Monday, April 30, 2007


This afternoon I learned that large corporations including the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA to change laws for the benefit of the manufacturers. Specifically, the CMA is backing a petition that will allow candies with no real chocolate in them to be called "chocolate."

The current FDA standard for chocolate says it must contain cocoa butter, and this proposal would make it possible to call something chocolate even if it has vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter. Many candy bars do not or will not have cocoa butter in them if this law is passed.

This pushed all of my buttons. Why? For the same reason that during the vanilla crisis the big manufacturers stopped using pure vanilla in their premium ice creams and said they contained "other natural flavors." This was blatantly against the FDA laws for vanilla in dairy, but the FDA did nothing. Not only are products being misrepresented to the public, they are also undercutting the farmers.

Guittard Chocolate, a family business that produces high quality chocolate used by many confectioners including Sees Candies, has created a web site for people to voice their opinions on this potential law. We have until June 25th to express our opinions. Go to: http// There is a link that will take you directly to the FDA site where we can type in our comments. This is what I posted. Please note that I was careful not to name company names this time as I have gotten myself into trouble in the past for doing that.

As the owner of The Vanilla.COMpany and voice for vanilla farmers worldwide, I have been very concerned by the disinterest on the part of the FDA with regard to standards established by the FDA for vanilla, especially during the vanilla crisis of 1999 - 2005. In this case, manufacturers -- especially large frozen dessert corporations -- blatantly ignored FDA rules and used 'other natural flavors' instead of pure vanilla in premium ice creams. The FDA looked the other way and didn't enforce their own laws.

Now, the FDA is considering changing the standards for chocolate so that a candy product can be called 'chocolate' even though it doesn't contain cocoa butter. Not only is this a misrepresentation of the product and confusing to the consumer, it also lowers the bar on what is and isn't truly chocolate.

Vanilla and chocolate have a lot in common. They grow in the same tropical regions and are luxury crops that we all love and would dearly miss if they weren't available.
What few take into account, however, is that as we manufacture chocolate and vanilla products without pure chocolate and pure vanilla in them, we are undercutting the livelihoods of very poor farmers. By substituting imitation or diluting quality, demand for the pure, natural product drops and farmers become destitute. Where do the farmers go? To industrialized countries as migrant labor, usually without marketable skills and often without the language.

We in the industrialized countries then complain about the migrants coming into our countries and using up our social service resources. Is it worth the money saved by manufacturers to use synthetics or to slide around the truth by claiming their products contain something they don't, when we consider that in the countries where these commodities are grown there are children going without education, medical attention and often even food because their families can't earn enough to support them? Is this the legacy we wish to inflict upon the world, that to satisfy the wealthy corporations we will sacrifice the most basic standards of living of others?

I strongly suggest that the standards for chocolate NOT be lowered. And I strongly suggest that the FDA revisits their earlier standards for vanilla and enforce those rules again.

Please take a moment and go to http// and register your thoughts on this underhanded move by big business to lower the standards of chocolate. By doing this you will be indirectly supporting those who grow our chocolate.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


When I returned from my journey to Cuba and Mexico I was again reminded of how very disturbing the daily news is and how easy it is to slide into a sense of hopelessness. How can anything we do really make a difference or even matter? Are we destined to obliterate thousands of years of years of a rich, multi-cultural world heritage and millions of years of remarkably the diverse evolution of animal and plant species because of our inability to live in tolerance and peace with one another? Or because of power and greed? Does the end indeed justify the means?

I remember talking about this with my father when I was a teenager, and even later, as an adult. He said that warfare and suffering were part of the human condition, and that while it might appear that the world, as we know it would end, it wouldn't. After all, he posited, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse must have felt the world was coming to an end. Or the people in Java must have believed that the world was ending when Krakatoa blew up. He assured me that the world is a big place, and that I shouldn't be so concerned.

Despite his attempted sage advice, I was never completely convinced that we would survive as a species if we continued on the path of destruction to the planet and to one another. And, in some respects this concern is even greater now that our world has become an incredibly small place and the web of our interactions are so inextricably intertwined. With the changing of the world's climate and the increased shortage of potable water in many regions, we are facing the very real potential of ending life as we have known it on the planet. A truly paralyzing thought. And yet, we continue to go about our lives, using denial as a survival tactic to get through the day, some of us turning our backs entirely, some of us complaining but not knowing what to do to stop issues like global warming or the specter of war.

