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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Milk-Superfood or Hyper-Allergen?

From Adam Heifer

In my time as a health professional I don’t think there is any other food i've come across that has more controversy and conjures up such a polarity of opinions as Milk. Although an ongoing source of confusion for years, a client’s recent inquiry over milk gave me the impetus to write this article. I will state that my purpose is not to convince anyone to drink milk or not. This is intended to give a brief, but thorough understanding and accurate depiction as to why such polarities of opinions exist. Are both statements right? Well read on and find out…
Milk - super food or hyper allergen?
Milk - super food or hyper allergen?

Now milk goes way back as a Superfood- According to Ayurveda (the “science of life”- A 5000 year old healing system with roots in India) milk has special and unique nutrition unlike any other food- It is said to balance emotions and help balance all the “doshas." Acclaimed Indian Swami Srila Prabhupada stated that milk helps to form and maintain our “finer brain tissues,” which is a boon in the quest of self realization- Now that’s quite a statement if you ask me... On the other side of things, (occurring in the more recent years) milk has been branded a health risk- linked to cancer, diabetes, allergies, and digestibility issues.

The main issue to understand when deciphering information about dairy is that the negative statistics about milk are being compiled from a product that really isn’t milk in its true form. Pasteurized, homogenized corn, soy and/or grain fed milk is not really milk anymore. It falls into the category that Michael Pollan (Omnivores Dilemma) describes as “edible food like substances.” The entire structure of the product becomes changed and compromised- This leads to the digestibility issues and health concerns. The digestibility issue is usually blamed on the pasteurization (heating of the milk at high temperatures to potentially kill off any “pathogens”), thus destroying vital enzymes during the process that would allow proper assimilation of the milk. The greater issue is that during the heating/pasteurization process the fragile milk proteins are drastically changed, which leads to deeper digestibility issues. The “milk” becomes a foreign substance and our body mounts an immune response to it.

Homogenization breaks the fat molecules down to such a micro level that they can’t be properly assimilated by our body- It alters the enzymes and fats so that they enter the bloodstream and can “scar” the arteries, leading to cholesterol buildups. If that’s not enough, there is the antibiotics and growth hormone issue that also accompany conventional supermarket milk. Organic milk may be antibiotic and growth hormone free, but still runs into the same issues when it’s pasteurized and homogenized. Also, the nutritional and health value of the milk changes when the cows are grain, soy, and corn fed (which much of the organic milk is). This is not their natural diet and it shows up in the quality of the milk.

This is the crux of the issue in regard to conventional, pasteurized milk. Emphasis on the words conventional and pasteurized. Where the misinformation occurs with milk is when people start making blanket statements:  “Milk is linked to allergies, cancer, contains antibiotics etc..” This is true for conventional, pasteurized milk, but doesn’t have anything to do with real milk- I just want to make this distinction clear...

Now for the other side of things: pure, grass/pasture-fed cows milk is a whole other story- It is a raw, living, vital food. For as damning as conventional milk can be for our health, raw milk is equally as healthy. Many consider it the “wonder tonic” that the Ayurveda deems it, and the results are there to back it up. Raw milk has been known to reverse chronic disease and maladies from asthma and eczema to irritable bowel syndrome. Ingesting in its pure, natural state ensures that crucial enzymes and beneficial bacteria (such as lactobacillus) are intact which aids in proper digestion. In fact most people who have digestibility issues with conventional milk do just fine with grass-fed raw, real dairy. People all over the world have sworn by raw milk and dairy for helping them to regain their overall health and vitality back. Some indigenous people/cultures (who tend to be the healthiest people in the world) revere raw whole milk and dairy products as a “sacred food” as they know it to be a cornerstone to their robust mental and physical health, well being, and good fortune.

The formula for proper raw milk has to be that the cows are grass fed, and of course the farmers are conscientious and clean. Raw, grass-fed milk in its pure state has natural enzymes (its own “defense system”) to protect it from pathogens. There is no need to process it to protect us from any contaniments (Pasteurization also kills the pathogen fighting enzymes). Now there is a reason why other dairy products are pasteurized- Even organic, grain-fed milk could have contamination issues-It is processed for your protection.

Sale of raw dairy products are now illegal in most states (but interesting how you can buy Twinkies and an artificially sweetened mega energy drink). If you decide to try to go the raw route, there are buying clubs you could get involved with. Just look online, ask around, and do the research. There are also some grass-fed (but pasteurized) milk options at health food stores that some do fine with.

I personally avoided most dairy products for many years- Though the benefits of milk were tied into my Yoga culture/lineage and I heard from top health professionals about the deep health advantages of real dairy for quite some time. For these facts, when I finally had the ability to have access to them, I gave them a try.

In my training, I have noticed a distinct difference while starting on a raw heavy cream (a fairly recent addition). Raw cream is dense in fat soluble vitamins (which regulate hormones, metabolism, and assist in a healthy immune system), healthy fats for proper metabolism, Congelated Lineolic Acid/CLA and CoQ10. I treat it more like a “supplement” than a food (as consumption consists just of a couple spoonfuls a day), but it has made it into my routine and I feel great.

 *Bonus Section:
Again, this article isn’t written to dissuade you from, or sway you into consuming dairy products- We respect all stances, but it isn’t a forum to get into personal, ethical, or moral issues on dairy consumption. Its purpose is solely to distinguish the very distinct differences between conventional milk and raw real milk- We hope you understand the facts a little better now, and the choice is yours.
Now for those who choose not to drink milk, there is a whole “milk alternative” industry vying for your business for what you’re going to put on your cereal or in your coffee. Some products try to tout as a “healthy alternative” (from conventional), but realize that none of them have any real health value.

Once something is put in a carton or can and on a shelf, it’s been pasteurized and has had the “life” sucked out of it. I would advise to stay away from any soy alternatives for the myriad of issues associated with conventional soy in general. I am not crazy on the rice milks either (for the general “dead” reason) along with the sweeteners and oils they put in with them. If I had to choose any, I would say go with an unsweetened almond milk- Best choice yet, learn to make your own live, raw almond milk with soaked almonds. It takes a little time and energy, but a wonderful and delicious healthy choice.

Adam is a Reiki Master, certified Health and Lifestyle counselor, Licensed Massage Therapist, 20 year practicing bramana initiated Bhakti Yogi, Spiritual advisor, visionary, jock and veteran of the “hardcore punk scene” all rolled into one. Adam is the founder of Omkara World and produced the mind/body fitness DVD “Intelligent Fitness."
Click here for Adams past article archive.
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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Keeping The Water Flowing In Rural Villages

From Tina Rosenberg at the Opinionator from the New York Times

Keeping projects in business for the long term has been a constant theme of the Fixes column, and if sustainability has a poster child, it would be a water pump.   Travel anywhere in Africa or South Asia or Central America, and you will find a landscape dotted with the rusting skeletons of dead water pumps or wells..

