Green & Black's

My Sugar Odyssey

Now that the Government is slapping a tax on soft drinks I am going to indulge in a reminiscence of my troubled relationship with sugar, health and food. My first job, as a 7 year old kid, was to scour the streets of a Pittsburgh suburb called Bridgeville, collecting discarded soda bottles and taking them to my aunt Gloria's store to collect the 2¢ deposit refund.  At that time a soft drink was 10¢, so the drink was 8¢ and the bottle deposit was 2¢ and people still threw the bottle away.  The deposit didn't make much change in behaviour.  When people wanted sugar, they paid what it cost.

I didn't really have much appetite for sugar for most of my childhood, our mother was pretty strict about it.  I remember the day in 1953 when confectionery came off the ration in the UK  and some schoolmates emerged from a sweet shop with a bag of humbugs they'd just bought  without having to cajole their mother to come along with her ration book.  The nation went mad for sugar and the Government had to put it back on rationing until supplies recovered.

It was in 1965, when I was in Afghanistan, recovering in Kabul from a serious case of hepatitis, enhanced with dysentery, that I understood sugar.   My liver was on strike and the doctors told me that I should eat lots of simple sugary food to keep my blood sugar levels up.   The dysentery told me otherwise: I knew from an early bout in Shiraz, that a diet of unleavened whole meal flat bread and unsweetened tea was the key to stopping the runs.   So I tried it again and the dysentery cleared up in 2 days.   Amazingly, so did the hepatitis.  My liver stopped throbbing with pain and the whites of my eyeballs went from greenish yellow to something close to white.

That autumn, back in Philadelphia, I adopted the macrobiotic diet which forbids sugar.  My health rose to an even higher level and I haven't once needed to see a doctor since about my health.  After a few years I was able to reintroduce alcohol into my diet but tried to keep a lid on sugar.

In 1966 I was in London, aiming to open a macrobiotic restaurant and study centre. From December, I was a regular at the UFO Club, where proto-hippies would listen to the Pink Floyd and then buy macrobiotic food that my mother had helped me make.  My little band of macrobiotic missionaries would then explain to people trying this strange food that brown rice was good for you and sugar should be avoided.  I opened a little basement restaurant in Notting Hill in February 1967.  Yoko Ono was one of our first customers, as she knew about macrobiotics from Japan.

We made bread without yeast, macrobiotic-style and I imported books like Zen Macrobiotics by Georges Ohsawa (Nyoiti Sakurozawa) that were sold in Indica Books, the bookshop owned by Paul McCartney and Barry Miles.

Macrobiotics avoided yeast for the same reason they avoided sugar: too much could cause dysbiosis of the gut flora.  Meanwhile the American Medical Association called macrobiotics a diet that 'could lead to death'

Dr. Arnold Bender, Britain's top nutritionist, said white bread was the most easily digestible and nutritious bread you could eat, slapping down the wholemeal alternative as too slow to digest and with lower nutrients, because wheat bran fibre has no protein and carbohydrate.

In 1968 I had to leave Britain and my brother Gregory opened a larger restaurant in Bayswater called Seed.

None of the desserts were made with sugar - a touch of salt was enough to bring out the sweetness of the apples in the crumbles.  At festivals like Glastonbury and Phun City we would serve up porridge to the festival goers and got into trouble at one festival as our customers would head off to an adjoining catering tent to get sugar to sprinkle on their porridge and muesli.  We had a shop on the Portobello Road called Ceres Grain Shop that sold all the whole grains, beans, seeds and organic vegetables but the only sweet thing we sold was Aspall organic apple juice.

I wrote a book called About Macrobiotics in 1972 that was translated into 6 languages and sold half a million copies where I wrote: "If sugar was discovered yesterday it would be banned immediately and handed over to the Army for weapons research."

We were hard core.  My kids didn't dare even ask for sweets - they might sneak them with friends at school but would destroy the evidence before they got home.

We didn't believe in refined cereals either - no white flour or white rice touched our lips.  Our macrobiotic food wholesaling company Harmony Foods introduced the first organic wholegrain rice.   In 1973, with other pioneering natural food companies we wrote the manifesto of the Natural Foods Union.  We promised each other not to sell sugar or any products containing sugar or white flour or white rice.  We were committed to developing organic food sources which were then rare.  Signatories included Community Foods, our own Harmony Foods and Ceres Grain Shop, Haelan Centre, Infinity Foods, Harvest of Bath, Anjuna of Cambridge and On The Eighth Day in Manchester.

We published a magazine called 'Seed - The Journal of Organic Living' that had cover stories with headlines like "Garbage Grub - How The Poor Starve on Rich Foods" and a story on Britain's future which set out a dystopian vs Utopian vision where on one side people were clamouring for 24 Hour TV and More Sugar.  On the other they were tending goats and living in countryside communes eating whole natural foods.

Then in 1977 I worked out how to make jam using apple juice.  Being higher in fructose it was possible to make a jam with a lot less sweetening, so it tasted light and fruity.  They were 38% sugars from fruit when other jams were 65% sugars from sugar cane and fruit.  Whole Earth jams were an international success as they reached out to the increasing numbers of sugar avoiders in the UK, Europe and North America.

However our sales met stiff competition from much sweeter jams that used fruit juices like grape juice that were higher in glucose than white sugar and they used a lot of it, to match the sweetness of regular jam.  Our moral restraint cost us sales to these much more sugary jams.   However we also used apple juice to sweeten other products, marketing baked beans, soft drinks and salad dressings.  Even our best selling Whole Earth peanut butter contained a touch of concentrated apple juice to make it taste more mainstream.

Then, while searching for another source of organic peanuts I connected with Ewé tribal people in Togo, West Africa, who grew delicious peanuts as part of an organic crop rotation.  Unfortunately the peanuts failed our aflatoxin tests but the farmers also grew organic cocoa beans.  There was no organic chocolate on the market at that time so I got a sample made up of 70% solids chocolate made with organic cocoa beans.