Perhaps what I'm putting forth here this is another form of denial; I hope not. I believe that we can make a difference and enjoy the specialness of each day if we refocus the lens of our reality to the shift that is occurring in the world. Most heartfelt actions, whether on the part of an individual or an organized group, don't normally make news, at least not the front pages of daily newspapers or the lead story on TV. But they do happen, and they are happening everywhere.

Don't get me wrong about news. I feel it's extremely important to be informed as well as to read between the lines to find out what really is happening in the world. It's critical that we be conscious of the issues in developing countries as well as our own; that's why I read the daily paper and listen to news reports. But I want to know more. To know about the hopeful news, the baby steps so many of us take each day to affect positive change.

On December 24, 2006, Don Aucoin wrote in the Boston Globe, "Don't look now, but an epidemic of niceness is sweeping the land…a countervailing phenomenon has arisen in the form of movements, Web sites and organizations devoted to accentuating the positive, to look for the silver lining, to seeing the glass as perpetually half-full."

He goes on to say that former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan has launched a good-news Web site whose organizing principle is "One radical idea: the world is a good place." Another news site dedicated only to upbeat stories it considers underplayed by the media is

Perhaps you've heard of Juan Mann, an Australian who founded a "Free Hugs" campaign in Boston. Go to U-tube to find a video of Juan's campaign; it's heart-warming. There's also a San Francisco based Web site, that encourages people to skip. If you haven't skipped for a while you'll see that it makes you feel a little silly but then very happy. I'm a big proponent of skipping, having personally taught a number of small children how to do it. How can you be sad while skipping? Kim Corbin, a book publicist, founded because, she said, "It's so easy to be overwhelmed. We've got war. We've got terrorism. It's a really intense time…A lot of people think I'm crazy for wanting to skip…I think it's crazy to be inhibited and not be joyful and feel like you can't do something because other people are judging you."

There's a lot of power in being upbeat and happy. Try smiling at people on the street. You'll be interested at the reactions. Most people "get it," and smile back. I always smile at people and, I occasionally get some cold stares, but it's rare. The Dalai Lama says that smiling at people very day is a great act of kindness as it eases suffering.

Consider, started by Byron Reese. CEO of PageWise Inc. publishes positive stories from wire services and freelance writers. Reese says that the site now gets more than a million hits a month! "There's just a hunger for it." He says that he believes that 90% of what happens in the world is upbeat, yet the traditional media focus primarily on the 10% that is not. A case in point: When General Motors closed an auto plant and laid off thousands of workers, wrote about the opening of a Toyota factory in North Carolina. Both events were equally newsworthy, but the GM story was the media's first choice. Is this about misery loving company?

Is it fear that drives us to find the positive side to life? Certainly fear can be a driving factor in our feeling paralyzed or helpless. I wonder, however, if fear is the mitigating factor or if it's anger at the negativity or determination to look for that which acts as a counter-response to fear. I think that's true for me. Fear is an emotion that cripples us in so many ways. It certainly drives denial, that pulling-the-covers-over-our-heads response to the huge challenges that affect us all individually as well as the world at large.

The worse things get, the more determined I am to find the antidote. Which reminds me of something I read many years ago. I once read that in the natural world wherever there is a poisonous plant or animal, an antidote also exists nearby. I was struck by this possibility. If this holds true in the natural world, couldn't it also be true in the human-created world of suffering and pain?

When I was very young I spent a good deal of my winters in bed with bronchial infections. While in some ways it was a drag to be stuck in bed, it also allowed me the luxury of reading everything I could get my hands on as well as time to ponder what I read. My childhood games incorporated what I had read about in books by or about people like Pearl Buck, Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller and others. I was so impressed by these people that I wanted my life to be somehow like theirs. I spent hours rescuing my dolls from disasters in faraway exotic locations, feeding them and nursing them back to health. While I didn't have a specific "career path" in mind at that age, working with people in a variety of contexts has certainly been my life path, one that has grown increasingly strong over the years.

Today I spent a couple of hours visiting roughly one hundred Web sites that have been created by social entrepreneurs actively working toward change. There has been a week-long a contest at to choose 20 great projects. Then, on May 2007, 350 members of the NetSquared community are invited to the Cisco campus to participate in accelerating these great projects that utilize the technologies, tools and communities of the social web to create societal impact in a sustainable fashion. They will accelerate these projects by providing cash awards from the newly created Technology Innovation Fund and by connecting them with funders, developers and other people and organizations that can help the projects attain the next level. The Global Women's Leadership Network (GWLN) that, with the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, sponsor the Women Leaders for the World, is one of the projects nominated.