In most developing countries, these water points are installed with great fanfare by the government or a charitable group.  They greatly improve the lives of villagers.   Having a water point in or near the village means that women don’t have to spend 6,8, even 12 hours a day on perilous journeys to fetch water from rivers or lakes. The pumps allow girls to go to school instead of staying home to help their mothers fetch water or take care of siblings. They allow villagers to drink reasonably clean water instead of risking their health with every sip.

Then something breaks on the pump — a huge catastrophe like an underground pipe bursting, or a small one, like the loss of a bolt or a washer. And it never works again.

Early death is shockingly widespread for water pumps.  Perhaps the biggest study of this ever was carried out in 21 African countries by an organization called Sustainable Water Services at Scale.  It found that 36 percent of pumps were not working.  “This level of failure represents a waste of between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion in investments in 20 years,” said the organization.

In Tanzania, mapping of water points showed that nationally, less than half the existing rural water points were working.  Of water points that were less than two years old, a quarter had already stopped functioning.

Why, when communities benefit so obviously from water, do so many water points fall out of use?   The short answer is that keeping the pumps running usually falls to the community or local government.  But it requires specialized skills, spare parts, tools and funds.   None of these are found in rural villages.

One group taking a hard look at how to solve the problem is the British-based charity WaterAid.   When the organization analyzed why water points failed in Tanzania, it found something interesting:  the most sustainable were those maintained by private contractors.   This is not a ready-made solution; it won’t work everywhere — really poor areas won’t be able to pay. And in some regions, problems like price gouging were associated with private operators. But WaterAid felt it might be able to solve these problems.  So in the north of India, it came up with an ingenious way to do just that.

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India — it is also one of the poorest and most drought-prone. The government has been aggressively installing new water pumps, but they quickly fall into disuse.   In the Mahoba district, south of the state capital of Lucknow, there are about 12,500 community water pumps, said. K.J. Rajeev, WaterAid’s general manager for the northern region of India.  “But 40 percent of them are usually down, especially in summer,” he said.   And when they break, they stay broken — three-quarters of the repairs take at least a month, and many are never repaired at all.
Shanti Devi and Ram Sakhi fixing a handpump in the Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, India.WaterAid/Marco BettiShanti Devi and Ram Sakhi fixing a handpump in the Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, India. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Now things are different in Mahoba.  In May, Lisa Millman, WaterAid America’s director of development and communications, was visiting a town called Charkhari. She was sitting in a small storefront office, a shop lined with shelves of hand pump parts, when a cellphone rang.  The call was from the village of Kotedar, where the main hand pump had broken.   A master mechanic took the call and asked some questions.   This was apparently going to be a big job — five mechanics piled onto two motorbikes, along with the 10-year-old son of one of the men.  They reached the village 20 minutes later.   As a throng of villagers watched, they took out huge wrenches.  They disassembled the pump and began pulling up heavy segments of pipe.  At the tenth segment they found a hole and patched it.  Two and a half hours after they arrived, the pump was reassembled and working.   They got on their bikes and rode off into the sunset.

Millman, who had followed in a car, had asked the 10-year-old if he wanted to be a mechanic like his dad.  “He was smirking and laughing,” she said.   “But after he watched his dad repair the pump, he was in awe.”

WaterAid and its local partners have set up four workshops, called Community Participation Centers, in the Mahoba district, and the project is now expanding into the neighboring state of Bihar. A call to the workshop reaches a master mechanic.  He or she can choose the appropriate mechanics in the group, depending on location and skills, to send to address the problem.  Each is is equipped with a cellphone, tool kit and a bike, moped or motorbike. Including mechanics-in-training and several who work part time, the centers have 27 female mechanics.

Many of the women were landless agricultural laborers before they learned hand pump repair, and many were members of the Dalit, or Untouchable, caste — the most downtrodden in Indian society.   In a very traditional region, where women cover their faces and do not speak in public, it was at first hard to find women who wanted the job.  Even some who completed the training didn’t want to go out to villages and work in public, said Rajeev.  Now, however, wherever they go, village men accept them and women embrace them.  Seeing a mechanic in yellow hardhat and sari has opened up the spectrum of possibilities for village women.

In 14 months of work, the center mechanics have repaired more than 1,100 pumps in Mahoba. Ninety-three percent of the repairs were made within 24 hours of the phone call, and only 3 percent took more than two days.   A simple repair costs a village 100 rupees — roughly $2.00 — with more complex repairs costing up to $6. Water quality testing costs $1.20.  The mechanics guarantee all work.

Rajeev said that the four Mahoba workshops cost WaterAid about $40,000 to set up — to train mechanics, buy parts and tools, provide bikes and cellphones and visit village councils to promote the new service.   But now WaterAid is tapering off financial support to the workshops, which are all operating sustainably and on the verge of meeting their profitability goals.  “We will be providing only technical assistance and hand-holding,” he said.   To keep the workshops running, the mechanic keeps 70 to 90 percent of the repair fee and deposits the rest in the workshop’s account.

This isn’t the first time WaterAid tried to train mechanics in the area.  In 2004, its local partner recruited men and women and trained them to do preventive maintenance and minor repairs in their own villages.   It didn’t last.   The trainees learned only the most basic repairs and often had to leave work incomplete.  They also earned very little money.  So WaterAid then decided it needed to create a real business, using high standards of training, aggressive outreach to village governments and attractive practices like guaranteed work.

Why couldn’t the market take care of this problem?  There are hand pump mechanics in Mahoba, after all.  But they tend to live in major market cities.  Rajeev said they demanded very high fees to go out to remote villages — often too high for villages to pay.  There are also information disconnects – they do no outreach to villages, so some village councils don’t know about these mechanics or how to call them.

The market also can’t finance major repairs — most villagers are too poor.  The center program can work because the government has a fund that village councils can use to pay for hand pump maintenance.    The fund can take 45 days to pay — too long for most traditional mechanics.  Center mechanics, however, don’t mind.  (Very minor repairs can usually be paid on the spot.)  And now four villages have signed maintenance contracts with center workshops, paying directly from the government’s fund.

What’s happening in Mahoba is promising. But the key to this process is that the Indian government pays the bills.  In the places where this problem is most serious, government is AWOL.  On Wednesday I’ll look at why it has been so difficult to keep water points running, mistakes that water groups have made and what poor villages might do to keep the water flowing.
Join Fixes on Facebook and follow updates on twitter.com/nytimesfixes.

Tina Rosenberg
Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and now a contributing writer for the paper’s Sunday magazine. Her new book is “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study The Risks


Click here to read the full article from Justin Gillis at the New York Times

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A bubble rose through a hole in the surface of a frozen lake. It popped, followed by another, and another, as if a pot were somehow boiling in the icy depths.