We called it Green & Black's and launched it in September 1991. It was the first time I had sold a product containing real sugar from sugar cane.  It was the first organic and the first 70% and the first chocolate with a transparent supply chain.   So we put a sugar warning on the label – I think this is the only time that any company has done this. It read:  “Please Note:  This chocolate contains 29% brown sugar, processed without chemical refining agents. Ample evidence exists that consumption of sugar can increase the likelihood of tooth decay, obesity and obesity-related health problems.  If you enjoy good chocolate, make sure you keep your sugar intake as low as possible by always choosing Green & Black’s.”

How did I square this with my conscience?  Well, a French author called Michel Montignac had written a best-selling book called 'Dine Out and Lose Weight' that was one of the first places the idea of glycemic index had been in print.  In his book 70% dark chocolate had a ranking of 22 on a scale where sugar was 100.  Brown rice was at 50 and carrots at 70.  Fructose was at a mere 20.

Two of our best Whole Earth foods customers, Community Foods and Planet Organic, flat out refused to stock Green & Black’s because it contained sugar.  Tim Powell at Community said: "Craig, you were the one who got us all to not sell sugar back in the day - we can't stock this."  (they came around eventually)

I mentioned earlier that apple juice was higher in fructose.  The crystals of fructose and glucose, the two monosaccharides that make up a sugar molecule (sucrose), have exactly the same chemical formula: C6H12O6.  So what's the difference between glucose and fructose?

  1. If you beam a light into the glucose molecule it bends slightly to the right. If you beam a light into a fructose molecule it bends slightly to the left.
  2. If you put a given amount on your tongue the fructose will taste more than twice as sweet as the glucose
  3. If you eat the glucose it raises your blood sugar within 20 minutes. If you eat the fructose it has almost no impact on blood sugar.

If you eat a given amount of sugar the glucose half hits your bloodstream, the fructose half passes down your digestion and is eventually turned into glycogen or into fatty acids.  These provide an energy source that is managed by the body rather than just absorbed in the way that glucose is.  So Lucozade, a glucose drink, was marketed on the premise that ALL the sugar - because it was glucose - got through to you immediately and that this would 'speed recovery.'  It was a deluded proposition, but it captured the fact that you got twice as many sugar bangs for your bucks.

If you have apple juice, there is more fructose than glucose or sucrose, so you don't get the same 'hit' as a lot of the sugar takes a different metabolic pathway.  Corn syrup is about 80% glucose.  Because glucose isn't very sweet on the palate, you have to use a lot more of it to get to the same level of perceived sweetness.  This increases the load of glucose to satisfy the taste for sweetness, with a resulting harsh impact on the blood sugar level.    'High fructose corn syrup' has a higher level of fructose, between 45 and 55%, so it is used in industry because it has nearly the same glucose/fructose balance as white sugar.  It's healthier than ordinary corn syrup, as measured by blood glucose impact.

If you really want to get all the glucose right away then it's best to drink it on an empty stomach.  All sugars are not absorbed equally.  If you eat dessert before you eat a meal the sugar will get into your system very quickly.  If you eat dessert after a meal then it has to work its way through the previously ingested food and has a longer exposure time to your digestive bacteria. The higher the fibre content of your meal, the longer it takes for the sugar to be absorbed.   There are some fibres that are particularly good at delaying the impact of sugar.  One of these is psyllium seeds.  Not only do they delay sugar absorption by up to an hour or so, they also bulk up, by absorbing water, your intestinal contents, helping regular passage of food.  Glucomannan also has this property as does oat bran.  Wheat bran doesn't absorb water to the same degree, but it absorbs sugar and delays its release in digestion.  The longer it takes for sugar to be absorbed, the less impact it has on blood glucose level.

There are also foods that help with insulin production and that reduce insulin resistance, thanks to the presence of  chromium.  Chromium-rich foods include black pepper, broccoli, bran, brown rice, lettuce and green beans.  The leaves of the white mulberry are considered particularly effective at delaying sugar absorption,  containing a component called reductase.

There are also co-factors that accelerate the rate at which your body metabolises sugar or that challenge your natural regulatory mechanisms.  These can increase the likelihood of a blood sugar drop, known as hypoglycemia, the symptoms of which are fatigue, depression and a craving for more sugar.

These co-factors include:

Coffee and, to a lesser extent, other caffeine stimulants like tea,  maté, cola, guarana and cocoa.  They will increase the rate at which the brain burns sugar.   Small wonder then that when you purchase a cup of coffee there is always an extensive display of white flour and sugar sweetened products to tempt you.  Your body knows it's going to be short of sugar after you drink the caffeine, so you instinctively go for the antidote to have on hand as you consume the stimulant.

The liver is the main organ, along with the pancreas, that regulates your blood sugar level.  As blood flows through the liver its glucose level is measured and, if it needs topping up, the liver dips into its store of glycogen, converts it to sugar and drip feeds it into the blood.

Alcohol  When you drink alcohol the liver prioritises dealing with what it perceives as a poison and puts dealing with blood sugar on the back burner.   The pancreas also finds it harder to produce insulin and regulate insulin levels when it also has to deal with the presence of alcohol.

Dope is another culprit.  When you smoke marijuana it increases the blood level in the brain by an estimated 40 millilitres.  This increases the amount of sugar available for the brain to burn and this heightened mental activity is part of what is called being 'high.'   However this increased usage of sugar makes it harder for the liver to keep up and the resulting drop in blood sugar is the symptom known to dope smokers as 'the munchies' - an irresistible craving for sweet foods.

Glyphosate or ‘Roundup’  - research has shown that ultra low doses of Roundup consumed over time leads to fatty liver disease.  Fatty liver doesn’t function very well and therefore makes it harder for the blood to maintain the right glucose levels.  Farmers spray Roundup at the end of wheat harvest to kill off the wheat plants.  When the plants realise they are dying, they frantically make as many babies as possible, i.e. wheat grains.  This is reflected in an increased harvest quantity, but ensures that every loaf of non-organic bread or other flour product contains a low dose of Roundup residue.

