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LIKE OIL FOR CHOCOLATE?

Apparently, we Americans are too stupid to tell the difference between real chocolate and the cheap, waxy “chocolatey” concoctions that food manufacturers fabricate out of artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes, and partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. those toxic trans fats). Or so the Chocolate Manufacturers Association is hoping.

Real chocolate is made, of course, from cocoa beans. But thanks to global warming, cocoa bean crop yields are dropping as temperatures rise. The specter of parched cocoa plantations has sent the cost of cocoa beans up about 28% in recent months.

So the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include Hershey, Nestlé, and Archer Daniels Midland, are lobbying the FDA to change the legal definition of chocolate to let them substitute cheap vegetable oils for cocoa butter.

But vegetable oils and cocoa butter are two entirely different ingredients. As Brad Kinstler, the CEO of See’s Candies (one of Warren Bufffet’s tastier acquisitions), told Bloomberg News, “If the margarine manufacturers could call their product butter instead of being required to call it margarine, wouldn't it strike the consumer as being odd?''

Yes, and it would strike this consumer as another egregious example of Big Food’s utter contempt for the American public. The “citizens’ petition” these multinational corporations have submitted to the FDA presents this proposed redefinition as a boon to consumers. As Hershey’s spokesman, Kirk Saville, told Bloomberg News:

”The petition would modernize all food standards, increasing flexibility to accommodate changes in technology. Changes, if adopted, would provide the flexibility to make changes based on consumer taste preference, ingredient costs and availability, and shelf life.''

Ah yes, “flexibility”--i.e., the option to use cheap, toxic trans fats instead of antioxidant rich cocoa butter. As today’s NY Times notes, “Eating dark chocolate may be almost as effective at lowering blood pressure as taking the most common antihypertensive drugs.” The fat found in cocoa butter is, like olive oil, one of the “good” fats.

The partially hydrogenated oils the Chocolate Manufacturers Association wants to substitute, on the other hand, constitute a known health hazard. But Hershey, Nestle et al insist that Americans don’t actually care what goes into the food we eat, as Cybele May, founder of candyblog.net, noted in an LA Times op-ed. She cites a passage from the petition:

Consumer expectations still define the basic nature of a food. There are, however, no generally held consumer expectations today concerning the precise technical elements by which commonly recognized, standardized foods are produced. Consumers, therefore, are not likely to have formed expectations as to production methods, aging time or specific ingredients used for technical improvements, including manufacturing efficiencies.

So switching from costly, heart-healthy cocoa butter to artery clogging trans fats constitutes a “technical improvement” or “manufacturing efficiency.”

May points out that it’s perfectly legal for manufacturers to sell their cheap chocolate flavored confections. They just can’t call them “chocolate.”

But Big Food insists that cocoa butter and vegetable oils are interchangeable. In theory, this means that if you’re trying to butter up your sweetie with a fancy box of chocolate, you could save yourself a few bucks by bucking the Scharffen Berger and springing for the Whitman’s Sampler instead.

In actual practice, of course, this could incite a 21st century Valentine’s Day Massacre, with hordes of furious females hurtling boxes of bargain basement bonbons at their cheapskate dates. Because nothing says “I’m just not that into you” like a box of crappy, waxy candy.

And nothing says “We work for the corporations, not the consumers” more than the FDA’s willingness to consider the merits of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association’s petition. As a nostalgic nod to the democracy we once were, the FDA allows the public to provide feedback on these matters, and tomorrow, April 25th, is the very last day for us to tell the FDA to take its greasy palms off our chocolate.

You can take a catastrophically mismanaged war, tie a ribbon around it and call it a victory for democracy, but it’s still a disaster and a defeat. And a box of partially hydrogenated, artificially flavored candy can never be a box of chocolates. It wouldn’t even fool Forrest Gump.

EARTH DAY LEFTOVERS FOR YOUR INFOSNACKING PLEASURE

Earth Day brought us a smorgasborg of sustainable sound bites, a bull horn of plenty, if you will. I’m sure I missed a few, and no doubt so did you, so I’d like to take this opportunity to steer you to some of my favorites.

