Story Categories

Antibiotics

Our Critical Public-Health Story Goes Viral

In “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future,” reporter Maryn McKenna details how antibiotic resistance is spreading and why, and what could be done to quell the problem. She frames the importance of modern antibiotics around the story of her distant relative, who died of an infection from a simple injury, just before the discovery of penicillin.

The piece immediately went viral on Medium.com, a news-and-views site created by one of the founders of Twitter. As of April 2014, four months after its publication, it continued to gain readership, with more than 400,000 pageviews, and 57 percent of viewers reading the entire story.

In addition, the story was re-reported in over 30 other outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, News Hour, Salon and the popular technology site Boing Boing. McKenna’s piece also was selected as one of the best of 2013 by National Geographic, Business Week, and Medium.com, and was translated into Russian and French and republished at major outlets abroad.

New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter included the story in an e-mail seeking support for legislation that would alter rules on the use of antibiotics in agriculture, under the subject heading: “The most important stories about the antibiotic resistance crisis of the last six months.”

FERN Takes the Lead on Ractopamine Coverage

Dispute Over Drug in Feed Limiting U.S. Meat Exports,” which was published January 25, 2012 (and was our second story after our launch in 2011), on MSNBC.com (now NBCnews.com), was the first in-depth article on the growth-promoting drug ractopamine in the U.S. mainstream press. We knew we’d hit a nerve when the story starting receiving a lot of coverage by other outlets and queries from Taiwanese reporters and legislators. At the time, Taiwan was considering lifting the country’s ban on ractopamine, and at least five articles in the Taiwanese media followed our reporting, heightening tensions over the issue.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) responded to the article by revising its statistics on pig illnesses and deaths attributed to the drug. We wrote this Editor’s Note at the time in response to the FDA’s decision.

FERN continued to follow the story, noting in 2013 that Russia joined China and Taiwan in banning U.S. beef and pork that had been raised with the drug. Then, in June 2013, Smithfield Foods, which had quietly decreased the amount of pork it produced with ractopamine, was sold to China’s largest meat processor. This prompted our follow-up report and a look at how our reporting had helped spur the public to ask more questions about the drug’s safety for humans.

Since then, the FDA has issued voluntary guidelines recommending that the livestock industry discontinue the use of micro-doses of antibiotics to fatten up animals. Ractopamine was included on that list, so its use could continue to decrease.

The following is a timeline of policy changes that flowed from FERN’s story:

Key Story on Antibiotic-resistance Brought to a Mainstream Audience

In May 2013, “Antibiotics In Your Food: What’s Causing The Rise In Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria In Our Food Supply,” appeared in the popular consumer magazine, EatingWell. Reporter Barry Estabrook took a deep dive into the growing issue of antibiotic resistance due to routine antibiotic use in livestock production. Estabrook, author of The New York Times bestseller Tomatoland, detailed how livestock are fed a diet laced with “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics, not to cure illness but to make the animals grow faster and survive cramped living conditions. EatingWell has a print circulation of 500,000 and an estimated North American audience of 1.8+ million per issue. Online, the story received 882 likes on Facebook and 195 tweets, including by Michael Pollan (307,000+ followers), Mark Bittman (370,000+ followers), Bay Area Bites (71,000+ followers) and The Ecologist magazine (54,000 followers). The story also was highlighted by OnEarth.

Climate Change & Drought

FERN Put Food Distribution on the Policy Radar

Elizabeth Grossman’s groundbreaking piece, “Climate Change Poses Serious Threats to Food Distribution,” introduced a new and troubling frame to the conversation about climate change, agriculture, and access to good food. Published March 2015, by Earth Island Journal, it was shared on social media 500 times and the 1,500 (and counting) folks who read it on the Journal’s site spent an average of five minutes with the piece—pretty good engagement in our click-and-flit digital world. More important, perhaps, is that among the places that picked up Grossman’s piece was AGree: Transforming Food & Agriculture, the reform effort led by Dan Glickman, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and Kathleen Merrigan, a former Deputy Secretary of the USDA. In other words, the article got to people who can actually make a difference.