Antibiotics also can lead to powerful cravings for sugar.   If antibiotics are ingested, they don't just target the disease bacteria they are taken to cure.  They wipe out the beneficial microbes that are our healthy population of gut flora.  That's why it's advisable to consume yogurt or sauerkraut or other foods rich in lactobacilli to replace these important microorganisms.  It's also a good idea to eat foods rich in fibre to help the equally important bifidobacteria which are a pivotal part of the immune system in the large intestine.  A small population of these and other beneficial bacteria are always present in your appendix.  The appendix is the body's equivalent of a survivalist's food store, a place, at the junction of the small and large intestine, where, once the antibiotics are finished, the intestines can be repopulated.  Antibiotics can not kill off the tiny population of yeasts that are a part of the wider bacterial community of the gut.  But once the dominant lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are out of the way, yeasts quickly mutate into a fungal form, candida, a sticky white slime that imbeds itself firmly in the walls of the intestines.

There is an established communication between the gut and the brain and this is a vital part of our food choices, what smells nice, how hungry we feel and also what antibodies the gut flora need to produce to combat pathogens - what we call our immune system.  When candida gets a grip, like a Russian hacker taking over the CIA,  it  takes over the communication channel and sends a message to the brain demanding more sugar.  The more of these foods it gets, the more powerful it becomes and the more successfully it outcompetes the beneficial microbes that are trying to repopulate the gut after the antibiotic A-bomb has exploded.  Getting rid of candida is not easy, but there are ways to do it:

  1. Saccharomyces - these little microbes compete effectively with candida for sugar, thereby holding back the growth of candida and starving them out. They come in capsule form
  2. L-glutamine - this also attacks candida. Also in capsules
  3. Fasting - I often say that 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day…to skip.' This is because by the time you wake up in the morning the liver's reserves of glycogen are low and it's time to convert fat into glucose to keep the blood sugar level up.  This keeps sugar away from the gut and the candida, which then die off.  If you eat a carbohydrate-rich breakfast, perhaps with a glass of fruit juice, the sugars keep the candida topped up and maintaining or expanding their population, perhaps even migrating to other parts of the body such as the vagina or skin.  Starve them out by fasting for 17 hours a day.
  4. Colonic irrigation - pumping water into the large intestine and then pulling it back out removes a lot of candida.
  5. Lactobacillli - probiotics. Eating foods rich in lactic acid and consuming spores of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria helps to create ideal conditions for repopulating your beneficial gut microbes that compete with candida
  6. Inulin - this is a molecule that is made of a long string of fructose molecules strung tightly together. It is indigestible and counts as fibre but when it gets to the large intestine the wonderfully beneficial bifidobacteria feast on it and increase their numbers by the billions.

Good food sources of inulin include whole grain wheat and rye, shallots, onions, leeks, chicory root and the white part of chicory leaves and Jerusalem artichokes.  These are all valuable nutrition for the gut microbes.  Inulin powder, extracted from chicory roots, is a concentrated source.

Candida puts pressure on you to consume the sugar it needs and urges your brain to crave refined flour products, dairy, wine, beer and sugar.  It's not just antibiotics that give candida its supremacy in the gut, it also benefits from hormone replacement therapy, the birth control pill, steroids and hydrogenated fat.

Vinegar also plays a role in sugar metabolism.  Nobody’s quite sure why, but if you take 2 tablespoons of vinegar before a meal the increase in blood glucose later is 34% lower than if you don’t take vinegar.  That’s a big difference as it keeps the level at a level less likely to be stressful.

Lactate

The brain consumes glucose as the energy source that enables neurons to fire.  It's the 'carb' or 'carbon' in 'carbohydrate' that is the energy source.  Oxygen feeds the fire of carbon in the body, which is why we breathe.  So we are like a coal fire, burning carbon to keep ourselves warm and to enable our brains and bodies to function well.  However,  lactate is another rich source of carbon for the brain.  If there is lactate in the blood then the neurons in the brain will preferentially coat themselves in it rather than with glucose.  It's as if lactate is like gas fuel for the brain, glucose more like coal or wood.  Where do we get lactate?

  1. When our digestive system has a healthy population of lactobacilli they will compete with candida and other microbes that are eating starch or sugar and a by-product is lactate
  2. When we walk, run, jump or dance or do any exercise our muscles burn glucose and give off lactate.

At some point in evolution our brains evolved to function best on the super fuel of lactate in preference to glucose.  Glucose for the body, lactate for the brain.

So exercise is really important as it provides a better quality of energy for the brain  - lactate also delays brain ageing and neurodegeneration.  The heart and liver use it, too. Insulin function works much better too if there has been exercise and lactate production.  This is why exercise is increasingly being used as a cure for pre-diabetic conditions and for curing Type 2 diabetes in many cases.

Plato wrote: 'I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency'.  Kellogg's say 'Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."  Who to trust on this?  Everyone has a different metabolism, but they all have the power to change bad habits.

Metabolic Syndrome is the name for the multi-symptom disease that is typical of modern sedentary people.

It's also known as 'Sitting Disease.'  If a person gets up in the morning, sits down for breakfast, then sits in a car or on a train or bus, then sits at a desk or an assembly line and then sits down to return home to sit down to eat a meal and then sits watching television or enjoying social media they lay the foundations for Metabolic Syndrome

Contributing factors are

  1. Inactivity/laziness (Both cause and effect but a natural human condition)
  2. Overeating - large food portions of food low in nutrients
  3. Stress
  4. Pesticides - these have a hormonal effect as well as being mildly toxic
  5. Processed denatured food that is low in fibre
  6. Hydrogenated fat - harms the circulatory system, reducing blood flow
  7. Sugar and refined cereal such as white bread and low fibre breakfast cereals
  8. Television, electronic games and sitting at computers.

So what's the answer?

Our Government has one solution for everything:  Tax it.

A tax on soft drinks will have little impact as the appetite for sugar is not responsive to pricing.  If your candida want sugar or you are on a cycle of high and low blood sugar you don't give a damn what the cost is of a soft drink.  It's the cheapest form of sugar already and a tax won't make a difference.  You get more sugar in a chocolate brownie than in a can of Coke and a brownie costs at least 3 times as much.   The best selling soft drink in Britain is Red Bull.  It costs double the cost of Coke and has just as much sugar.

A tax will help in one way though: The Government currently subsidises sugar beet farming and sugar production to the tune of £250 million per annum.  A sugar tax will raise an estimated £400 million.  So the soft drinks tax will neatly subsidise the taxpayers money that goes to sugar producers.  How smart is that?

