December 13, 2007: As we were about to leave the
party at the U.S. Ambassador’s house, Frank, the ambassador,
commented, “As you said, Paul, there is a lot of opportunity
out here, but we also need to stimulate greater entrepreneurial
spirit in Uruguay.”
Frank was a southern California businessman with a good command
of Spanish and a strong interest in Latin America. What he
said made sense to me. Without innovative businesses, how
are we going to progress here, or anywhere else, for that
Outside the door of the Ambassador’s house, we asked
the security officer to call a cab. During our wait, drops
fell upon us, catching us unaware. We looked up through the
trees to the sky and found it was clear as a bell.
We asked the security officer, “Where are these drops
coming from?” He responded “Oh, that’s just
the trees crying.” Of course, I have never seen a tree
cry, so that explanation left me dissatisfied and curious.
The next day, as we visited a local park with Dr. Roberto
Zoppolo, our sponsoring scientist in-country, I pointed to
a legume tree and said, “See that legume tree? Yesterday
the same kind of tree was ‘crying’ on us. Why
is that happening?”
Roberto chuckled. “Well, the tree is definitely not
crying,” he replied, “but it probably has some
”They must be plant hoppers,” I surmised out
loud, and Roberto replied he thought that was right.
Harvesting natural protein
Sucking insects like plant hoppers are well known for their
ability to shunt large quantities of low-quality plant sap
in order to selectively harvest the scarce protein they need
to complete their life cycles. The flow-through sugary wastewater
that was dripping on us is good for growing a dark fungus
called sooty mold, which forms an ash-like mat at the base
of the tree.
In this case, the plant hoppers had latched onto legume trees
whose sap has a higher-than-normal amino acid and protein
content. This is an excellent example of the “wisdom”
of natural nutritional systems, encouraging the screening
of low-quality sugars to enhance protein content and providing
plants for insects so they both thrive.
Unlike these hoppers, we humans have disturbed our own beautiful
natural food system by turning it “upside down.”
Unlike the tiny sucking insect, we enhance our foods with
sugar, salt and fat to the detriment of protein and fiber.
At the same time, we also remove most of the natural vitamins
and minerals from our foods by processing them. With obesity
and diabetes rising at alarming rates, the solution seems
so simple: We just need to eat simpler, better-quality, more
natural food. But that’s a big “just.”
Why has our food system become such a menace to us? I find
this personal story illustrates the problems well. I have
been treating hypertension for a few years. When I lived in
Hawaii, I asked a local road-side macadamia nut vendor for
nuts without salt.
The vendor said, “I cannot do that.” To which
I replied, “Well, why not? Those nuts over there are
not yet salted… why don’t you just sell those
nuts to me?”
After a pregnant pause, the vendor responded with a revealing
economic confession. “You see,” he said, “I
do not make any money selling plain, unsalted macadamia nuts.
I only make money by selling salted nuts because the salt
is so much cheaper than the nuts.” With salt at 40 cents
a pound and macadamia nuts at $5 a pound, the economic logic
Missing data obscures choice
However, the consequences of such economic logic applied
throughout an industrial food system are also inescapable.
Our great nation spends 20 percent of its GNP to treat diseases
that are largely avoidable through healthier diet choices.
But when foods are not fully and accurately labeled, how can
we understand what these ingredients are doing either to build
or destroy health? A consumer cannot even avoid genetically
modified foods if they want to because these foods are not
identified in our mainstream commercial food system.
Those tiny sucking insects know how to optimize their nutrition
in a difficult environment, yet the paragon of animals—we
humans—often cannot do the same, due to information
control and economic greed. Some in our nation are willing
to sacrifice the health of many for the profit of a few, selling
salt as nuts on a massive scale.
Despite being blessed with a natural cornucopia of healthy,
life-promoting foods, we consumers are often quite willing
to squander this heritage and our health for ”good tasting”
but empty, nutritionally bereft foods created by this unbridled
Think of all the unnecessary suffering experienced by people
and animals that are not eating the right balance of foods
produced in natural, healthy ways. If trees could talk and
feel, they just might cry for us, for all the unnecessary
suffering we have consciously and unconsciously engineered
into our lives.
So what can you do? You can start by thinking more consciously
and responsibly about what foods you put into your body, growing
some of those foods yourself (even if it’s just lettuce
in a planter), and purchasing other foods from local farmers
who use natural production practices. As consumers, we must
also demand that all food ingredients be clearly identified,
including information on how they are produced. These actions,
backed with knowledge and understanding, can help you bypass
the players in our food system who want to sell you salt masquerading
as nuts, and create a richer, healthier life for you and your
family, as well as your local community, economy, and environment.