FERN Decodes the Water Wars of California’s Drought

In March 2015, we published a profile of Cannon Michael, a Central Valley farmer who devised a water-sharing scheme to help his struggling neighbors cope with the epic drought. “How One California Farmer Is Battling the Worst Drought in 1,200 years,” published by Ensia, was more than a feel-good story about one man’s selflessness. It also exposed the deeply flawed water-allocation system that has evolved over more than 100 years in California, and that is exacerbating the problems currently facing America’s most-important agricultural region. The story had legs. After more than 60,000 views on Ensia and its syndication partners, Business Insider, Quartz, and Climate Central, it had nearly 2,000 social-media shares. Twitter highlights include Ensia (30.3K followers); Sunset Magazine (62.6K followers) and NPRFood (48K followers). The story also made Michael a farmer in demand, as he began turning up in stories about the drought in outlets like The New York Times and NPR.

Farms & Labor

We Capture the Migrant’s Story in California’s Drought

In “Scorched,” published in print and online by Pacific Standard, Lauren Markham recounts the harrowing saga of a young woman and her daughter who make the trek across the U.S. border to flee political unrest in Honduras. They were caught by immigration authorities and detained for several days. Even after Clara (not her real name) reunites with her husband in California, the family is haunted by a lack of work due to the drought.

Markham brings a razor-sharp focus to the people in this tightly written saga. The narrative approach is particularly powerful, since whether it’s immigration or drought, the human toll can often be forgotten and the personal stories lost amid the larger political and cultural debates. In this piece, however, the issues Clara faces are anything but abstract.

Markham made a number of media appearances to discuss this piece, most notably on Southern California Public Radio KPCC’s Take Two.

FERN Reports From America’s Under-reported Midwest

Our April 2014 piece for American Prospect, “Plowed Under,” looked at native grassland across America’s Western Corn Belt, which are being plowed under and replaced with row crops at an unprecedented rate. The story reached an audience of 625,000 and had more than 3,000 shares on social media.

FERN’s Palm-oil Expose Helps Force World Bank to Fix Policy

Children Left Vulnerable By World Bank Amid Push For Development,” which was published on The Huffington Post in October 2015, is the latest installment of “Evicted and Abandoned,” a yearlong investigation into the hidden toll of World Bank-financed development projects on the some of the planet’s poorest people. The story was part of a collaboration with the International Center for Investigative Journalists and HuffPost. It explores the dramatic expansion of palm-oil plantations in the rainforests of Indonesia. Reporters Jocelyn Zuckerman and Michael Hudson detail abuses committed against Batin Sembilan, an indigenous community in Sumatra that was forcibly resettled by the largest agribusiness in Asia, Wilmar International Ltd.

As of January 2016, the series had generated more than 600,000 views on HuffPost alone, along with millions more viewers/listeners/readers on National Public Radio, German broadcasters NDR and WDR, The Guardian, Le Monde, and more than 20 other media partners. More than 50 journalists were involved in producing the series, which won an Online News Association award for journalistic innovation.

Finally, and most significantly, the series also prompted the World Bank in December to announce sweeping reform of its social criterion for bank loans, in an effort to better protect people in the path of development.

We Dissect Corrupt Relationship Between Corn and Politics in Iowa

The Trouble with Iowa: Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses,” by Richard Manning, was the cover story in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. That alone is impact, as the venerable magazine has a gravitas that extends beyond its 560,000 monthly readers; it is one of a handful of publications that continues to help set the media world’s broader agenda. Also, the timing of the piece was perfect, appearing as it did on the cusp of the much-anticipated Iowa caucuses. People were ready to read something that was intelligently provocative—as Manning always is—and that put all the political blather and horserace coverage of the preceding months in meaningful context.

Manning powerfully described the way politics, agriculture, and environmental degradation intersect in Iowa, which is held up as a presidential kingmaker every four years. For all these reasons, this piece echoed across the informational landscape. Manning was interviewed on MSNBC, The Leonard Lopate Show (WNYC), WHYY, Wisconsin Public Radio, Heritage Radio, and by prominent blogger April Streeter for Ethical Corporation.

In the social realm, it was lauded with prominent tweets from Michael Pollan, Josh Viertel (the former head of Slow Food USA), the Christian Science Monitor’s David Unger, Stephanie Miller with New Food Economy, and many others. The political, media, and food elite took note, with mentions from Politico, The Nation, AgWeb, Food Tank and others.

Manning’s piece was the type of sharply-drawn essay that FERN is well-positioned to deliver. It is a different kind of piece than the deep investigative and explanatory dives that have thus far been our signature offerings. And while that work will continue to be at the heart of what we do, “The Trouble With Iowa” demonstrated another effective way for FERN to cover our beat. To read a Q&A with Manning and FERN Editor at Large, George Black, click here.