I was really impressed by the diverse selection of programs as well as the creativity, the innovation and the relevance of these projects. While each project "speaks from the heart" I chose only some of the sites to include in this particular blog as you'd be reading for days if I included them all. It was not easy to choose which groups to vote for, well, with the exception of the GWLN. Here they are:

NABUUR, is an internet platform where villages in developing countries get direct assistance. Online volunteers help create whatever is needed in 150 villages now, and help in 10,000 villages soon. You can sign up to provide the expertise that a village needs without ever leaving the comfort of your home. Isn't that a cool use of the Internet?

Pulsewire is a new offshoot of World Pulse Magazine,, an online publication about women and children transforming the world. Pulsewire is a new project that allows women and children to write their stories in their own words to share with the world.

The Emancipation Network addresses the issue of human trafficking, a serious worldwide problem that happens to be active in the United States, something we'd rather not know about. sells products to support The Emancipation Network.

Another site that addresses human trafficking, Prevent Human Trafficking,, uses digital media to educate and empower by making human-to-human connections and showcasing amazing, sustainable solutions that anyone can be part of as a new micro-philanthropist or activist.

The Anti-Genocide Community empowers anti-genocide activists with the tools for community-based education, user-generated content and strong shared connections. The
anti-genocide community will pool the collective knowledge of a growing movement for change.

Dream Fish,, offers "fertile waters for change makers worldwide." It's an international site with a collective blog where individuals can post information about their work for change. There's also a site,, where people can work together through online "chat groups" to look for solutions to critical issues.

100 Innovators,, trains volunteers to produce and distribute online media for award winning social entrepreneurs. They say, "This decade, the impacts of leading social entrepreneurs will explode. It's the world's most important story, and will tell it." We'll be waiting to hear!'s vision is to create a global gift economy in an entirely nonprofit online community at They make it easier to give something away than to throw it away on a globally local scale. Freecycle is a sort of free eBay or cyber curbside. This site has been a boon for teachers who struggle to get the supplies they need for their classrooms.

International Networks of Victims of Terrorism and War,,
seeks to unite victims of political violence, war and terrorism to amplify the voices of victims speaking out for nonviolence and to create grassroots structures which support them.

Help International Telemedicine Humanitarian Emergency Mobile Medical Clinic Network,, is a telemedicine-based online community of physicians, financial donors and emergency personnel bringing advanced medical assistance to disaster zones.,, is a revolutionary system connecting consumers and trade buyers with a network of organic farmers and artisanal food producers. Consumers meet their farmers and re-establish connections with their food, community, and the land.

The Hub, WITNESS is a human rights organization rooted in the principle that “a picture is worth a 1,000 words.” By partnering with local organizations around the globe, WITNESS empowers human rights defenders to use video as a tool to shine a light on those most affected by human rights violations. Since its founding in 1992 by musician and advocate Peter Gabriel, WITNESS has partnered with more than 200 human rights groups in 50 countries, bringing often untold stories and unheard voices to the attention of key decision makers, the media, and general public to create lasting change.

This last is a very powerful site! I watched some footage on the devastation an ethnic minority group in Myanmar (Burma) has suffered. These are things that we don't hear about often in the news. I highly recommend everyone visit this site.

So there you have it. Some of the sites I've listed appear to be "downers" as they deal with the harsh underbelly of the world. What makes these sites so critically important, however, is that they are actually addressing these issues. Human trafficking. Survivors of war and torture. Where could people go even ten years ago to provide help or find a network of support? There is hope.

In closing, I want to tell you about Victor Villasenor, the author of "Burro Genius." Villasenor came to an agricultural city in my county that is filled with children of immigrants, many of whom have worked in the fields with their families. The son of immigrants, Villasenor was forced to sit in the back of the classroom with other Mexicans and with blacks and was loudly and frequently admonished, "English only." Between that and struggling with dyslexia, he regarded himself as a "stupid Mexican." He came to terms with his anger and wrote a book about his experiences. Ten years and 265 rejections later, he sold his first book, "Macho," a coming of age story about a Mexican immigrant and the United Farm Worker struggle. He has since published several more books about the lives of his family in Mexico and the United States. He said that, "If these books had existed when I was young, my life would have been different.

Villasenor told a spell-bound audience of mostly Latino immigrant teens that our problem isn't human nature but the way we have related history. "Fighting wars is less than 2 percent of human experience. It's just that we've kept track of it." He urged the students to "Go out and make the world a better place."