Bill Maher delivered a stinging rant about our embattled bees at the end of last Friday’s New Rules; the transcript’s on Huffington Post, and it will be rebroadcast on HBO tonight at 8, but here’s a highlight:

Here's a quote from Albert Einstein: “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Well, guess what? The bees are disappearing. In massive numbers. All around the world.

And if you think I'm being alarmist and that, "Oh, they'll figure out some way to pollinate the plants..." No, they've tried. For a lot of what we eat, only bees work. And they're not working. They're gone. It's called Colony Collapse Disorder, when the hive's inhabitants suddenly disappear, and all that's left are a few queens and some immature workers -- like when a party winds down at Elton John's house…

But I think we're the ones suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. Because although nobody really knows for sure what's killing the bees, it's not al-Qaeda, and it's not God doing some of his Old Testament shtick, and it's not Winnie the Pooh. It's us. It could be from pesticides, or genetically modified food, or global warming, or the high-fructose corn syrup we started to feed them. Recently it was discovered that bees won't fly near cell phones -- the electromagnetic signals they emit might screw up the bees navigation system, knocking them out of the sky. So thanks guy in line at Starbucks, you just killed us. It's nature's way of saying, "Can you hear me now?"

Speaking of pesticides, CBS Sunday Morning ran a terrific profile of Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring single handedly got Americans rethinking our cavalier use of chemicals back in the 60’s. You have got to see the creepy, Bela Lugosi-like spokesman for the chemical industry who denounces Carson in wildly melodramatic fashion:

"The major claims in Miss Rachel Carson's book, 'Silent Spring,' are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence, and general practical experience in the field. If Man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth."

This hilariously histrionic snippet is followed by Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist/lawyer himself, noting that when his uncle, who was President at the time, read Silent Spring, he said, 'I'm gonna appoint an independent commission to investigate whether it's true or not. “ The commission met for almost a year, and determined that “essentially everything in Rachel Carson's book was true."

We’ve got a current day Carson in the person of Bill McKibben, but the odds of his latest plea for environmental sanity, Deep Economy, landing on Dubya’s nightstand are, sadly, nil. Yesterday’s NY Times Book Review summed up McKibben’s clarion call to reduce our consumption and renew our communities as follows:

McKibben says in effect, All right, we are two nations: 1) Wal-Mart Nation (gigantic, globalized, unsustainable in the face of climate change and the trashing of nature and the coming exhaustion of the world’s fossil fuels), a world predicted half a century ago by Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, desperately gobbling oversweet glut from the unstoppable assembly line; and 2) Farmers’ Market Nation (manageably small, localized, communitarian, neighborly, calibrated to the human scale)…

…He defends his “economics of neighborliness” against the charge that it is “sentimental, nostalgic, some Norman Rockwell old-town-green fantasy.” In fact, he insists: “Given the trend lines for phenomena like global warming and oil supply, what’s nostalgic and sentimental is to insist that we keep doing what we’re doing now simply because it’s familiar. The good life of the high-end American suburb is precisely what’s doing us in.” His alternative, an intelligent, socially responsible, nonideological localism — essentially a readjustment downward of material expectations and therefore of our “hyperindividualistic” economic metabolisms — “might better provide goods like time and security that we’re short of.”

McKibben’s premise got some scientific validation in an article from last Friday’s Washington Post, “Baby Boomers Appear to Be Less Healthy Than Parents”:

…boomers tend to report more stress than earlier generations -- from their jobs, their commutes, taking care of their parents and their kids -- all of which can take a physical toll, which is compounded by having less support from extended families and communities, experts say.

"People are working two jobs. They are not sleeping as much. They're experiencing more job insecurity. They have less time to take care of themselves. They are more socially isolated," said Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Public Health. "This all could add up to a huge crisis and really calls for us to examine the things that perhaps we're not doing so well."

Yeah, like living well. Which, contrary to the conventional wisdom, isn’t so much about how much stuff you have. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win. If he’s accumulated all that crap at the expense of spending time with family and friends, he might just be one of the bigger losers.

EARTH DAY BLOGGING

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING

This week’s cavalcade of catastrophe and carnage lent credence to T.S. Eliot’s adage that April is the cruelest month. It started with some biblically bad flooding, followed by massacres at home and in Iraq, a Supreme setback for women, a cornered Wolfie snarling at the World Bank, and an addled Attorney General bravely facing his critics despite a crippling case of amnesia. Or is it Alzheimer’s?