Toxins & Pollution

A Riveting Reminder of the Vietnam War’s Ongoing Fallout

George Black’s powerful cover story, “The Lethal Legacy of the Vietnam War,” in The Nation, showed how tons of unexploded ordnance, herbicides, and defoliants the U.S. dropped on Vietnam during the war continue to plague farmers there today. The piece, which appeared online in late February 2015, had considerable reach. The Nation has 1.3 million monthly readers in print and online, and as of April 15, 2015, the story had received nearly 18,000 views at the magazine’s website. Prominent political activist Tom Hayden was among the many who sent The Nation letters praising Black’s skill, calling the story “one of the finest works of journalism I have read in years.” He went on to say, “Black uses the long-form approach to a long story, but in a way that will engage anyone with an ounce of curiosity or humanity. Not that social media doesn’t have its place, but Black shows us what our culture is losing to chatter.”

Black told the tragic story of Vietnam’s farmers through the lens of Chuck Searcy, a veteran from Georgia who has devoted his life to helping the Vietnamese overcome their deadly legacy. Black was interviewed on TV by Al-Jazeera America, and on a number of radio programs, including the Legal Broadcasting Network, the Morning Briefing on SiriusXM, and Chuck Morse Speaks on USA Networks. The combination of a vet as the main character and the still-controversial war assured that Black’s piece also was picked up and referenced in alt-weeklies and niche blogs around the country, places that don’t typically hit the radar of the East Coast media. That’s an important audience for a story about unintended consequences of American power and human suffering in a far-off land.

And while cause and effect is hard to pin down, there is reason to believe Black’s article spurred further coverage of the issue. In April, for instance, Reuters published a major photo essay on the toxic legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

FERN Investigation Drives Political Action on Pesticides Near Schools

In April 2015, we took another deep dive into the issue of farmworker health with The Nation. Liza Gross’s unsettling piece, “Fields of Toxic Pesticides Surround the Schools of Ventura County,” revealed how California’s Latino communities—and the public schools they attend—are disproportionately dosed with pesticides, many of which are linked to a range of health problems. The piece took off, rising to No. 3 on The Nation’s most-read stories list and staying there for three days. It lit up on social media, too, with nearly 5,000 shares that included high praise from the likes of Michael Pollan, Anna Lappé, Mother Jones columnist Tom Philpott, Guardian business writer Marc Gunther, Silk (the soy milk company), the Institute for Non-profit News (formerly the Investigative News Network), and UC Berkeley News. The story later earned an investigative reporting award from the Association of Health Care Journalists.

But that was just the beginning. Gross’s piece shook the political timber in California and beyond, with advocates like Paul Towers at the Pesticide Action Network and Tracey Brieger at Californians for Pesticide Reform asking for PDFs of the story to circulate among legislators, policymakers, and the public. Towers invited Gross to brief legislators in Sacramento on pesticide use near schools, as part of their preparation for a series of Department of Pesticide Regulation workshops with the community and industry. Then in May, state pesticide regulators finally said they will seek to strengthen restrictions on pesticide use near schools.

Gross says an acquaintance at EPA told her that the story was remarkable for having put environmental justice back into the framework of civil rights, and that staff members at the agency who are on the “right side” of the Environmental Justice program were trying to figure out how to capitalize on the way the story “moved the discourse” in a way they hadn’t seen before. As journalists, we can’t ask for more significant impact than that.

We Tackle Fracking in One of the Nation’s Most Popular Lifestyle Magazines

Our March 2014 story, “Nervous Energy,” on the potential impact of fracking on the food and water of California, appeared in Sunset Magazine, which has a monthly circulation of nearly 1.3 million. A companion radio piece was broadcast on Capital Public Radio to an audience of 470,000. In May of that year, FERN co-hosted a public panel discussion at Sunset Magazine, based on “Nervous Energy.” The panel featured Barry Yeoman, the reporter who wrote the story; Amy Quinton, who produced the companion radio segment for; Paula Getzelman, a wine grower in Monterey County who was featured in the story; and Jayni Hein, the author of a report on the potential impact of fracking. Sam Fromartz, FERN’s editor-in-chief, moderated the panel.