Every bursting bubble sent up a puff of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas generated beneath the lake from the decay of plant debris. These plants last saw the light of day 30,000 years ago and have been locked in a deep freeze — until now.

“That’s a hot spot,” declared Katey M. Walter Anthony, a leading scientist in studying the escape of methane. A few minutes later, she leaned perilously over the edge of the ice, plunging a bottle into the water to grab a gas sample.

It was another small clue for scientists struggling to understand one of the biggest looming mysteries about the future of the earth.

Experts have long known that northern lands were a storehouse of frozen carbon, locked up in the form of leaves, roots and other organic matter trapped in icy soil — a mix that, when thawed, can produce methane and carbon dioxide, gases that trap heat and warm the planet. But they have been stunned in recent years to realize just how much organic debris is there.

A recent estimate suggests that the perennially frozen ground known as permafrost, which underlies nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere.

Temperatures are warming across much of that region, primarily, scientists believe, because of the rapid human release of greenhouse gases. Permafrost is warming, too. Some has already thawed, and other signs are emerging that the frozen carbon may be becoming unstable.

“It’s like broccoli in your freezer,” said Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “As long as the broccoli stays in the freezer, it’s going to be O.K. But once you take it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge, it will thaw out and eventually decay.”

If a substantial amount of the carbon should enter the atmosphere, it would intensify the planetary warming. An especially worrisome possibility is that a significant proportion will emerge not as carbon dioxide, the gas that usually forms when organic material breaks down, but as methane, produced when the breakdown occurs in lakes or wetlands. Methane is especially potent at trapping the sun’s heat, and the potential for large new methane emissions in the Arctic is one of the biggest wild cards in climate science.

Scientists have declared that understanding the problem is a major priority. The United States Department of Energy and the European Union recently committed to new projects aimed at doing so, and NASA is considering a similar plan. But researchers say the money and people devoted to the issue are still minimal compared with the risk.

For now, scientists have many more questions than answers. Preliminary computer analyses, made only recently, suggest that the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions could eventually become an annual source of carbon equal to 15 percent or so of today’s yearly emissions from human activities.

But those calculations were deliberately cautious. A recent survey drew on the expertise of 41 permafrost scientists to offer more informal projections. They estimated that if human fossil-fuel burning remained high and the planet warmed sharply, the gases from permafrost could eventually equal 35 percent of today’s annual human emissions.

The experts also said that if humanity began getting its own emissions under control soon, the greenhouse gases emerging from permafrost could be kept to a much lower level, perhaps equivalent to 10 percent of today’s human emissions.

Even at the low end, these numbers mean that the long-running international negotiations over greenhouse gases are likely to become more difficult, with less room for countries to continue burning large amounts of fossil fuels.

In the minds of most experts, the chief worry is not that the carbon in the permafrost will break down quickly — typical estimates say that will take more than a century, perhaps several — but that once the decomposition starts, it will be impossible to stop.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hungary Destroys All Monsanto GMO Corn Fields



Hungary has taken a bold stand against biotech giant Monsanto and genetic modification by destroying 1000 acres of maize found to have been grown with genetically modified seeds, according to Hungary deputy state secretary of the Minstry of Rural Development Lajos Bognar. Unlike many European Union countries, Hungary is a nation where genetically modified (GM) seeds are banned. In a similar stance against GM ingredients, Peru has also passed a 10 year ban on GM foods.
Special report: GMOs continually banned around the world as concerns grow — find out where.

Planetsave reports:
Almost 1000 acres of maize found to have been ground with genetically modified seeds have been destroyed throughout Hungary, deputy state secretary of the Ministry of Rural Development Lajos Bognar said. The GMO maize has been ploughed under, said Lajos Bognar, but pollen has not spread from the maize, he added.
Unlike several EU members, GMO seeds are banned in Hungary. The checks will continue despite the fact that seek traders are obliged to make sure that their products are GMO free, Bognar said.
During the invesigation, controllers have found Pioneer Monsanto products among the seeds planted.
The free movement of goods within the EU means that authorities will not investigate how the seeds arrived in Hungary, but they will check where the goods can be found, Bognar said. Regional public radio reported that the two biggest international seed producing companies are affected in the matter and GMO seeds could have been sown on up to the thousands of hectares in the country. Most of the local farmers have complained since they just discovered they were using GMO seeds.
With season already under way, it is too late to sow new seeds, so this years harvest has been lost.
And to make things even worse for the farmers, the company that distributed the seeds in Baranya county is under liquidation. Therefore, if any compensation is paid by the international seed producers, the money will be paid primarily to that company’s creditors, rather than the farmers.
NaturalSociety Note: This article is from July 26, 2011, but had to be re-added.
Explore More:
  1. France Takes Stand Against GMOs, Monsanto Despite End of Ban
  2. Bill Gates Foundation Buys 500,000 Shares of Monsanto
  3. Study Proves Three Monsanto GM Corn Varieties Pose Health Hazard
  4. Merck vs Monsanto | Fighting for the Worst Company Award
  5. Monsanto GMO Sugarbeets to be Destroyed | Court Concludes USDA Illegally Approved Biotech Crop

Thursday, December 15, 2011

With Students' Help, Schools Going Green

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in 2008 that he wanted city buildings to lower their energy consumption by 30% within a decade, one area seemed ripe for reductions: the city's 1,700 schools, spread across 1,200 buildings.
As part of New York City's goal to reduce energy consumption by 30% in its buildings, officials are turning to an unusual resource: city students. WSJ's Sophia Hollander visits a Bronx classroom to find out how.

Studded with new technology like smartboards and energy-gobbling appliances such as boilers, schools accounted for about a quarter of the city's overall energy use.

So John Shea, the head of school facilities for the Department of Education, decided to enlist an unlikely ally to shave energy costs: students.

On Friday, officials were scheduled to announce a competition for 30 schools participating in a pilot program that is run in conjunction with Solar One, a nonprofit environmental education organization.

The contest will award a total of $30,000 to the schools that reduce their energy use the most.
"It is unusual to have a curriculum issue come out of the department of the people who mop the floors and stock the toilet paper," Mr. Shea acknowledged with a smile during a recent interview. But it was a perfect fit, he said. "The fact is we've got school buildings all over the city that are their own learning laboratories," he said.

GREEN1
Anna Bakis leads sixth-graders at P.S. 86 in the Bronx through an energy audit.

The Green Design Lab—a pilot project that started in 10 schools last year and has expanded to 30—brings Solar One teachers into the schools for up to 24 weeks. Through lessons, labs, and projects such as installing green roofs and gardens, Solar One instructors spend one or two classroom periods a week teaching five different units, including energy, air, water, materials and food. The group hopes to expand to 150 schools in the next three years.