There is a far more intelligent alternative.  Researchers studied a group of 46,000 people in a Japanese city who were over 48 years old.  They measured their blood sugar, blood pressure, lung function and other measures of health and then recommended actions to rectify any problems before they became serious diseases.  Not all of them complied, but enough did to make a difference.  They became ill less often and therefore cost the health system less.  The estimated average saving came to £200 per person per year.

In the UK, with 26 million people over the age of 48, that would be a saving to the NHS of  £5.2 billion every year.   Why don't doctors and pharmaceutical companies recommend it?  Why don't wine makers discourage wine drinking?  Why don't car makers urge walking instead of driving?  No business likes to lose its customers, even the caring professions.

In 2011 the Soil Association applied for and won a £17 million National Lottery grant to initiate its Food For Life project.  It was a huge success, with schools coming in at Bronze entry level and working up to Gold, where they offer a significant proportion of school meals that are organic, locally sourced and freshly prepared on the premises.  There are now 2 million school dinners a day served under the Food For Life Programme.  A lot of those schools have stopped serving desserts on some days a week.  These kids perform better and learn something really important: you are what you eat.

Those kids will fare better in life, but we have a couple of generations who got the worst of crap food, hydrogenated fat (recommended by doctors), exposure to lead and pesticides and other environmental toxins. They are the ones who need help.  Diabetes levels are already dropping in the Western world as more people eat more wholesome food and exercise a lot more, but there is still work to be done.  A soft drinks tax is pathetic when you consider what the government could be doing to support healthier lifestyles

Change begins with the individual and it's about education.  If people are junk food junkies they will always find junk food. Trying to reform the food industry, which is responding to demand that arises from a multiplicity of causes, is to fight the wrong battle.  If we change demand then supply will follow.

The new science of epigenetics informs us that acquired characteristics can be inherited.  The unhealthy acquired characteristics of previous generations has been one factor in the increase in autism, birth defects, hereditary diabetes and other diseases, food allergies and other developmental problems.  But we need not despair, this is already being turned around and future generations can look forward to even better food produced in a cleaner environment to make healthier happier people, whose babies will be even healthier and happier.  We know more now about these factors than we ever did before, so we have the power to evolve positively.

From Green & Black's to Blackened Greens

Here's the story of how I moved from dark chocolate to even darker materials - biochar

Back in 1995 the Prince of Wales delivered the Lady Eve Balfour Memorial Lecture on the theme of ‘Counting the Cost of Industrial Agriculture.’ He argued that if you incorporate the externalised costs of non-organic farming, such as nitrate pollution, gender-bending herbicides in the water supply, biodiversity loss and the climate change cost of greenhouse gases (from nitrous oxides and soil carbon emissions) the real cost of non-organic food would nearly double.

A year later Dan Morrell of Future Forests (later to become the Carbon Neutral Company) encouraged me to go carbon neutral with Whole Earth’s organic wholegrain cornflakes. The whole life cycle carbon footprint of the cornflakes was calculated by independent experts who found that it was surprisingly low: because organic farmers increase rather than reduce the stored carbon in soil, this offset much of the other carbon cost of the cornflakes.

By now it was pretty obvious to me that the sooner we could get policymakers to force us to include the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the cost of food the sooner we would all be eating organic food, because it would usually be cheaper.

Roll on 14 years to 2009 – the climate negotiations in Copenhagen have soil carbon and forest carbon on the agenda. Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the Bank of England and author of the Stern Review that put the cost of every tonne of carbon we emit today at £140 for future generations (currently carbon markets value a tonne of carbon at £11) has said that any future climate agreement has to be ‘universal and equitable.’ In other words, no cheating, no get-outs, no let-outs, no sacred cows. That means that all countries and all activities, including agriculture, forestry and transportation must be included in the new climate regime that begins in 2012. Hitherto only Europe has complied and then only for the heavy industries that emit half of our greenhouse gases – farming and transport have been excluded. But no longer.

2 years ago I invited Dan Morrell to join me in a new venture: Carbon Gold. What do we do? For a start, we believe biofuels are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Every bit of biomass carbon is too precious to waste by burning it. At Carbon Gold we aim to capture woody material such as waste biomass, forestry co-products and tree prunings and convert it into charcoal. But we call it ‘biochar.’ Why? Because we don’t burn it, thereby putting the carbon back into the atmosphere as CO2. Once we’ve made the biochar we blend it with fertility-building clays and composts and add it to the soil. Biochar is a wonderful soil conditioner: it improves drainage but also prevents soil drying out; it reduces the leaching of nutrients from soil by rainfall; it provides 5-Star accommodation for beneficial soil fungi and bacteria, increasing their populations; it improves soil structure and aggregation; it helps suppress soil-borne diseases that are harmful to plants and biochar helps raise the pH of acid soils. Universities around the world are gearing up to do biochar research that will more precisely quantify its benefits. These vary depending on soil, climate and the amount of biochar applied to soil.

Meanwhile at Carbon Gold we are busily making biochar and selling the carbon credits from avoided emissions as well as selling the biochar as a soil improver. In Belize cacao farmers produce biochar that is blended with compost and used by banana growers to reduce their dependence on fungicides and irrigation. In East Sussex we are regenerating ancient chestnut coppice woodland and producing organic biochar which we use to produce “Gro-Char” peat-free compost which will be sold through garden centres. Garden Organic members will be trialling it in various applications during the 2010 season. In Mozambique we are partnering with a conservation organisation to help small farmers produce biochar, encouraging them to protect their forests and improve their soil fertility. On my own smallholding near Hastings there is a magnificent peach tree dripping with perfect fruit that had its base covered with biochar last February. The ones that didn’t get biochar haven’t done so well, peach leaf curl was worse for them. My biochar potatoes still show no signs of blight, while everyone else’s have suffered.

I feel like I’m still in the food business (and I have made a delicious risotto nero charbonara that delighted dinner guests recently), I’ve just moved my focus towards food security.

Belize - the birthplace of Fairtrade

November 2008, Belize. I am with a small group of journalists, taking them to meet the growers of organic cocoa beans. We go back 15 years - I first bought their cacao when Green & Black’s chocolate was just a baby.