FERN Shines Spotlight on Regulatory Void and Looming Public-Health Crisis in Legal Weed Industry

In October 2015, With No U.S. Standards, Pot Pesticide Use Is Rising Public Health Threat was produced for broadcast and online in collaboration with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Reporters Erica Berry, of FERN, and Katie Wilcox, of I-News, found a glaring absence of oversight on the marijuana industry. Their work was the top story of a rolling 30-day period surrounding its publication on the I-News site in terms of traffic.

I-News distributes its stories to news partners and other institutions including all members of the Colorado Press Association, public radio and commercial TV stations, some schools and university addresses, and several foundations and businesses. The promotional campaign for our story received interest from 50% of this audience. It was the lead story in their newsletter, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Weekly, an opt-in subscription list of RMPBS members which has 1,100 subscribers. The story was also featured on their weekly public affairs television show, Colorado State of Mind, on Oct. 2. It drew an audience of 5,557 households.

In the wake of the story, Jim Jones, who heads the EPA’s office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, reached out to I-News. He said his office had gotten specific approval from the Justice Department to begin working with states that had legalized marijuana cultivation to test which pesticides can be used safely on marijuana.

Nutrition & Food Access

FERN Wins a Second James Beard Award for Quinoa Coverage

We were gratified to learn in May 2015 that FERN won a second James Beard Foundation Award for our story, “The Quinoa Quarrel: Who Owns The Greatest Superfood?” Written by Lisa Hamilton, the story appeared with original photography, also by Hamilton, in Harper’s Magazine. FERN, Harper’s and Hamilton took home the award for best reporting in the category of Food Politics, Policy and the Environment for the piece, which tracks the political fight over one of the world’s most important indigenous foods.

Critical Investigation Into a “Sacred Cow” of the Food Movement

One of our biggest hits of 2014 was also one of our most-important pieces, in terms of challenging conventional wisdom and taking on the food-reform movement’s sacred cows in a critical but constructive way. In November 2014, Slate published Tracie McMillan’s provocative look at the first Whole Foods’ store in downtown Detroit, which the company claimed would be more than just a market for rich people. “Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?” spurred a broad, ongoing and overdue conversation about whether the food movement—which has been largely an elite phenomenon—can reach a mass audience. It was about access, but also about class and the motives of a food icon with big business interests.

The piece got more than 8,000 social media shares, including from some of the most influential media and food thinkers like Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog. McMillan was interviewed by Huffington Post Live and Michigan Public Radio, and the story was picked up by the Metro Times and Deadline Detroit. It also was named one of 2014’s 15 best longform food stories by Eater, and was included in Best #CityReads of the Week on The Atlantic’s CityLab. McMillan also wrote an award-winning article for FERN on wage-theft among California farmworkers.

FERN Partners With the Longest-running Latino Radio Program

In April 2014 we established an important partnership with Latino USA, which airs on 141 NPR stations nationwide, with a wonderful story about a woman who singlehandedly changed the game on the sprawling and complex problem of food waste. Reporter Lisa Morehouse traveled to Nogales, Arizona, to profile Yolanda Soto, who runs Borderlands Food Bank. Soto rescues between 35 and 40 million pounds of safe, edible fruits and vegetables each year that cross the border from Mexico but are rejected by USDA inspectors for largely aesthetic reasons. This food used to get dumped in a landfill, but now Soto sells it to food-relief operations at bargain rates—offering a new model for food re-distribution.

Morehouse’s piece was featured on NPR’s The Salt blog, and was picked up by Georgia Public Broadcasting and cited on The Huffington Post’s What’s Working blog. It got more than 800 SoundCloud plays, reached nearly 3,000 journalists—some of whom no doubt followed up with their own stories—and the podcast was downloaded 30,000 times. Who says there’s never any “good” in the news?

FERN Asks Tough Questions About Urban Ag

In “Urban Farming Is Booming, But What Does It Really Yield?” reporter Elizabeth Royte explored whether community gardens and rooftop farms can really play a role in feeding our burgeoning population. With the help of leading researchers and growers across the country, she scrutinized the challenges facing both for- and non-profit urban farms as they try to take a “bite out of long-distance food chains.” The piece was published by Ensia in April 2015.

Worldwide, 15-20 percent of our food is currently grown in cities. In the U.S., Detroit produced nearly 400,000 pounds of food in 2014—enough to feed more than 600 people—with about 1,300 gardens. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, many urban farms also provide health-and-nutrition education, community building, and job training.