The Green Design Lab is not the only sustainability initiative being embraced by New York City schools. On Thursday, the New York State Education Department announced that it was joining the federal Green Ribbon Schools program, which honors the most environmentally progressive schools.

The same day, the New York City Council approved construction of the city's first "energy neutral" school.

But the Solar One program may be the most ambitious, bringing together custodians, principals and teachers.

It is largely privately funded: Organizers said they expected the program to cost $900,000 this academic year, with 10% coming from the Department of Education and the City Council.

GREEN2
Edwin Marte was among the students participating in the audit.

"The basic premise of the program has kind of a triple bottom line impact," said Executive Director Chris Collins. "Reduce energy use, reduce CO2 emissions, and save the school money and increase student knowledge."

Public School 187 in upper Manhattan reduced its energy use by 13%, saving about $3,700.
"We had squads of children in various grades responsible for turning off the lights," said Principal Cynthia Chory, whose school won $5,000 for reducing its energy the most. "The students just kind of absorbed it."

Not every school has incorporated the program seamlessly.
"It's a really hard thing to sell, because today, teachers are asked so much. Our education system has gone in the direction of accountability; you know, more technology, high-stake tests," said Gladys Hechavarria, a teacher who brought the program to her school, P.S. 86 in the Bronx, this year. "Who am I to tell them to turn off the lights?"

Solar One teachers described their own challenges.
"It's funny, working with kids is just a breeze. It's when you actually try to push for these little minor changes that we're trying to make at the school it's the adults who kind of stand in the way," said Anna Bakis, a 25-year-old Solar One instructor who is working at two schools this year.

GREEN3
Some visual aids.

She was also surprised at the learning curve among her students. "I assumed they would know about global warming," she said. "When I ask who's heard of climate change or global warming, they're like, 'Oh it's when the seasons change.'"

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Bakis commanded the attention of a classroom in P.S. 86. Students clustered at tables, enthusiastically debating how much energy was consumed by common objects around the classroom, from computers to overhead projectors. Then Ms. Bakis armed each group with a watt reader to find out the answers themselves.

Dalvin Lopez, 12, raised his hand to ask where he could purchase his own kilowatt reader.
"I just want to go the closest store when I get out of school and buy myself one," he said after class, saying the program had "inspired me in a big way."
As a result of the program he now wanted to become "a scientist," he said.
But his friend had an even more intriguing idea, he added. "She wants to be a mad scientist."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beware These Organic Brands



By Dr. Mercola from Mercola.com
Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, has a long history as a marketing- and political consultant, and as a lobbyist (working for family farmers).
While he didn't grow up on a farm, he ended up taking a summer job during his youth with the International Harvester Company.
That was his first farm experience.
Later, he was recruited by JI Case, another large agricultural equipment manufacturer.
"I worked in corporate agribusiness," he explains.
"Then I had a health crisis in the late 70s; I was acutely exposed to pesticides and it injured my immune system…
I was lucky enough to see the preeminent environmental allergist… Theron Randolph… who recommended that, among other things, I go on an all organic diet; that there weren't many things we could do to relieve the strain on my immune system while I was healing, but controlling your food and your water intake is something you can take control of."
The rest, as they say, is history.
At the time, he was operating his own farm implement business, which was in a region dominated by the industrial, chemically-intensive farming model. He switched gears and began gardening and farming organically.
"It caused a major professional shift in my life. I ended up doing consulting work for years, for what are now some of the leading organic companies," he says.
"[T]here wasn't really a readily available source for organic food until the early to mid-1980s when it started. It kicked into high gear in the 1990s when genetic engineering became an issue; when people became more synthesized to chemicals in their food.
… I helped launch the Organic Valley brand when they began in the late 80s or early 90s... Then I helped found the Cornucopia Institute eight years ago, when it looked like the wheels would fall off of this movement; when the giant corporate agri-businesses that has squeezed family farmers out of conventional farming, and that were responsible for the deterioration in the nutrient level and the safety of our food, were buying out, on a wholesale basis, all the brands that had launched the organic commercial movement."

The Cornucopia Institute

The Cornucopia Institute is an organic industry watch dog. Their core constituencies are the family farmers across the U.S. Currently, Cornucopia has more organic farmers as members than any other group in the country, and what they lack in financial resources and political influence, they make up for with a coalition of dedicated farmers and passionate consumers and providers of organic foods.
"The secret weapon we have is building bridges between the organic farming community and the consumers… millions of people who passionately give a damn; who really care about the authenticity of the food and respect the people who are doing it," Kastel says.
 "Our goal is to—from a research and educational perspective—empower consumers and wholesale buyers so that they can make good and discerning choices in the market place."

Organics have Never Been Under Such Dire Threats!

As you will soon learn, organics are now being profoundly threatened by a number of potentially devastating votes that will take place by the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which I will summarize at the end of this article.
We're in dire need of your involvement, so I urge you to please print out the hyperlinked proxy letter and mail it to Cornucopia for hand delivery at the rapidly approaching NOSB meeting. Corporate lobbyists will be present, and so will the Cornucopia Institute, to counter their obnoxious claims and make sure your voice, in support of organic integrity, is heard. For more details on this meeting, please continue to the end. You'll no doubt be shocked, and hopefully resolved to help stop this impending madness.
Signed proxy letters should be mailed to:
The Cornucopia Institute
PO Box 126
Cornucopia, Wisconsin 54827

Can You Really Afford NOT to Eat Organic?

As Kastel says, we're now at the point where we really cannot afford NOT to buy organic food, even if it is more expensive. The U.S. is forecasted to soon be spending close to 20 percent of our gross national product on healthcare, and the failing health of the American people is a direct result of poor nutrition and toxic foods. Healthcare costs are also the number one cause of individual bankruptcy.
We simply MUST take organic agriculture seriously if we want good health.
"[I]t's a matter of prioritizing where we put our money. You know that classic adage, "Pay now or pay later," Kastel says. " I'd rather pay now and have a better quality of life, especially when it comes to the developing fetuses, lactating mothers, young developing children. Not only are we exposing them to the soup of neurotoxic chemicals during development, but, we're depriving them of a lot of essential nutrition.
The USDA did a study in 1999 comparing essential nutrient content in our food…  They found that about half of the essential nutrients on our food had been reduced by as much as 38 percent [compared to the 1950's].
If [nutrients are] not in the soil; if we're depleting the soil through industrial processes, and it's not in the plants, it's not in our milk, in our meat, it's not in us. Many of the immune enhancing compounds that make life wonderful, make our food taste wonderful, and also protect us from cancers and a lot of chronic disease. The attributes to organic food are not just the avoidance of toxins. It's also about what it does have in there, and that's the superior nutrients."
I couldn't agree more. Reprioritizing your budget to spend more where it really counts is imperative if you want to optimize your health. This may mean cutting something else out of your budget, but surely in the long run it will be worth it.
"If families reprioritize, they can have the most wonderful food, and the gift of health, which is… priceless."

