomfortable standoff: the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world,” writes Hamilton, who interviewed both seed geneticists eager to spread the crop’s reach and Bolivians afraid of sinking back into poverty if they lose their hold on the market. A vivid photo essay also by Hamilton accompanied the piece.

Caviar’s Last Stand: How the International Caviar Underground Ended Up in the Ozarks,” by Michelle Nijhuis, Medium.com, July 2014.

“Caviar’s Last Stand” unfolds like a murder drama, as Nijhuis tracks the 18-month investigation into a paddlefish killing spree on the Osage River in Missouri. “Like sturgeon, female paddlefish bloat with tiny eggs and a single paddlefish can contain ten pounds of roe, worth as much as $40,000 when labeled and sold as high-grade Russian caviar,” writes Nijhuis, who followed local and federal officials as they caught up with poachers in the Ozarks. In a performance based on her story at FERN Talks & Eats in New York City, Nijhuis said that paddlefish are the “slow-growth forest” of their species—unless illegal fishing is stopped, they will be decimated like their sturgeon cousins in Europe.

Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?” by Tracie McMillan, Slate, November 2014.

The story of Whole Foods’ entry into Detroit in 2012 was one of FERN’s most popular of the year, with more than 8,000 shares on social media and 1,100 reader comments. In the story Tracie McMillan revealed that Whole Food’s grand aspirations to make sustainable and organic food accessible to Detroit’s poorest residents have largely failed because prices remain out of reach.

“Shoppers wanting simple, affordable healthy food, rather than an aspirational product, have better options elsewhere,” writes McMillan. “And for indisputably poor people…the prices simply aren’t low enough to work.” Through interviews with company executives and low-income shoppers, McMillan describes the complex realities of food access, health, and poverty. She also crunched price data to see how Whole Foods prices stack up against several Detroit retailers. The results can be viewed on FERN’s website and an interactive “shopping cart” at Slate.com.

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