Royte notes that many urban farms are not interested in making money, but rather in fostering a larger cultural change: “Whether these gardens ultimately produce more food or more knowledge about food—where it comes from, what it takes to produce it, how to prepare and eat it—they still have enormous value as gathering places and classrooms, as conduits between people and nature.”

This piece also was published by Ensia partners Greenbiz, Business Insider, and Quartz, where it garnered more than 35,000 reads and almost 10,000 social media shares.

We Scrutinize the Science Behind Gluten’s Hype

In “Unraveling The Gluten-Free Trend,” published in EatingWell magazine in May 2014, FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz investigates the science and controversy behind the “gluten-free” craze. He draws on the latest medical research to explain what we really know about gluten’s health effects, and how much of what we think we know might be hype. The story focuses on the emerging research around “gluten sensitivity,” which, as Fromartz shows, isn’t well understood, and thus is prone to conjecture.

While writing his most recent book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Homebaker’s Odyssey, Fromartz traveled the world studying bread baking and the history of our relationship with this ancient, staple food. It’s a relationship that has become more complicated, though, as a growing number of people see gluten in bread and other products as the source of a wide variety of health problems.

EatingWell has a print circulation of 500,000 and reaches 1.8 million readers per month. The story reached 27,000 on Facebook and roughly 900,000 Twitter followers, and remains in the top 20 most popular stories on the EatingWell site.

FERN Visualizes A Reformed American Diet

In September 2013 we published an infographic, based on new data, which showed how 127,000 fewer people would die of heart disease, and the nation would save $17 billion in medical costs, if Americans ate the recommended 4 1/2 cups of fruit and vegetables every day. The graphic appeared online at The Daily Meal, a fast-growing site that draws a million unique visitors per month.

The New Yorker Follows Our Reporting on Food Stamps

In August 2013, Slate (10 million monthly readers) published “SNAP Judgment,” in which reporter Jane Black explained why anti-hunger groups were protesting limitations on junk food purchased with SNAP, or food stamps. The story was subsequently syndicated to other print and online outlets through the Washington Post Media Service, and was cited by The New Yorker. Black also appeared on Heritage Radio Network to discuss the story.

Oceans & Freshwater

FERN Story Helps Push Chinese Tuna-Fishing Firm to Withdraw Its IPO Application

Shannon Service’s October 2014 story in The Guardian on the “shady dealings” of a massive Chinese tuna-fishing firm had real-world impact. Notorious for going after threatened species like Yellowfin and Bigeye, the China Tuna Industry Group was forced to withdraw its IPO application after negative media coverage, including our piece, exposed the company’s nefarious operation.

In January 2013, FERN expanded its broadcast collaboration with its first international report and first radio story, “Tuna’s Last Stand,” which appeared on PRI’s The World. Shannon Service reported from Palau in the Western Pacific, where the island-nation struggled to protect the world’s last healthy stock of tuna. The full investigation appeared online at Slate as “The Saudi Arabia of Sashimi” in early April of that year. The story received 1,100 likes on Facebook, was tweeted 257 times, including by Mark Bittman (370,000+ followers), Michael Pollan (307,000+ followers), Slate (600,000+ followers) Slow Food USA (340,000+ followers) and Bay Area Bites (71,000+ followers). In June 2013, the story was translated and republished by Newsweek Japan.

We Connect Chefs to Oceans

In February 2013, we produced our first story in partnership with the San Francisco Chronicle, about the booming herring population in the San Francisco Bay following a near collapse in 2009. The boom was being supported by Bay Area chefs who were serving the fish, which often is used to feed larger fish species, in an effort to bring attention to the herring’s plight. The Chronicle has a weekday circulation of around 218,000 readers. In addition to print, the story received 130 likes on Facebook, and 10 tweets, including by Michael Pollan (307,000+ followers); Bay Area Bites (71,000+ followers); and Edible San Francisco (34,000 followers). KQED followed up with its own piece on the herring situation.

Tracing the Path to a Dead Zone

In “A River Runs Through It,” reporter Paul Greenberg, author of The New York Times bestseller Four Fish, explained how the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of U.S. agricultural practices. Greenberg went on to explore some of the most promising solutions to the problem. The first such piece of its kind, the story was published in 2013 by The American Prospect. It was shared 481 times on Facebook and tweeted 233 times, including by Mark Bittman (370,000+ followers), Michael Pollan (307,000+ followers), Andy Revkin (50,000+ followers) and chef Dan Barber. The circulation of The American Prospect is 45,000.