Weeding Out the "Greenwashers"

The Cornucopia Institute has been on the forefront of the movement to keep the organic movement truly organic. As many of you are now aware, there's plenty of "greenwashing" going on as large corporations try to get a piece of the organic market share.
The very first campaign the Cornucopia Institute launched was on factory dairy farming posing as all organic. Dean Foods, the largest, milk bottler in the U.S. (a $ 12 billion company; the size of Monsanto) had just bought Horizon, which was (and still is) the number one organic dairy brand.
"When we started… they were buying from a 10,000-cow farm in California with no pasture. We don't think that size is the determinant. It's not about corporate scale. It's about corporate ethics. There are some corporations that have invested in organics and have done it right—but not Dean Foods."
The Cornucopia Institute filed a number of legal complaints, which eventually, after much delay, resulted in sanctions against a select number of dairies that failed to conform to organic practices. The Institute has also helped push through stricter organic standards and regulations. The problem now is that despite the fact that the laws exist, large factory farms are not being re-inspected to ensure that they're conforming to the new, stricter organic standards. All is not lost however…
"We say that there is a higher authority in the United States than the USDA at organics, and that is the organic consumers," Kastel says. "So we published our first in-depth research study on this issue, organic dairy, and a score card that lists every organic dairy brand in the country: butter, milk, cheese, ice cream—both the name brands and the private label store brands.
The good news is that 90 percent of all organic dairy brands are done with high integrity. They're really conforming to the expectation of the consumers. They're grazing their cattle, which increases the nutritional value of the milk or Omega-3s, antioxidants, and CLA. These are really beneficial compounds for human health, but, they are also beneficial to the cow. They live long, healthy, happy lives, as opposed to the animals that are confined in industrial environments.
So consumers get to vote.
Now the gold standard for organic retailing is the 300 or so consumer-owned cooperatives around the country—the natural food cooperative groceries. Almost all of them dropped the Horizon label."
They've replicated that process for organic soy foods and organic eggs, and they're currently lobbying the USDA to tighten the organic egg standards and enforcement. In this interview, Kastel also discusses The Authentic Almond Project; an effort to overturn the USDA's new regulation calling for all raw almonds to be pasteurized for safety—a ruling that has devastated the businesses of raw almond growers in California. For more information, please listen to the interview in its entirety, or read through the transcript.
You can click on this link to view a nice graphic or how many products are disguised and "Green Washed"

Many "Natural" Breakfast Cereals and Snack Bars Contain GMO's

Another report recently published by the Cornucopia Institute investigated "all natural" and organic cereal brands. Shockingly, their independent third-party testing revealed that many trusted natural brands contain genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans—including brands enrolled in the Non-GMO Project.
This is information you simply cannot get anywhere else, and reason alone to support the Institute's efforts.  Natural products that contained, unimaginably, as high as 100 percent genetically modified grains included:
Kashi® Mother's® Nutritious Living® General Mills Kix®
GoLean® Bumpers® Hi-Lo®  

Two breakfast cereal products that are currently enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, Barbara's Bakery's Puffins and Whole Foods' 365® Corn Flakes, contained more than 50 percent GM corn...   Meanwhile, the research control Cornucopia used, Nature's Path® USDA certified organic corn flakes, contained only trace amounts of GM contamination (less than 0.5 percent).
Cornucopia writes:
"These test results underscore the importance of the organic label, which ensures consumers that the manufacturer uses only non-genetically engineered ingredients. More extensive testing is necessary to draw conclusions regarding the truthfulness of "non-GMO" claims, but these preliminary results point to several problems. First, manufacturers can claim that they avoid purchasing genetically engineered ingredients, but these claims may be meaningless unless they are verified by a third party, such as an organic certifying agent.
In addition, many of the most reputable organic companies have developed their own testing protocols to ensure the purity of their products. Furthermore, the Non-GMO Project, which "enrolls" products before it verifies them as being non-GMO, may give consumers a false sense of security. Our test results reveal that several "enrolled" products were in fact made with GE ingredients."

The "All Natural" Label is Frequently Misused on Conventional Products

The report also reveals that "natural" products—using conventional ingredients—are frequently priced higher than equivalent organic products, suggesting that some companies are taking advantage of consumer confusion and trust in the "all natural" label... According to the Cornucopia report:
"Since breakfast cereals are popular with children, it is especially important for parents to be aware of the differences between "natural" products, with conventional ingredients, and certified organic ones. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and other inputs that are commonly used in "natural" products but prohibited in organics."
In the featured interview, Kastel further expounds on this issue, and why it's so important to expose these practices and demand honest labeling:
"Kashi, which is a big name in natural cereals, has a big market share. Not only can you find them in natural food stores, you can find them in Walmart. Kashi is owned by Kellogg's and highly contaminated with GMOs. It's very expensive; it's more expensive than the organic brand. Somebody's making some money here at the expense of consumers, at the expense of organic farmers who are truly stewarding the land.
Our job is to educate consumers so they can make those marketplace decisions," Kastel says.
The Cornucopia report clearly shows that the terms "natural" and "organic" are not interchangeable, and as a concerned shopper, you need to beware of the differences between the two, or risk paying more for what amounts to little more than a conventional product. According to the report:
"On August 31, 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed against Kellogg/Kashi® for allegedly misleading consumers with its "natural" claims. One Kashi® product in particular, GoLean® Shakes, is composed almost entirely of synthetic and unnaturally processed ingredients, according to the plaintiff."

The Power of Marketplace Activism

The goal of the Cornucopia Institute is to "shift the market share to the true heroes of this industry, the farmers and their marketing partners, and send a really strong message to the "bad actors," Kastel explains.
"In this whole world, there are only two kinds of power; money and people. We have the people… The most powerful thing is the marketplace activism, I think, because these corporations listen to money. We have been able to change some of their practices, because [once] they are losing their business, they need to respond…That's the first leg of the three–legged stool for Cornucopia.
The second would be regulatory, and we are working really hard now… to rein in abuses at the USDA. The Congress has set up the National Organics Standard Board to advise the USDA, and every material used in organics has to be screened by them. Unfortunately, during the Bush administration, they stacked it with corporate players, so we have people like General Mills making the decision for the organic industry…or Dean Foods [Kastel says that despite the fact that the Obama administration is doing better, there's still a way to go in terms of transparency and respecting the will of Congress and the organic community in terms of appointments]. 
… The third tactical approach here is the courts, and that's always our last approach because it's expensive and it takes a lot of time. So, we try to win the easier fights."
There's no doubt that the Cornucopia Institute has rich and powerful adversaries. Some of these may appear to be from within the organic movement itself, but don't be fooled! Giant conventional food manufacturers have quietly purchased a large number of small organic brands. One example he gives is that of Cascadian Farms, a large producer of organic foods that began as a small farm in the Pacific Northwest, in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Today, the brand belongs to General Mills, but you won't find any indication of this ownership on their packaging!
Ditto for Horizon organic milk or Silk soymilk. Nowhere on those cartons will you find any indication that Dean Foods owns these brands.
"When they bought Silk, it was an all organic company," Kastel says. "Now, it's almost all conventional. In that case, you'll see on the Horizon and Silk cartons: "White Wave." That was one of the original tofu companies. They create this fa├žade."
If you go to the Cornucopia website, there is a chart titled, "Who Owns Organics?" where you can find out who really owns your favorite organic brand. The primary question is, if it's owned by a large conglomerate, are they acting ethically and truly conforming to organic standards, which includes sustainable farming methods?