When I first made contact with the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, the Maya Indians faced abject poverty after throwing in their lot with US chocolate giant Hershey. A classic old-development paradigm: the aid workers had encouraged the growers to sign up to intensive farming and the break-up of their communal reservation land. The private land deeds were used as collateral for bank loans to buy hybrid seeds and agrichemicals. Then the aid workers left, Hershey pulled out and prices dropped from $1.75 a pound of beans to a catastrophic 55¢ a pound. The bank was readying to foreclose and confiscate farmers’ land. That’s when Josephine and I turned up, prepared to pay decently, with a five-year rolling contract and cash up-front for organic cocoa beans. I blame the ‘kukuh’. That’s what turned me and Josephine on to the beauty of Belize Maya cocoa and led to Maya Gold, the first product in the UK to be certified Fairtrade. Now I am sitting with Eladio Pop and his wife after a dinner of tortilla, spicy stew and pumpkin, and it’s kukuh time again. It’s all home-grown and homemade. After harvesting his cacao, Eladio ferments it, dries it, roasts it, winnows the husks and grinds them, then shapes the resulting paste into balls. He grates some, blending it with warm water, vanilla, ground allspice and honey or sugar to make kukuh. After several delicious calabash cups-full, we are bouncing off the walls. Later I bump into an old friend, Cirila Cho when she is picking up a cheque for her home-made chocolate bars. A new grandmother, she’s now a businesswoman in her own right, with a small-scale grinding and conching set-up. Organic cocoa is good for women. After the men bring back the pods to the village, the women ferment the beans in boxes for five days. Then they sun-dry them, turn them as needed, and bring them in if it starts to rain. Controlling these operations gives women a share in the wealth, conferring domestic and community power. The Maya-run cacao cooperative is doing well. I attend its AGM, where everyone gets a bar of ‘their’ chocolate, and hears the accountant report another profitable year. Asset-rich, the coop now has enough reserves in the bank for a disaster reserve fund (hurricanes and fire) and high school scholarships. The number of kids at secondary school has grown from 10% to over 70%, thanks to our paying fair-trade and organic prices. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is speaking now, praising the farmers. Thanks to their vision, he says, Belize, the birthplace of fair trade, is a beacon to the world. It sounds grand but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Back in 1993, British and UN aid workers strongly advised the cacao growers against signing-up to produce for Green & Black’s Maya Gold. They especially counselled against going organic, predicting disease and crop failure. However, since we were offering three times the price and a return to traditional Maya farming practices without expensive chemicals, it was a no-brainer. Nevertheless I will always be grateful to Justino Peck, the then - and just re-elected - Chairman of the association, for listening to my scheme and trusting me to deliver. I visit a three-generation farm, the Bols, Grandad Reyes, son Justiniano and grandson Justiniano Junior, where we eat ripe cacao fruit, with just the right au point balance of sweetness and acidity. We eat greedily, our sticky fingers pulling out the seeds, sucking off the pulp and spitting out the beans. This is a rare treat, a fruit that can never be commercialised – take an eco-cacao holiday in Belize and this pleasure can be yours! You can’t produce organic cocoa beans on a big plantation paying slave wages. The only way is on small family farms paying a decent price to get the commitment and care required for a high-quality product. Shoppers often agonise: organic or fair-trade? Support organic farmers and you get both.

Belize Breezes

Arrived in Punta Gorda on Thursday Nov 13 and visited cacao farmers up country, with Neil, the Green & Black's supply chain manager and Lisa, our marketing manager and 4 journalists from the US and Canada.

The cacao crop at this time of year is fairly small, but is called 'Christmas cacao' because it generates extra cash in December to pay for presents. The varieties that are being developed and for grafting from budwood are starting to have an impact on yields, which is good news and farmers are getting a lot better at pruning, so the ever-present threat of monilia (a devastating disease) is diminished.

We visited the farm of Justino Peck, who is the outgoing chairman of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association and who was also chairman in 1993 when I visited to persuade the farmers to go organic, dangling a long term contract, cash in advance and a good price. Justino bought into my offer and brought the association along, for which I am always grateful. His trees were looking good, but in need of pruning on the top growth, something that our charcoal (more later) project will address.

We then went on to Uxbenha, where recent archaeological evidence indicates that cacao use and trade predates that found at any other site, confirming that the 'botanical epicentre' of cacao, i.e where it was first domesticated, is right here in the Maya Mountains. There were a few wild citrus trees and we gathered some cooling refreshing fruit before heading off to visit Eladio Pop in San Pedro village, overlooking the Columbia river. Eladio's wife served us with tortilla, rice, chicken caldo (spicy stew) and pumpkin and we then drank his homemade kukuh out of calabash cups. He grows the cacao, ferments it, dries it, roasts it, winnows the husks and then grinds it and shapes the resulting paste into balls which keep for months. When he wants kukuh he grates off some of the balls and blends it with warm water, vanilla, ground allspice and honey or sugar. All home grown (except the sugar). It was delicious and after several calabash cups full we were bouncing off the walls and ready to move on. Eladio is a 'new man' to the extent that he cooks at the weekend to give his wife a break and takes a keen interest in culinary matters as well as the growing of organic food. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I just got an email from Bob Bond, who keeps bees on our family woods and orchard at Fairlight, that 'our' honey won First at the National Honey Show. We and the bees are very very proud!

We bade Eladio and family goodbye and headed off for Lubantuun, where Justino and I did interviews on camera for Vivien, the Canadian journalist and we all learned about the history of the ruins. In 1987 I had written in the guest book "Get rid of these trees, they are eating into the ruins and will make them unrestoreable.' A lot of work has been done since then but the trees are growing back and some misguided government official has forbidden their removal as trees are a 'good thing.' That evening we have a convivial dinner at the Hickatee Cottages and restaurant, set in deep jungle and run by a lovely English couple, Kate and Ian. Kate is slight and delicate in appearance, but tough as nails and unmoved by any adversity, even the near failure of their electricity generation in the middle of her dinner preparation efforts.