We have choices in our lives. We can feel paralyzed by fear, we can hide in denial or we can get active and affect change. If we choose to live in possibility, to find something that speaks to us as a way to make a difference, we can make that difference. I encourage all of us to find something that moves us enough to heal ourselves and our planet. If we get active, our children and grandchildren just might have a chance to live in a better world.


For a long time I've been concerned the issue of corn in our lives. As Michael Pollan notes in "An Omnivore's Dilemma," we in the United States have become the true "corn people," outdistancing by a mile the Mexicans and Central Americans whose diet is based around native corn.

Why? Because corn is so pervasive in our diets as well as much of what we use in our homes, that nearly everything we come into contact with has a connection to corn. Whether it is the high-fructose corn syrup in beverages, corn thickeners in processed food and sauces, or corn fed to cattle and chickens, you'll find it there as well as in glues, fixatives, household products, medicines and on and on. Look at the ingredients in most packaged food, and you're likely to see something that contains corn -- even if it's just the lecithin that keeps your candy fresh.

Corn has, in fact, become so inclusive in our diets that a doctor recently commented on NPR that he sees serious malnutrition in young children in Oakland who are, at the same time, obese. What is causing the malnutrition? The children are essentially living on a mono-ingredient diet, corn being the principal nutrient they receive in their fast food diets.

This harkens back to the days when corn first came to Europe and Asia. As the Europeans didn't know how to access the protein value in corn, which requires a process the ancient Olmec culture unlocked, Italian peasants, who lived largely on polenta, developed pellagra. It appears that we are moving backward rather than forward nutritionally speaking. Scary, isn't it?

But wait, there's more. NAFTA and now CAFTA, the free trade agreements forged between the United States and Mexico, have created additional draconian situations. In the US we pay subsidies to large corn and soy farmers to produce an overabundance of crops; conversely, sometimes our government pays them not to grow crops. The over-stock of corn has been exported to Mexico where it costs less than the native corn produced by small family farms. Farmers unable to compete with the cheap North American corn had two choices: Leave the family farms to come north to work as unskilled labor or, purchase American corn, use part of it and plant part of it for next year's crop.

Corn has the ability to cross-pollinate quickly and easily. The corn we sent to Mexico has been genetically modified, whereas the beautiful Mexican corn comes from the early corn native to the Americas that is full of nutrition and well adapted to growing in Mexico's climate. The genetically modified corn has now crossed with the native corn supply and threatens to wipe it out. What's wrong with this?

Well, the Irish white potato, also originally native to the Americas, was the only potato varietal they used. As it was able to adapt to the moist climate of Ireland it was used by everyone. I've included a couple of paragraphs on the Potato Famine as it is relevant to this disucssion.

"By the 1800s, Irish peasants were eating a daily average of 10 potatoes per person. Potatoes supplied about 80 percent of the calories in their diet. The peasants used potato fodder to feed their animals, animals which provided milk, meat and eggs to supplement the peasants' diet. This dependence on one food crop was dangerous, but no other crop had ever proved to be as reliable.

"In the 1840s, disaster struck. Three successive years of late blight, the microscopic fungus Phytophthora infestans, and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground. Without potatoes, both the peasants and animals went hungry. And when the animals died for lack of food, milk, meat and eggs were no longer available. More than one million of Ireland's 8 million inhabitants died of starvation; almost 2 million emigrated. The population of Ireland was reduced by almost one-fourth and has never regained its former numbers to this day."

Interesting, isn't it, how we don't seem to learn from history.

So, with the corn export debacle as one of the many problems plaguing Mexico, farmers have increasingly left their farms for work in the cities or in "El norte." Not only does this cause problems for the US as more and more people arrive desperate for work, it means that farmers are leaving the land and not producing crops for people in the cities.

However, when corn-as-fuel became the craze a shift occurred: there wasn't enough corn to meet global needs. Farmers such as Rogelio Zacaula with a farm near Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico, feels as if he has won the jackpot. Farmers are returning to their land to grow corn to feed the massive demand for the burgeoning US biofuel market.

Corn prices, which had been around $2.00 a bushel for decades, suddenly soared to over $4.00 a bushel. Further, the shortage meant that it would continue to reach new highs over the next five years, according to Keith Collins, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Collins predicts that American farmers will need to plant 90 million acres of corn by 2010 -- nearly 10 million more than now -- to meet demand of the rapidly growing US ethanol industry. That means that developing countries in Latin America have a great opportunity to make money growing corn.