How You Can Support the Movement for Authentic Organics

In terms of funding, the Cornucopia Institute gets its money from:
  • Individual members, most of which are organic farmers
  • "Urban allies"—concerned consumers who want to support the organic movement
  • Foundations that want to support human health and ecological farming
  • Organic industry (organic food co-ops making up the greatest number of cornucopia's commercial members)
I would urge anyone concerned about the state of our food supply to support the work of The Cornucopia Institute by making a tax-deductible donation.
You can also sign up for their newsletter, which will empower you with the knowledge of which brands are authentically organic and respect organic values, and which are not. The Cornucopia Institute will also alert you to important legislation, and how you can make a difference.
So please, do consider making a donation to The Cornucopia Institute.

URGENT Action Items!

The Cornucopia Institute is now in URGENT need of your help, and joining the Institute and/or signing up for their newsletter will assure you get timely updates on these important issues.
At the end of November, the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will vote on a number of important issues with regards to organics, including:
  1. The approval of an organic egg regulation that would require organic chicken farmers to provide a mere two square feet per bird of outdoor space. This is a huge favor to industrial producers allowing their factory farmed eggs to fall under the designation of "organic." Meanwhile, it will handicap family farms that are truly letting their birds out to pasture.
  2. A vote will take place to decide whether to allow a food additive produced by Martek Biosciences in organic foods. The product is an omega 3/omega-6 oil synthesized from fermented algae and soil fungus. The oil is extracted from this biomass using hexane, a neurotoxic byproduct of gasoline refinement that is specifically banned in organics.

    Cornucopia investigated Martek’s patent and safety filings at the FDA, and discovered that the product also contains synthetic chemicals, stabilizers, carriers, and some of the ingredients are also genetically modified. (As it turns out, some of their products were developed by Monsanto before Martek bought the technical rights.)

    They’ve already added this to almost all infant formula in the United States,” Kastel warns. “Algae and fungus have never been a part of the human diet, let alone children’s. And now we see it in organic infant formula, and companies like Dean Foods are adding it to organic milk… it’s in every single formula available on the market… except for one organic brand [Babies Only brand, which contains DHA from eggs. All other organic brands appear to contain Martek’s omega oil].
  3. The NOSB is also considering approving the addition of sulfites (artificial preservatives) to organic wine.  This would be the first time artificial preservatives are allowed in organics
Organics has never been under such dire threats, so I urge you to please take a moment right now to print out, sign, and mail the proxy letter provided by Cornucopia back to them ASAP for hand delivery at the rapidly approaching NOSB meeting.
Corporate lobbyists will be present, and so will the Cornucopia Institute, to counter their claims and make sure your voice, in support of organic integrity, is heard.
So, please, print out this proxy letter right now. Sign it, and mail it, as soon as possible, to:
The Cornucopia Institute
PO Box 126
Cornucopia, Wisconsin 54827
Also consider including a donation check with your letter, to support the invaluable work the Cornucopia Institute performs to protect your and your family's right to clean, wholesome, truly organic food.
As of right now, there does not appear to be any additional benefit to contacting your congressman, but if the need arises, Cornucopia will notify all their members and subscribers with the information.
I can't encourage you enough to participate in this process. It's important to recognize that you CAN make a difference! Always remember that collectively, we have the most effective power in the marketplace that can exceed the power of these multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. We can vote with our pocket books. But we also need to make our voices heard; we have to let these agencies know that we are watching, we're paying attention, and we're not going to allow this immoral, if not downright illegal, industrial favoritism to continue.

Source:  Video Transcript

Related Links:

  If You Eat Organic Food, Have You Just Been Betrayed?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Help Save Krishna Valley Eco-Village in Hungary

Also from our friend Madhava Ghosh at View From a New Vrindaban Ridge

From Krishna Valley in Hungary:
Dear Members (Gosh’s note: and Well Wishers)
Please accept my humble obeisances, all glories to Srila Prabhupada.
Please find below the explanation and link to an on-line petition on behalf of the Hungarian yatra. It is self explanatory.
We are planning a protest outside parliament December 13th–cows and all–to hand over this petition.
If you could forward the text below to your temple leaders with a few encouraging words and ask your leaders to send the text out to their data bases with their own few words of support, we could well collect our target of 100,000 plus names. Thank you for your help.
The picture below says to the speaker of parliament: “Sir! Where can we graze here?” (No need to send the picture with the petition.  It was for your interest.)
Your servant
Sivarama Swami

Our Petition!
http://www.peticiok.com/krisna
Dear Devotees. The new “Church Law” in Hungary will take away ISKCON Hungary’s church status as of January 1st requiring us to reapply for the same next year.
However the government has not provided any legal stipulation for the society’s continued ownership of Krsna Valley’s lands in the interim period until we are again re-registered.
In short we risk losing Krsna Valley with no pasture for our cows or land to grow our food. I therefore request that you sign the online Petition —link below— and forward this message to as many people as possible, who
would also petition against this injustice.
Thank you.
Sivarama Swami.
http://www.peticiok.com/krisna
Eco village news  from Hungary

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bhakti Way Of Investing In The Ecology of The Heart

From Radhanath Swami at the Huffington Post


A crippled economy and a polluted environment plague our social body. Both largely stem from the same core disease -- pollution of hearts. Blinded by distractions one can forget how to invest in what awards a meaningful, fulfilling life.

Parallel to our vast strides in technology, there is a dangerous rise in unemployment, foreclosures and degrading education. Millions of people are stricken with hopelessness and strife. Sadly, in the name of progress we have polluted the air, water, soil and the food we eat. What can we do? The following is a story about an encounter I had with someone who cared.

It was winter in New Delhi when the days are mild and the nights are biting cold. New Delhi's wide roads are lined with massive government buildings, the older ones built by the British perhaps a century back with stone pillars, ornate statues and vast lawns. Others built after independence in 1947 are adorned with Indian style arches and domes. I rode toward the airport. Monkeys appeared everywhere, scampering along the boundary walls.