I saw a guy barbecuing chicken for sale to passers by and inquired about where his charcoal came from. "Supaul's store just around the corner from Main Street." Supaul told me that there are charcoal makers at Boom Creek Village, a Spanish speaking community a few miles west of Punta Gorda, so plan to visit them on Monday to study their methodology.

Sunday morning: go for a long walk along the seafront up to the edge of town at Joe Taylor Creek, where there is a small landing. Walking back I sit on another wooden landing, feet dangling in the water to try to ease the itch of sandfly bites, lying back flat in the hazy sun listening to Andy Palacio and Ernest Ranglin. Oh yes. Then barefoot, trousers rolled up to the knee, walking back to town to Grace's Cafe for lunch of ginger ale, rice and stewed beans, with a double helping of lightly dressed cole slaw. Oh yes, indeed. Then I pass a house with turkeys in the back yard, only a few weeks till Christmas. I always like John Maynard Keynes' comment that turkeys, on the basis of previous evidence, think that the economy will always be growing, with everyone getting larger and fatter and with more food every day, then comes the crunch. One has jumped over the fence and I wake up its owner, who is snoozing on his porch, to warn about the break out.

On Sunday afternoon Lisel Alamilla, the executive director of the Ya'axche Conservation Trust picks me up with Bartolo Teul, her conservation officer and Elseno DuBon, a consultant who grows cacao and has helped the TCGA in the past, to have a look at their forest reserve location and to discuss how we can integrate biochar production with sustainable cacao growing, organic farming and permanent protection of the amazing biodiversity that they enjoy. There have been some pretty ugly scenes with illegal loggers crossing over from Guatemala - in their own country they'd be shot but they think they can get away with it because there's so few people in the reserve that they can take out logs without being noticed. Regular biochar harvesting activity will keep more people in the deep bush and this will provide early warning if anybody is trying to steal trees. They give me a slide show about their activities and it is clear they see cacao as a way of combining agroforestry with conservation and we discuss how best to overlay biochar production so that they can generate income for the farmers and for their great work. My late dad's friend, Dr. Adrian Wilson, is one of many generous sponsors but they are keen to become self sufficient as their reserve links to some much larger reserves that they have the opportunity to manage - of montane forest, tropical forest and riverbank land going right down to the mangroves at sea level, the Golden Stream watershed. On our way to the river crossing Bartolo laughs when I tell him that my first encounter with Golden Stream was August 1987, when it was in full flood. (They have since built a new bridge that is 10 feet higher). The old wooden bridge had 2 running boards for each vehicle wheel, set on cross boards and the river had flooded up several feet above the level of the boards. We waited through the night and by 4 am the waters had subsided enough for me to wade across the bridge bent over feeling through the stream to stay on the track of the running boards, my butt in the air and the vehicle with all our cameras and equipment (we were there to film the Deer Dance as part of a scheme to return the Crystal Skull to its home in Lubantuun) following me a few feet behind to make sure it also stayed on track. A sudden swift current tore off my plastic sandal and as we crossed the bridge I joked that I could see it stuck on a branch. Lisel suggested that when we came back on Friday with the full group that we could return by canoe down the river, meet a boat and thus see the whole flow of the landscape. Maybe I really will find my sandal. Then we could go round to John Spang and Tanya Russ' 1500 acres that are only accessible from the sea for a cup of tea and work out how to char the vast amounts of wood that were destroyed on their forest by Hurricane Iris, before it rots away completely. Not sure how you char rotten wood, I assume it gets damp. But they all liked the principle of char as carbon credit, safe household fuel and agricultural amendment, especially as some of the cacao farmers on their land are having trouble because of acid soil. There is clay everywhere, often so hard that people can't get a spade through it. They have a nursery where they raise 10,000 trees a year to give out to farmers, mostly cacao, balaam (a native variety with a white bean), mahogany, red cedar, mango and other native varieties. It's getting on for the dry season so they are anxious to get the remaining trees out of the nursery and into the ground while the wet weather lasts. Monday November 18th Go to TCGA to see if I can get a lift to Boom Creek from Alvaro Pop. Cirila Cho is waiting there to get a check for a delivery of her new chocolate bars. With a well designed wrapper and much smoother texture they are one of about 5 brands of chocolate that are aiming to capture the local market before going global. She used to make Brigadeiros, toffee like balls, now she makes a creditable dark chocolate bar. She is very smartly turned out in a beautifully embroidered white on black skirt and is very businesslike. Things are going well, she now has a proper grinding and conching set-up and is increasing sales, despite the competition. Her son is helping her in the business, Annemarie, her daughter, who used to be the TCGA compliance officer and has recently had a baby, so she's now a granny. She still winnows the roasted beans by hand, a tedious task, but having the grinder is pivotal to quality. I'm glad to see that she has progressed by leaps and bounds from her kitchen tabletop operation just a year and half ago. Meeting with Santiago Sanchez at Boom Creek Village. He makes charcoal which he supplies to Supaul's store in Punta Gorda, who then sells it to the streetside barbecue chicken vendors and to the public. Santiago's house is stacked with bags of charcoal which he has prepared earlier and is waiting to sell and we sit down for a chate. I mention that I am interested in charcoal etc and then ask him if he has every tried it mixed with soil. His face lights up, he leaps up and beckons me to his charcoal pit, about 100 yards from his house. The pit is about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide, logs on either side, charcoal in the bottom, and rich black charcoaly earth on the sides. He calls it 'black soil' and I pick up a handful, it smells very neutral, less earthy than compost but it has a lovely texture, almost edible. So far Santiago has experimented with it on his cabbages ("They have much wider heads and are much greener, lots of big green leaves") and his peppers. The soil runs dark and deep and it seems like the carbon has percolated down, or been taken by worms, to a deeper level as I scoop out some from the sides from the very bottom of his pit and it is rich and black several inches in, though this could just be burnt earth. We go back to his house where he has a rusting old pickup truck carcass that his wife uses as a nursery. There are some rather sad looking plants in black plastic 'pots' and I ask if the soil in them is char-enriched as there is a pile of black soil on the truck bed. He shakes his head and points to the anaemic looking soil in the pots and says "I tell my wife to mix it in but she don't do it." As a fellow innovator I know how hard it is to get people to take your crazy ideas seriously. I buy 4 bags full of charcoal to take back as gifts for TCGA and YCT folks and we bid him goodbye, arranging to come back on Wednesday afternoon. Pop in to see SHI (Sustainable Harvest International) director Nana Mensah who shows me their new solar poo drier and urine collector. Nana Mensah took up the biochar baton last year when I preached the gospel to him at the Cacao Fest. He sent his staffer Kenny Cal to a course in Honduras in May of this year where they learnt how to make biochar from corncobs. As corncobs are not thrown away but used as toilet paper charring is a good way to capture and sterilise otherwise pathogenic waste. As the Japanese keep urine to enrich charcoal and cool it down after processing, things are coming together. Kenny Cal now works for YCT. Then to TCGA office for a planning meeting for the next few days' guests. Neil has been summoned back to London and Lisa wonders if I can possibly go with the group and her to Maya Mopan on Wednesday...I tentatively agree. Then we go off at my suggestion, to Gomier's, whose rastafarian restaurant is the only place you can get at tofu based meal in Punta Gorda. I order a rice and vegetables with tofu/oat balls in curry, the best meal I've had all week. They have fish now, so the others don't suffer to much from lack of protein. Chat on phone with William Kendall while lunching at Gomier's about proposed management changes. Then I head back to the hotel where I bump into Terrell, the North Carolina environmental civil servant who muses about how he used to round up stray dogs as part of his job and how he could deal with the Punta Gorda lot in no time. We go off to the Sea View bar above the fish market where a drum and rap group are doing Garifuna versions of Blondie songs. I down a Belikin, we stroll over to visit Chet, there is a Rasta and a hippie on his porch but he's gone to bed and doesn't respond to my soft calling of 'Schmidtie' so we go back to the hotel and I get an early night. The toilet is oozing (clean) water so I stuff a dirty shirt around the base to delay the inevitable puddling of the bathroom floor (Tate's Hotel, in case you're interested). Before retiring I send an email to our board suggesting that Neil's return be postponed.

