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.