At the crossroads on the way to the airport we passed circular islands of grass and trees surrounding memorials for the country's freedom fighters. The streets were congested with cars, trucks and motorcycle rickshaws spewing out trails of exhaust fumes. Overhead a murky cloud of smog hung in the sky and reduced the sun to a gray lifeless ball. The fumes were thick, the smells toxic, and they sat on our tongues like sour lozenges. On the roadside an elderly man squatted cross-legged with back erect performing pranayama, a yogic breathing exercise. He vigorously inhaled and exhaled. I wondered if it did him more harm than good.

We crossed a bridge over the Yamuna River. I looked down and remembered 30 years before, when I had first come to India, that under the same bridge the Yamuna flowed in her full glory. Now, she looked plundered and crippled. What was once a pristine river had now become a thick blackish liquid, foaming bubbles, and a current so lame she barely flowed.

When I reached the airport and was waiting at the gate for my flight, a lady informed me that sitting close by was the Union Minister for Environment and Forests. She wanted to talk to me. I obliged.

The minister stood up and greeted me, "Namaste Swamiji." After a pleasant exchange she suddenly challenged me with a passion.

"What are you spiritual leaders doing about the ecology?" She was very serious.

"Every second the air is being saturated with cancerous smog," she said. "Tons of raw sewage and toxic waste are dumped hourly into rivers where millions of people bathe and drink. The earth is being stripped of its forest and has become a dumping ground for deadly waste. The world is on the brink of ecological disaster while all of you spiritualists are praying, meditating or chanting. What is all your devotion doing to save the ecology?"

Her concern was real and impassioned. It was exciting to see that depth of concern from a powerful leader over an issue that affects us all.

"Yes, the environment is everyone's responsibility," I responded, "and I sincerely admire your tireless commitment. The spiritual leaders I know believe that along with passing laws and doing the cleaning work we need to address the root cause of the problem. If a person is covered with boils, the symptoms must be treated, but unless the cause of the problem is addressed, the boils will recur. In the case of boils, the cause may be a disease in the blood. The root of cause of pollution in the world is pollution in the heart.

"Toxic greed has contaminated the minds of human society. The environment is simply an external manifestation of the ecology of the mind. Greed is an obsession, an addiction. It can never be quenched. The more it gets, the more it needs. Greed hardens the heart and fools us into rationalizing cruelty and justifying crime. Greed induces envy, divides families, provokes wars and blinds us to our real self-interest. Greed for money, power, fame, sex -- the world is ravaged by greed. It is practically an exercise in futility to attempt to clean the environment when politicians are corrupted by bribes, industrialists pollute rivers to maximize profits and scientists put aside their ethics for funding.

"The Bhagavad Gita states that greed is a symptom of avidya or ignorance that covers the natural virtues of the true self within us. I'm sure you would agree with me that most people are not bad spirited, but due to a lack of awareness they may be destroying the environment, not understanding that what may seem convenient, like dumping industrial waste into a river, is actually killing fish, animals and people. So along with the pollution of our rivers, we must give attention to the pollution in our hearts. If you successfully clean the air, the sky, every river and every ocean, it is for certain that people will pollute them again unless they reform the ecology of their hearts.

"Spiritual life is the science of cleansing the heart and tasting the joy of living in harmony with God, each other and nature. It begins with cultivating good character, the willingness to make personal sacrifices for a higher cause, to make the right choices even in the face of temptation and fear, and put concern for the well being of others as a priority.

"How to do that? All of these virtues can spring from Bhakti or spiritual love. The Bible teaches that 'the first and great commandment is to love God with all one's heart, mind and soul.' And the natural result of that is, 'to love your neighbor as yourself.' Nature is also our neighbor, she is alive with rights like everyone else, but too many people don't see nature that way. The Vedic scriptures tell that the most simple and powerful method of cleansing the ecology of the heart and awakening this dormant love within us is to chant God's names. In my tradition we chant the names of Krishna."

"God has empowered all of us in different ways and if we agree on what the real problem is, then we can all contribute our part of the solution. The well being of Mother Earth is everyone's problem. It is crucial for leaders in all fields to serve cooperatively."

At that point the minister was called to board her flight. She thought for a moment, then stood up and smiled saying, "Yes Swamiji, What you say is true. We all need to work together."

She was right to take me to task. Religious and spiritual leaders should be held accountable for environmental activism, not only because they have access to large communities and can influence votes but because service is integral to religious and spiritual life. Reducing carbon emissions is important, but it is shortsighted if not coupled with reducing the toxic emissions from our heart; and that is something spiritual leaders are supposed to teach and something all thinking people, regardless of their beliefs, should practice.

We should honor Mother Earth with gratitude; otherwise our spirituality may become hypocritical.

The earth nourishes us with every necessity for a prosperous life. When, on a massive worldwide scale we plunder her oil, destroy her forests, pollute her resources, torture and kill her animals, soak her with the blood of her children, exploit one another and trample her with immorality, there will naturally be devastating consequences.

We should honor our mother and respect all of her children as our brothers and sisters. Otherwise, we may force her to react. Humanity has reached a critical crossroads. We have made monumental progress in technology, medicine, science, academics and globalization but if we do not use them with compassion what will be our fate? The dire need is at hand to take responsibility as caretakers of the helpless and live as dedicated instruments of God's love.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Dark Side of the Green City


THE struggle to slow global warming will be won or lost in cities, which emit 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. So “greening” the city is all the rage now. But if policy makers end up focusing only on those who can afford the low-carbon technologies associated with the new environmental conscientiousness, the movement for sustainability may end up exacerbating climate change rather than ameliorating it.

While cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are lauded for sustainability, the challenges faced by Phoenix, a poster child of Sunbelt sprawl, are more typical and more revealing. In 2009, Mayor Phil Gordon announced plans to make Phoenix the “greenest city” in the United States. Eyebrows were raised, and rightly so. According to the state’s leading climatologist, central Arizona is in the “bull’s eye” of climate change, warming up and drying out faster than any other region in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southwest has been on a drought watch 12 years and counting, despite outsized runoff last winter to the upper Colorado River, a major water supply for the subdivisions of the Valley of the Sun.

Across that valley lies 1,000 square miles of low-density tract housing, where few signs of greening are evident. That’s no surprise, given the economic free fall of a region that had been wholly dependent on the homebuilding industry. Property values in parts of metro Phoenix have dropped by 80 percent, and some neighborhoods are close to being declared “beyond recovery.”

In the Arizona Legislature, talk of global warming is verboten and Republican lawmakers can be heard arguing for the positive qualities of greenhouse gases. Most politicians are still praying for another housing boom on the urban fringe; they have no Plan B, least of all a low-carbon one. Mr. Gordon, a Democrat who took office in 2004, has risen to the challenge. But the vast inequalities of the metro area could blunt the impact of his sustainability plans.

