Dr. Paul's Research Perspectives
Fabricated food has become a profitable, debilitating problem
Insects know how to tap into a sustainable eco-niche—why can’t humans eat, and farm, that way, too?

By Paul Reed Hepperly, Ph.D.

editor's NOTE:

Knowledge is power when it comes to wise food choices that sustain ecological systems, a truth well-illustrated in this column. What is the most significant way you have discovered to improve your food-selection intelligence? What choice in your personal food system best expresses the kind of sustainable eater you wish to become to support sustainable farmers on the land?

To respond, click here.

About Dr. Paul:

As New Farm Research and Training Manager at The Rodale Institute®, Dr. Paul Hepperly has been a regular contributor to NewFarm.org for some time, providing research updates, op-ed pieces, and white papers on topics like carbon sequestration in organic farming systems.

None of those venues do full justice to the range of Paul's experience, however. Paul grew up on a family farm in Illinois and holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology, an M.S. in agronomy and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has worked for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, in academia, and for a number of private seed companies, including Asgrow, Pioneer, and DeKalb. He has overseen research in Hawaii, Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Chile, and investigated such diverse crops as soybeans, corn, sorghum, sunflowers, ginger, and papaya. He has witnessed the move toward biotech among the traditional plant breeding community and the move toward organics among new wave of upcoming young farmers. Before coming to the Rodale Institute Paul worked with hill farmers in India to help them overcome problems with ginger root rot in collaboration with Winrock International.

Now we've decided to give Paul his own column, in which he can report on agricultural research from around the world and reflect on its relevance to The Rodale Institute's research program and to the progress of sustainable agriculture more generally in light of his own broad perspective. Enjoy.

How to contact Paul

Click here

611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

Posted 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 matter?

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 insects.”

”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 was inescapable.

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 greed.

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.