Oh, how we longed for just one story with a happy ending. But even the saga of Sludgie, the baby whale who wandered into Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, turned into a tragic fish-out-of-water tale.

So, in the spirit of the classic kitten-on-a-limb “Hang in There!” poster, after such an unrelentingly grim week, I’m thinking this might be a felicitous time for some feline fooling around.

Here, for your amusement, I offer a series of shots of our resident Libertarian, the laissez-faire Zuzu, with one of her favorite toys, a catnip-enhanced Newt Gingrich. She never tires of biting him and batting him around, but she wasn’t the only one taking swats at the former Speaker of the House this week.

Gringrich is trying to persuade his fellow conservatives that global warming is real, but all he’s managed to do is inflame the red-staters, as my fellow Kossack greendem hilariously documented in a diary on Daily Kos yesterday. Greendem ventured over to the far right corner of the blogosphere to harvest some howlers from the climate change naysayers, and wished Gingrich well in his thankless task of trying to counter years of disinformation from fossil fueled don’t-think tanks:

…So good luck with that whole Green Conservativism thing, Newt. Seems your people believe you are walking lock-step with granola-munching Maoists.

Unfortunately, the activist base of your party has been hijacked by rabid anti-environmentalists and the wacked-out "end of times" crowd too long to ever understand what Teddy Roosevelt stood for. Or that Conservatives once believed in "conservation" of our natural resources.

Jason Jones interviewed one such “end-of-times” wacko for a segment on last night’s Daily Show entitled “Apocalypse How?” Oh, how I love the smell of wingnuts roasting in the evening.

Back to cat-tales, I offer for your viewing pleasure “Kittens and Bacon,” an amusing allegory of kittens, mittens, lobbyists and larded legislation. Thanks to our friend Andrew for sharing it. We need all the laughs we can get right now.

HOW TO GROW A HEALTHIER CROP OF KIDS

Why are we treating our kids like cattle? We herd them into school cafeterias and pump them full of grain-based by-products, and confine them to classrooms to cram for all those No Child Left Behind tests. It’s like a federally mandated feedlot for tots, a government sanctioned program whose goal seems to be No Child Left Without a Big Behind.

And then we wonder Why Johnny Can’t See His Feet. “Eat more fruits and vegetables!” they tell him. “Get out and play!” they say.

Surely, nourishing our children well is a high priority for our government when it crafts a new farm bill every five years.

Except that it’s not. Our agricultural policies push “commodity” crops like corn and soybeans at the expense of so-called “specialty crops,” i.e. all those fruits and vegetables they tell us to feed our kids. So we fatten the bottom line of industrial agriculture, which in turn fattens our collective waistline and fosters an epidemic of obesity related illness.

As a bonus, industrial agriculture also poisons our environment, pollutes our waterways, depletes our soil, abuses animals, squanders fossil fuels, and exploits workers. Your tax dollars at work.

And yet you’ve probably never even thought about our nation’s farm bill. It sounds both too bureaucratic and too bucolic to have any real relevance to your life.

Well, wake up and smell the CAFOS. Michael Pollan, on the frontlines of the “real food” revolution, tells us why the farm bill matters to every American in a NY Times Magazine article entitled “You Are What You Grow:”

…the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives… The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce…

But Pollan’s optimistic that this year’s farm bill will be different, because the good food movement is gaining steam, giving even perennial pessimists like me reason to hope. Much of my newfound optimism comes courtesy of my colleagues in the New York City Food Systems Network, a coalition of nutritionists, anti-hunger activists, farmers’ market advocates, sustainability scholars, and other fine folks dedicated to changing the way we grow our food and feed our families.

One of the driving forces behind the NYCFSN, Hilary Baum, also founded the Baum Forum, a non-profit dedicated to promoting local agriculture, better food in schools and a healthier food system for everyone.