Those looking for ecotopia can find pockets of it in the prosperous upland enclaves of Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and North Phoenix. Hybrid vehicles, LEED-certified custom homes with solar roofs and xeriscaped yards, which do not require irrigation, are popular here, and voter support for the preservation of open space runs high. By contrast, South Phoenix is home to 40 percent of the city’s hazardous industrial emissions and America’s dirtiest ZIP code, while the inner-ring Phoenix suburbs, as a legacy of cold-war era industries, suffer from some of the worst groundwater contamination in the nation.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent. Phoenix’s fledgling light-rail system should be expanded to serve more diverse neighborhoods, and green jobs should be created in the central city, not the sprawling suburbs. Arizona has some of the best solar exposure in the world, but it allows monopolistic utilities to impose a regressive surcharge on all customers to subsidize roof-panel installation by the well-heeled ones. Instead of green modifications to master-planned communities at the urban fringe, there should be concerted “infill” investment in central city areas now dotted with vacant lots.

In a desert metropolis, the choice between hoarding and sharing has consequences for all residents. Their predecessors — the Hohokam people, irrigation farmers who subsisted for over a thousand years around a vast canal network in the Phoenix Basin — faced a similar test, and ultimately failed. The remnants of Hohokam canals and pit houses are a potent reminder of ecological collapse; no other American city sits atop such an eloquent allegory.

Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of “Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Safe Water and a Toilet -- Is That Too Much to Ask... for 2.5 Billion People?


From Matt Damon and Gary White at the Huffington Post

By the time you finish reading this paragraph, one more child will have died from something that's been preventable for over a century. Nearly 40 percent of the world's population is still unable to secure a safe glass of water or access a basic toilet. While we continue to rally around the goal of ensuring safe water and sanitation for all, the real question we are left asking ourselves: how do we truly confront this in a way that results in realizing our vision within our lifetime?

Even today, as solutions are known and available, lack of access to safe water and sanitation continues to claim more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.
This painful reality has driven philanthropic efforts to help stop the suffering. There are conferences, master plans, frameworks, legislation, new institutions, and even more resolved resolutions. Money is raised, wells are dug, ribbons are cut. But even after decades of charity, subsidies, multilateral aid, and investments on the part of governments and outside non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the system remains inefficient and largely misses the goal of providing relief for those at the base of the economic pyramid (BOP) in their daily need to secure water. The intentions are good, but the relief is not trickling down.

On average, those living in slums pay 7-15 times more per liter of water than owners of nearby five-star hotels. This is because subsidies are largely delivered through unrealistically low water tariffs -- if you are too poor to afford a water connection, you can't capture the subsidy. Similarly, if you are a poor day laborer in Port-au-Prince and you want a drink of safe water to quench your thirst, you will pay 250 times more than the cost of New York City tap water. Those who lack cash pay with their time -- hours each day spent scavenging for water from public taps that frequently run dry, rivers, or even drainage ditches. There are nearly a billion people in this trap of water insecurity and about 2.5 billion lack a sanitary toilet.

Instead of viewing this as an ocean of people with their hands out waiting for charity-driven solutions, what if we see many of them, or even most of them, as potential customers. In the past decade we have seen a paradigm shift in how we understand the BOP -- a shift that holds much promise for tackling the water and sanitation crisis. Microfinance has been a catalyst in this, democratizing access to capital. Water.org has tapped into the power of microfinance to demonstrate that its principles can spill over into meeting the water and sanitation needs of the poor.

Through WaterCredit, we have explored the application of microfinance to water and sanitation needs. With the support of the Pepsico Foundation, we have reached more than 250,000 people with loans that allow them to pay connection fees for house taps and to construct toilets. This was done at an average philanthropic cost of $24/person, which, in turn, leveraged more than three times that amount in the form of commercial capital to complete the finance package for each household. We are now taking this to scale with an $8 million grant from the Pepsico Foundation announced last Thursday and a $3.8 million grant from the MasterCard Foundation. We project that this philanthropic capital will leverage an additional $36 million in commercial capital, reaching about one million people. In the case of India, we will drive the philanthropic cost per person served down even further, to $10 by the end of the grant.

Access to capital -- philanthropic, social and commercial -- is certainly a choke point in achieving universal access to water and sanitation. But neck and neck is lack of accountability to those living in poverty on the part of their governments and water utilities. Unfortunately, about half of investments that do find their way to water and sanitation infrastructure misses the mark due to corruption, incompetence, inadequate maintenance, and subsidies captured by those who could pay for services.

The potential of microfinance to democratize access to capital is paralleled by the potential of technology and social media to democratize access to information. In the same way that social media and mobile devices allowed those driving the Arab Spring to find their voice in holding their leaders accountable for principles of democracy, we believe they can be used to allow the poor -- citizens in their own right -- to hold their leaders accountable for investments made into basic services such as water and sanitation. More people now have access to a cell phone than a toilet. What if a cell phone became a tool for the poor to better hold their elected officials accountable for fulfilling their mandate to provide sanitation?

Approaching this crisis in a way that truly yields lasting and scalable solutions requires that we tap into orthogonal forces -- trends that are swirling around us that, at first, seem unrelated to the business of addressing the water and sanitation needs of the poor. New tools have been placed in our toolbox -- often, when we in the water sector were looking the other way, drilling another well. Microfinance and social media are just two examples of these tools.

While the issues surrounding water poverty are complex, at a fundamental level they need to be addressed from the bottom up. Philanthropic capital should be used catalytically to jump-start markets for the hundreds of millions who can afford to meet their own needs if only given the right tools. It should be used to help drive transparency and accountability around public funds already targeting this crisis. It should seek to back those initiatives that can continue to democratize those forces and tools that we in the United States take for granted, whether poor or affluent, in leveling the playing field.

We call on ourselves and other NGOs, governments, utilities, philanthropists, and influencers to recommit to approaching this crisis from the perspective of the poor. This call includes directing more resources towards experimentation and discovery, and doing so in a way that taps into and channels the intrinsic power of the poor as customers and citizens. It also includes raising the stakes by putting the global water and sanitation crisis on the map in a way that it truly deserves. This is a challenge worthy of the next global movement, similar to what was needed to sound the alarm around the fight against HIV/AIDS.

This is that next movement and we are honored to have the opportunity to work with Arianna Huffington, who pledged herself and her team to give this movement an incredible kick-start with the launch of a new section of Huffington Post -- a section that will be dedicated to giving coverage to this cause, the doers, the solutions, and the discourse that is needed to change the world. 2011-11-01-GaryandMattTIME100bwsketch.jpgIn the end we know that we cannot fund-raise our way out of this crisis. Ultimately, it will be creativity, innovation, and collective action that will allow us to achieve universal access to water and sanitation, and do so in our lifetime.
Gary White and Matt Damon are the co-founders of Water.org.