Photo by Lisa M. Hamilton

It’s a wrap — FERN’s top food stories in 2015

By Sam Fromartz, Editor-in-Chief

The Food & Environment Reporting Network, our young and spunky non-profit journalism venture, has always dug deeply to explore the food system, uncovering injustice and revealing the possibilities for change. This past year, we took that mission overseas on several stories, reflecting the globalized nature of the subjects we cover. We dramatically expanded the breadth of our stories, making connections between the food we eat, the global system that brings it to our plates and its environmental impact.

We’re bringing new issues to light, so that readers can draw a line between the palm oil in their cookies and the Indonesian land grabs that made that ingredient possible; or understand how many of the strawberries we eat are exposing Latino school kids to dangerous pesticides.

We work with multiple parties to produce this work (the network in our name): writers and photographers and graphic artists, the journalism organizations and media companies that help shape and publish these stories, and funders. Because top-notch, award-winning work doesn’t just reflect the passion of incredible journalists to tell great stories; it also takes money to produce.

Here’s a rundown of what we throught were our biggest stories this past year, segmented by topic.

Toxic Chemicals, Social Justice, Land Grabs

  • Liza Gross revealed how Latino school kids have been disproportionately exposed to toxic pesticides for years in California. After the story ran, California regulators agreed to strengthen the rules to prevent this kind of abuse. (The Nation)
  • Erica Berry and Katie Wilcox scrutinized the completely unregulated use of pesticides and herbicides by the legal marijuana industry. What they found is a looming public-health crisis for consumers and weed industry workers. (Rocky Mountain PBS iNews)
  • George Black investigated the legacy of unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange in Vietnam, 50 years after the war. The farmers in heavily bombed Quang Tri province are still dealing with the multigenerational effects of chemical exposure. (The Nation)
  • Jocelyn Zuckerman looked at what happened when the largest agribusiness in Asia, backed by the World Bank, expanded its palm-oil-tree holdings in the rain forest of Sumatra. Poor farmers were forced off the land and into camps. The story was part of a series with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on displacement of people globally due to World Bank-funded projects. This month the bank announced sweeping reforms. (The Huffington Post)

Climate Change, Farming and Migrants

  • Lisa Hamilton traipsed into the wilds of northern Australia with a team of plant geneticists, chronicling (with words and gorgeous photographs, like the one above) their search for wild rice cultivars. The rice they collected in this remote region may eventually be used to produce plants that are better adapted to climate change. (California Sunday Magazine)
  • Elizabeth Royte looked at the much-hyped trend in urban farming, from New York to California, and raised important questions about how big a role it could play in feeding the planet. (Ensia)
  • Lauren Markham showed what happens when distant economies and democracies fail: a flow of undocumented migrant farmworkers, which she described in this heartbreaking story. (Pacific Standard)

Real Solutions, Food Trends

  • Paul Greenberg revealed for the first time how California created a network of marine protected areas along its coastline, resulting in a rebound of overfished species. (California Sunday Magazine)
  • Lisa Morehouse told the story of Borderlands Food Bank, which captures millions of dollars in fresh produce each year that is destined for the dump, and distributes it to food banks around the country. (Latino USA, NPR)
  • I wrote on how much of the booming gluten-free food trend is divorced from what scientists actually know about gluten sensitivity. (EatingWell)