Her Baum Forum regularly hosts stellar-paneled conferences that feature the finest foot soldiers in the battle for better food, and she’s got another amazing conference lined up for this Saturday, April 21st: “Schools, Food and Gardening: Cultivating a Healthy Future,” a day-long conference at Columbia University co-sponsored by the Nutrition Program at Columbia’s Teachers College.

We’ll get the sustainable scoop from organic pioneer Joan Dye Gussow, whose memoir This Organic Life persuaded me to plant paw paws, and a dose of post-Katrina progress from Anthony Recasner, who heads the charter school that’s home to the New Orleans Edible Schoolyard.

And I can’t wait to see the demonstration of those self-watering Earth Box planters, so efficient at growing produce that the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has adopted them as part of The Growing Connection campaign to help communities all over the world grow their own food.

If you’re in our neck of the woods, we hope you’ll join us, but you can board the real food bandwagon wherever you are. Get up to speed by reading Daniel Imhoff’s Foodfight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, with a forward by Michael Pollan. Imhoff’s taken a dry topic and made it wry with his well-illustrated and entertaining compendium of all the collateral damage our misguided agricultural policies have wreaked on ourselves and our environment.

But Imhoff doesn’t just diagnose the many sicknesses of our food system, he offers the antidote, which, not surprisingly, calls for a massive dose of citizen activism:

…The critical moment will occur when a coalition of previously isolated voices joins ranks to challenge the status quo by insisting on a healthier, more hopeful and secure future for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. Farm and food policy will become an integrated economic engine that not only encourages environmentally viable crop production but truly supports health and nutrition, renewable energy, entrepreneurial development, stewardship, fair trade, living wages, and regional food security.

And who wouldn’t be in favor of all that? I mean, aside from Archer Daniels Midlands, Cargill, Monsanto, and all their Big Food buddies. Do we live in a democracy, or a cornarchy?

CAN FARMERS AFFORD TO GIVE MARKETS THE TIME OF DAY?

Farmers markets are the fastest growing segment of our food industry, and the “buy local” boom is sure to get a big boost from stories like this one from the AP today:
Just 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected - yet those government inspections regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption…

…"FDA doesn't have enough resources or control over this situation presently," said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, which works with industry to improve safety.

Last month alone, the FDA detained nearly 850 shipments of grains, fish, vegetables, nuts, spice, oils and other imported foods for issues ranging from filth to unsafe food coloring to contamination with pesticides to salmonella.

And that's with just 1.3 percent of the imports inspected.

Thanks to our globalized food chain, we’re eating more imported foods than ever, much of it from countries with lax food safety standards.

It would make sense, then, to allocate additional funds for the FDA to step up its inspections. But no:

Even as the amount of imported food increased, the percentage of FDA inspections declined - from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 1.3 percent this year to an expected 1.1 percent next year…

…A recent Government Accountability Office report noted that most of the $1.7 billion the federal government allocates to food safety goes to the USDA, which is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply. The FDA, responsible for most of the other 80 percent, gets about 24 percent of the total spent on food safety.

I’m no mathematician, but my dad is, and I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that divvying up our food safety dollars in this fashion is utterly assbackward—except that my father, gentleman and scholar that he is, would never use such a vulgar term, and wishes I wouldn’t, either (sorry to keep disappointing you, Dad.)

Given a choice between food from far off places that’s been OK’d by an overworked, faceless bureaucrat, or the locally grown “food with a face” that Michael Pollan champions in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, many Americans are opting to put their food dollars right in the callused hands of the farmers who plant the produce that fills their eco-friendly reusable canvas totes.

But as more shoppers flock to the farmers markets, the food-with-a-face movement is facing a new dilemma. As the LA Times noted last week, the extraordinary growth of the farmers’ markets means that farmers have to spend more and more time at the market, which eats into the time they need to spend back on the farm actually growing the food.

“It's like a chef having to stop cooking in order to hand-deliver every plate,” adds the LA Times.

Well, yeah, when you put it like that, it does sound pretty inefficient.

Howell Tumlin, executive director of the Southland Farmers' Market Association in Southern California, told the LA Times that farmers will have to find better ways to get their produce to consumers, such as CSA’s or selling through local supermarkets.

And maybe that’s not so bad, because it would make more local foods available to folks who can’t make it to the farmers’ market.