Tuesday November 18th

Meet the journalists at the TCGA depot where Ernestina Bol has brought in some cacao for weighing. They are slightly overfermented, an unusual problem, but still acceptable. Neil gets a phone call to say he should stay on, so I am off the hook on Lisa's trip to Maya Mopan, though I'll go there at some point. Neil explains to the journalists about pricing and Lisa is getting anxious about time, but it is important that they understand the relation between the high prices we pay, the consistency of quality supply and the benefits to all parties. You get what you pay for and the customer is the ultimate beneficiary of the principle. When the see the fair trade premium of $150 and the organic fair trade premium of $200 they are impressed, then Neil shows them the Green & Black's premium of $1000 and they begin to understand why it all makes such a big difference. He also explains that because we now buy daily and also will soon be buying in San Antonio more women bring in cacao and they use the money more wisely. He comments that in the old days the men would bring in a large amount of cacao, get a large check, cash it at the bank next door and then spend the money on drink, to which I quip "...and then squander the rest." We head off to San Antonio and visit the new buying centre. This will provide solar warmed and naturally ventilated drying for farmers, to take away the tedium of constantly needing to watch out for rain without accelerating this crucial stage in the flavour development process. A rusting old barrel oven from the San Antonio wood fired drier that dates back to the Peace Corps help in 1986 is there. It never worked properly, just made cacao that tasted like kippers. All my anxieties about driers were based on that but this is as good or better than sun drying. Then we go up to see 3 generations of Bols: Reyes Bol, his son Justiniano and his grandson Justianano Bol Jr, or 'Junior.' If there's an 80:20 rule about cacao it's that the Bol family and the Chun family supply most of our cacao. Their plantation is beautifully placed and I pick some allspice leaves for us to sniff, then we eat fresh cacao fruit, some are absolutely au point with just right balance of sweetness and acidity, everyone is greedily and with sticky fingers pulling out the seeds, sucking off the pulp and spitting the pits. I slice one lengthwise to show the deep purple of a fresh unfermented bean as all they've seen is well fermented and don't know what unfermented looks like. Then we go back to Junior's place for a lunch of caldo, rice, tortilla and what looks like potato. It is slightly sweeter, but almost a spud, so I ask what it is and am told that it's yucca. I go into the kitchen area and ask Junior's wife if she has one and she points to a huge tuber, about 8 times the size of a potato, on the floor in the corner. Wow. I pick it up and dangle it in front of Darragh and Susan, who are from Dublin "Let's see a spud this size from Oireland then" I challenge. There is a huge poinsettia outside the house that is clustered with beautiful flowers. It's always amazing to see perennials and their potential when we see them either as annuals

or just as house plants. Even more amazing to walk throught he bush with a machete, hacking away at plants that, if you were in the Kew Gardens Tropical House, would have you locked up for a 4 stretch.

Then we go off to see Luciano Cho, who has 100 year old trees that he inherited from his Dad and refuses to prune because his mother entrusted them with them and he can't bring himself to remove a single branch. They are big fat trees, thick mossy branches, not very much fruit. He has planted a lot of cacao in recent years and will be the biggest single producer within a year or two as the 5 and 6 year old trees start to bear serious amounts. He and I go off for a walk away from the group to look at his mahoganies, a few very heavily laden cacao trees, and a wild pear that is huge. He has little hot pepper plants that seem to