Wow! Sounds like a solution, doesn't it? In Mexico's state of Sinaloa, industrial-scale growers recently doubled their corn acreage, phasing out soy and other crops. They now have corn planted on 1.1 million acres, and are also buying more land. Growers hope the ethanol boom will ease what they feared would be a devastating blow with the full opening of borders to US exports of corn and beans in 2008 under NAFTA. Since 1993, when NAFTA was introduced, Mexico's rural sector has lost an estimated 11.6 million jobs, prompting many farmers to seek work in the US.

Unfortunately, there is usually a dark underside to everything that sounds too good to be true and this is true with corn. First, about 60 percent of Mexico's corn growers are subsistence farmers and produce only enough for their own consumption. These farmers typically scratch out a living on steep mountainsides or land that has been depleted by overuse as there isn't the space for crop rotations.

The tortilla is the primary source of nutrition for the poor farmers and families who live in rural Mexico, as well as for the majority of the poor who have moved to the cities in search of work. It's not uncommon for families to subsist on tortillas, salt, lime juice and a watered down slurry of beans. Chickens are needed for eggs and, because chickens are fed corn, a valuable resource, they are only eaten when they are too old to lay eggs. Children are protein-deficient, which not only affects their health but also their ability to learn effectively.

Now that the prices of corn have skyrocketed and most corn is being sidelined for ethanol, prices for tortillas have skyrocketed. In Mexico, tortilla prices rose 14% over the last year, an unjustifiable price according to Guillermo Ortiz, Mexico's Bank Gov., especially as inflation is at 4%. Ortiz blamed companies who monopolize the market and block competition. "This is direct evidence of the way globalization is affecting all walks of life in Mexico and all over the world," said David Barkin, an economics professor at the Xochimilco campus of the Autonmous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.

The political and academic pundits offer lofty explanations of what has occurred; the poor speak more eloquently: "When there isn't enough money to buy meat, you do without," said Bonifacia Ysidro as she wrapped a towel around a stack of tortillas she barely could afford. "Tortillas you can't do without."

Globalization drives so much of what occurs in the world. Brazil has planted millions of acres of sugar cane for ethanol. Malaysia has cleared thousands of acres of land to plant soy. The developing countries, rich in natural resources and cheap labor are the logical places to plant crops to fuel our addiction to modern technology, most especially the automobile, especially now as fossil fuels are being rapidly depleted. But is it wise to clear acreage of carbon-dioxide absorbing hardwoods to create fuel from annual crops?

There is an interesting alternative in a little-known tree native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean -- jatropha. Jatropha curcus is an unassuming tree that literally grows like a weed in the Americas as well as in the many tropical countries where it has been taken over the years. It reaches maturity in 18 - 24 months, is drought resistant, has few, if any, insect enemies, produces an abundance of fleshy fruit that contains seeds and continues to produce for up to 50 years.

The fleshy fruit can easily be used for ethanol, but it's best known for the four seeds inside the fruit. As the fruit dries, the seeds become increasingly oil-rich. The seeds, which contain a minimum of 37% oil, produce the cleanest burning biodiesel available. All that is needed to produce this seed oil is a warm, frost-free environment, natural fertilizer and/or compost, occasional pruning and someone to harvest the fruits and take them to a crushing facility. While they can be grown in the desert, the moister, more humid climate is far better for oil volume.

Currently there are jatropha plantations in Ghana, India and some Central American and African countries. Unfortunately, though farmers have planted jatropha on the advice of professors and agronomists looking for solutions for the poor, there is a dearth of crushing facilities or processing plants at this time. However, a major project is underway to establish additiona jatropha plantations in Mexico and Central America as well as to set up crushing facilities. While it doesn't make sense to have the farmers plant the jatropha on their small plantations as transportation to a central crushing facility is an issue, farmers can work as day laborers on the plantations while still maintaining their own farms where many grow the "luxury" crops such as coffee, cacao and vanilla.

Is jatropha the ultimate solution to the fuel crisis? That remains to be seen. But it appears to be a far better solution than corn, soy or sugar. And, it may provide a a partial solution to the mass migration north. As Raul Esparza, economist in Veracruz Mexico says, "We must find work for the rural families. Now we have ghost towns throughout Mexico where only the very young and the elderly remain as the parents have moved north in search of a way to support their families."

I will keep you posted on jatropoha. If it works as hoped, it will soon be a household word worldwide.