Tumlin acknowledges that “the face-to-face interaction with farmers is one of the benefits that draws customers to the market.” Ironically, that’s one draw we stand to lose as the farm stands’ popularity skyrockets.

The sad reality, according to Tumlin, is that we’re destined to look back wistfully on the days that we could “still stand across a battered piece of plywood and have a conversation with the folks who grew your food. It's a shame, but it just doesn't make sense as a way to do business."

So get to know your local farmers now, because their rising star may keep ‘em down on the farm in the future.

IT TAKES A FAKE PREACHER TO TELL THE TRUTH

It’s official. Those of us who watch Comedy Central’s fake anchors are better informed about current events than viewers of Fox news. What a topsy turvy world we live in when satirical shows intended to entertain us are more edifying than “straight” news broadcasts. Now that network news divisions and cable news channels are all about the profits, a well-informed populace is a luxury our culture apparently can’t afford.

So it’s entirely fitting that the Reverend Billy, a fake preacher, offers us true redemption through his Church of Stop Shopping. If you’re not familiar with Reverend Billy, you will be soon, when Morgan Spurlock’s What Would Jesus Buy? hits the theaters. Reverend Billy’s companion book by the same name warns of the impending “Shopacolypse:”

"Now children, we are all Shopping Sinners. Each of us is walking around in a swirl of gas and oil, plastics and foil. We should all hit our knees and weep and confess together. We are not evil people, but somehow we have allowed the Lords of Consumption to organize us into these mobs that buy and dispose, cry and reload…"

Kurt Vonnegut was less forgiving of our wasteful ways, telling Jon Stewart back in 2005, “I think we are terrible animals, and I think our planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, and should.”

But Reverend Billy’s message to Stop Shopping and Start Loving lifted vinegary ol’ Vonnegut out of his Thinking Man’s Andy Rooney routine just long enough to bless the front cover of Reverend Billy’s book with this beyond-the-grave blurb:

“Rev and his choir now enrapture large audiences, sometimes including me, with sermons such as those in this collection, and ones to which, I dare say, Jesus himself would have said Amen.”

We were amongst the enraptured on April 14th, when Reverend Billy brought his greenhouse gasp gospel to Manhattan’s Battery Park to ignite the Step It Up 2007 Sea of People rally against global warming.

After Reverend Billy got the crowd all hot and bothered about our compulsive buying, Step It Up founder Bill McKibben took the stage to make his own pitch for more mindful living.

McKibben’s been trying to tell us for, like, 18 years—since the publication in 1989 of his watershed book, The End of Nature—that we’re irrevocably altering our environment (and not for the better.) But his Methodist madness is just too mild mannered to hammer the message home with the efficacy of a fictitious firebrand like the Reverend Billy.

That’s why, as my regular readers know, I’ve been trying to harness the power of The Secret to get McKibben his place in the sun, aka Oprah’s sofa. Evidently I need to wish even harder, though, because so far, I’ve only managed to get him booked on last Friday’s Newshour With Jim Lehrer, where he told Ray Suarez:

“I’m not, you know, the absolute biggest optimist that there ever was…and the problem's even harder than you imagine, because we have to do it -- we don't just have to do it, we have to do it darn fast, something like the next 10 years, according to the best science…

Look, the only way that it's going to happen is if we have a strong political movement in this country demanding that kind of change. So far, Congress has been embarked on a 20-year bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing, and it's been highly successful.”

And they’ve had plenty of help from Rush Limbaugh, “Global warming's most popular denialist,” as James Wolcott notes in his brilliant, must-read lambasting of Limbaugh in the current Vanity Fair. With all the brouhaha over Don Imus’s ho-paux, I wish people could work up a fraction of that outrage over the way Rush Limbaugh has brainwashed millions of listeners into believing that global warming is a liberal elite hoax. As Wolcott notes:

"… he has injected millions of semi-vacant American skulls with a cream filling of complacency that has helped thrust this country into the forefront of backward leadership. He has given Republican lawmakers the rhetorical cover fire to do nothing but snicker as the crisis emerged and impressed itself on the rest of the world. He conscripted concern for nature as just another weapon in the Culture Wars."

But there’s a ray of hope on the horizon. I saw it on Saturday, when Tiffany Cordero, a preternaturally self-possessed 12 year-old New Yorker, took the Step It Up stage to declare “A lot of people are thinking just of now. But we won't have a 'now' if we don't focus on the future.”

Why is it that a 12 year old can connect the dots, while doddering Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, can’t? Stevens admitted to NPR’s Steve Inskeep on April 10th that climate change is altering Alaska’s environment, but Stevens blew a gasket when Inskeep asked him if one of his pet proposals, drilling in ANWAR, might exacerbate the problem:

“That oil and gas doesn’t have anything to do with global warming! How do you make the connection between producing oil in Alaska and global warming?”

The question is, how could you not? But then we’re talking about a guy who thinks that the Internet is “a series of tubes.” And Senator Stevens was the driving force behind the $315 million dollar Bridge to Nowhere. Which is exactly where his kind of “leadership” will take us. I think I’d rather cast my lot with Reverend Billy’s carbon-curbing congregation.

AFTER US, THE DELUGE?

Oh, how the blue bears begged us to let them join the “Sea of People” who flooded lower Manhattan on Saturday to rally Congress to “Step It Up” and cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. A thousand-plus blue-clad activists united in an undulating human chain more than a mile long to mark how our waterlines could rise if the world keeps heating up.

Coincidentally—or not?—today finds the tri-state area in a state of emergency thanks to the Nor’easter that’s dumped a record-breaking 8 inches of rain on our region. It’s wreaking havoc all over, the AP reports, with residents from Long Island to New Hampshire being evacuated and several hundred thousand households in New York and New England losing power.

"There's something ironic about the fact that we were down on the Battery yesterday, forming a line to show where the new tide line will be in New York with rising sea levels," Step It Up 2007’s founder, Bill McKibben, told the New York Sun on Sunday. "Today, Bloomberg is issuing emergency flood warnings for Lower Manhattan."

Clearly, polar bears aren’t the only ones imperiled by global warming. As the Sea of People demonstrated on Saturday, rising sea levels could leave lower Manhattan submerged under 10 feet of water. That would make for a mighty soggy stock exchange.

Can you see Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe wearing wellies to work? On the bright side, we wouldn’t need to rename Canal Street; we’d just have to get used to hailing a gondola instead of a cab.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to take action now, rather than be forced to adapt to rising floodwaters? We think so, and that’s why we joined the Sea of People to try to persuade Congress that we need to seriously step up our efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

And, in the end, even the blue bears got to attend the rally; after all, a little ursine urgency can make a big splash, as Knut, the world’s cutest polar bear cub, demonstrates on the cover of Vanity Fair’s green issue, on the newsstands now. After Annie Leibovitz shot Leonardo diCaprio posed pensively on an Icelandic glacier, Vanity Fair dispatched her to the Berlin zoo to snap a portrait of Knut, who was then Photoshopped into the picture to share the cover with Leo.

And if we don’t Step It Up now, we face a future where Photoshop will be the only way to get a photograph of a polar bear on an ice cap. Chilling, isn’t it?

EARTH UNIVERSITY BANANAS GET AN “A”

Time for a pop quiz: Who do you buy your bananas from?

A) A multinational corporation that’s given guns and money to terrorists, or:

B) A non-profit international university dedicated to sustainable development.

If your bananas bear the Chiquita label, the answer is “A.” And if you continue to buy them after what I’m going to tell you, I’ll have to give you an “F.”

Chiquita bananas—yes, even the organic ones from Trader Joe’s—have been banished from our fruit bowl ever since we learned that Chiquita executives had given $1.7 million to right wing Colombian militias who routinely massacre people.

But our search for an ethical brand of bananas was fruitless. Until, that is, about a week ago, when a display of something called Earth bananas appeared miraculously in the produce department at Whole Foods.

Was it a mirage of shimmering sustainability? The Earth bananas emitted eco-friendly “buy me” rays that drew us closer.

“Aha!” I said. “There’s no price—I bet they’re really expensive.”

“69 cents a pound,” said the Whole Foods employee.

OK, so not only are Earth bananas grown on a low-impact, socially responsible banana farm in Costa Rica which is a model for the banana industry worldwide, but the profits from their Whole Foods sales all go to “support education, entrepreneurship, and sustainable agriculture in the developing world.”

And, they’re cheaper, too. I don’t know how this is possible, but my hat’s off to Whole Foods for giving us an alternative to Chiquita, because according to an article from Wednesday’s Christian Science Monitor, Chiquita’s involvement with the paramilitaries went beyond merely writing checks to actually unloading rifles and ammunition at its Colombian ports which ultimately wound up in the hands of the militias.

The article also includes a chilling eyewitness account of a banana plantation worker being beheaded with a machete by paramilitary thugs.

Chiquita spokesman Michael Mitchell insisted that the payments were made to protect its employees. "We believe they saved people's lives," he told the Monitor.

If, by “saving people’s lives,” you mean cutting off their heads, I guess.

Meanwhile, Chiquita’s not the only multinational company that’s been accused of underwriting terrorists, according to the Monitor:

At least three multinationals operating in Colombia – coal mining giant Drummond, Nestle, and Coca-Cola – have been targeted in civil lawsuits in the US that claimed these companies paid paramilitaries to kill or intimidate union workers.

Whether any of these corporations will pay a price for contributing to the violence and chaos in Colombia remains to be seen. In the meantime, if you want to buy a banana that’s free of any pesticide—or homicide—residues, look for the label that says “Earth.” Earth to Chiquita: drop dead.

HEIFER INTERNATIONAL TO FARMERS: HAVE A COW

Give a man a steak, and you feed him for a day; give a man a cow, and you feed him for life? I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s pretty much the principle upon which Heifer International was founded, and the means by which this wonderful project feeds families the world over.

Heifer ‘s (live)stock in trade is a kind of microloan that you can milk. This anti-hunger initiative was the inspiration of Dan West, a relief worker and Midwestern farmer who had an epiphany back in 1944 while doling out cups of milk to hungry children. It dawned on West, faced with a surplus of kids and a shortage of milk, that “…these children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.”

Happily, West’s flash of inspiration was no flash in the milking pan; founded in 1944 as Heifers for Relief, the organization has evolved, over 60-odd years, into a powerhouse non-profit that’s nourished 7million people in more than 125 countries.

Credit Heifer’s “passing on the gift” concept for creating this impressive and inspiring achievement. A gift of a heifer is a gift that literally keeps on giving, as the calves mature and give birth to the next generation of heifers. This cycle of giving transforms recipients into givers, as they share the offspring with others in need.

Of course, in order for Heifer to keep feeding the needy, the not-so-needy need to feed Heifer’s coffers, which is why Organic Valley hosted an “Earth Dinner” fundraiser for Heifer at Manhattan’s Prince George Ballroom last night.

It was a swanky setting for a sustainable gala, and the food was naturally all-natural, i.e. organic and/or local, and lovingly prepared. The speakers, who included Organic Valley farmer Travis Forgues and the goddess of GRUB, food activist and author Anna Lappé, sang Heifer’s praises while we savored delicious chicken pot pies courtesy of the Cleaver Company, whose founder, Mary Cleaver, is a proud pioneer in the growing field of sustainable, socially conscious catering. As a bonus, the Cleaver Company created a heifer-shaped cookie cutter, a goody to give all the do-gooders in attendance.

As Anna Lappé wryly noted, Heifer is anything but a cookie-cutter kind of operation. From Appalachia to Zambia, Heifer tailors its projects to meet local needs and provide individuals with the resources to create self-reliant, sustainable communities.

Last night’s fundraiser focused on Heifer’s support for America’s family farmers, who’ve been all but plowed under while industrial agriculture and suburban sprawl deplete our soils and our souls. Sustain the family farms, and the family farms will sustain us.

Kind of a folksy message for a fancy fete, but that’s just the point, isn’t it? It takes a farmer to put food on your plate, whether your place settings are secondhand or Haviland.

And, in our case, it took our generous friend Claire, who shares Heifer’s “passing on the gift” philosophy, to give us entrée to the Earth Dinner. Unable to attend, she insisted on buying us tickets to go in her stead. Talk about passing on the gift! Thanks, Claire. I saved you a heifer-shaped cookie cutter.

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