pop up everywhere, scorching even when green. Back with the group I ask him what schooling he had "Six years, that's why I don't speak so good." The journalists assure him that he speaks English well, but he knows they're being kind. I ask how many kids he has in high school and he says 2 at the moment, each one cost him US$500 a year in tuition, uniforms and books but he is determined that all his kids graduate and that's what inspires him to grow such good cacao and in such quantity. He's on his land at 6 a.m and knocks off at 4 p.m and is a picture of health and happiness, a man rooted in his ancestral land, though in fact most of it is of uncertain tenure, the nightmare that threatens to haunt all these farmers unless the debate over land tenure is resolved one way or the other. The Maya Council want reservation land to be protected from any alienation ever, they don't want farmers to be able to sell land to outsiders so think it should be held in common, though prior use will be respected. Some farmers want ( and a handful have) the security of private ownership, but that opens the ever-present risk that the rising number of refugees from 'civilisation' will outbid the locals when the land is sold and that gradually the distinctive Maya character of the homeland will be diluted, divided, diffused and dissipated. We drive back to Punta Gorda and regroup in the evening for dinner at Marion's Bay View. It's my last night with this group so I go off with Sue White from Sydney and we do a one to one interview. Then we all have dinner, lovely vegetarian options, I have dhal, rice and salad and rehydrate with lime juice drink. Mrs Ramclam has made a lovely filled pastry sheet with some kind of fruit nobody can identify. Turns out is the pulp left over from juicing star fruit that has been pureed and then made into baker's jam with sugar. Someone asks me about the Crystal Skull and I regale them with my stories of the Harmonic Convergence, Malcolm Electric Warrior, visiting Anna Mitchell-Hedges in Kitchener and sitting with the skull on my lap as she tells me about how Harriot Topsey came to visit her to talk about recovering the skull for Belize and how she had to pull out her .38 to keep him from just grabbing it and bolting. Tomorrow is the big Settlement Day celebration, the day the Garifuna came ashore in Belize and we expected the town to be throbbing with drums but it was quiet, people seem to be saving themselves for tomorrow.

I have breakfast with Darragh and Susan, then go with them to Beya Suites to say goodbye to the other journalists. Then I walk back into town along the seafront.

John and Jessica arrive Go to YCT office, meet Rachel Kerry, then to SHI, closed. then to Santiago Sanchez, see peppers growing in biochar, his pit, his collection area, people melting banana leaves for tamales, then to dinne

Thursday 20 Late start, gather flock and head up to San Antonio to see the new centre. Then on to Uxbenka, where we see a stela with engravings and stand on top of hill and see centres in all directions, then with Justino to San Jose for lunch, Christina, Griselda, Justino Junior, Sandra. Then to Justino's cacao, pruning with machete, weighing, argy bargy then speak to shrimp farm nephew, then back to PG, stopping for a quick look at milpa/huamil but everyone's tired and nobody's paying attention. At dinner at Emery's we have jewfish, also known as 'Goliath grouper' that is apparently getting smaller due to overfishing. It is one of the world's most delicious fish so it's going to be struggle to control the fishermen. Then we walk back to Coral House Inn, grab a beer from the self service bar fridge and relax by the pool under a starry sky, Orion just above the horizon.

Friday November 21st 2008

Rice Mill – we set off en masse to the Big Falls rice mill, where there is a mountain of rice husks rotting away. Stephen knows a thing or two about rice mills, char and the use of heat to dry rice so we leave him and Niklaos there to investigate while we carry on, with Lisel aboard, to YCT. There we are given the presentation about their lands, their work and their potential and visit their nursery. They have a ‘keystone’ estate of only 15000 acres but it holds together 150,000 acres of Columbia River Forest Reserve, 90,000 acres of the Bladen Nature Reserve, the privately owned land of the Jungle Lodge on the southwest side of Golden Stream, who encouraged them to buy the northeast side to that it never turned into cattle pasture. My Dad's good friend Dr. Adrian Wilson helped them to buy that land through the Grass Valley Trust and it now protects both sides of the river all the way to the mangrove forests at the sea. The Golden Stream is teeming with tarpon as the runoff diminishes, though some citrus plantations still cause problems. We don't meet Bartolo Teul, who is coming to Cornell, but we do meet Auxebio Sho, their agroforestry extension officer, who comes with us on our journey. We go through the nursery and learn more about the trees they are planting - they have a great stand of mahogany in their field overlooking the Maya Mountains on the horizon. Then off to try to catch up with Stephen and Niklaos. I phone the rice mill but they've gone to town so we go down a narrow track to the water's edge, bid Elliot goodbye and head off in a couple of canoes downriver. On the way Jessica sees a toucan and their boat disturbs and iguana which plops into the water just ahead of our boat. We are with Rachel Kerry, the river biologist who maps the snail and other populations of the river to measure its health and I engage her in conversation saying: "Do you ever study the gut flora of snails? I was just reading an interesting paper on seasonal changes in the gut flora of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay, as one does while waiting for East Enders to come on, and noted the way their flora reflect the seasonal availability of food." We had an enjoyable conversation as we floated down the river with Arthur and then got out at Jungle Lodge, a huge complex of cabins on a raised wooden walkway and a restaurant and airstrip. It doesn't seem awfully busy, we're the only people in a huge area for dining indoors and out, but it's a nice place and we have a good dinner overlooking the river from the verandah of the restaurant. I get some bits of bread and watch the sunfish fight over morsels down below, while our waiting motorboat captain casts endlessly for tarpon. A few yards down the river an iguana hangs precariously from the fronds of a cohune palm.

We speed downriver in 2 motor dories, and then cut through some channels in the mangrove by way of short cut, then arrive at Tanya Russ and John Spang's landing. It's getting late but we have a quick look at the 'whole pod' cacao trees. Marco is finally convinced that I know what I'm talking about and begins to understand the validity of this method of planting. Tanya is gracious in the face of an onslaught of a dozen people and I shepherd them back onto the boat and we get back to Joe Taylor Creek and disembark as the sky turns pink and grey and blue with the setting sun. We don't have time to look at the thousands of large tree blowdowns still in their forest as a result of Hurricane Iris, which hit land directly over their place - when the hurricane hit they were sad but they had 1500 acres of very tall straight trees that they could saw and sell and then replant. Then they discovered that every tree had been twisted by tight powerful cyclones within the hurricane, sort of like twisting a towel, so when they cut them the boards had huge gaps and fell apart and were useless. A couple of decades of stewardship down the drain. But we thought we might be able to char them and recoup some of the loss. I promise to update her on how best to do this - tricky as they have no road acess so any kit will have to come in to be unloaded at their rickety wooden jetty.

Dinner at Hickatee with Lisel, Marco,. Neil LaCroix joins us. Very happy with all the outcomes – the TCGA is in good heart, production is rising, the journalists are all keen as mustard to get home and write up their stories, the film crew and photographers are coming next week, he didn’t have to go back to London on Wednesday which would have been a real setback and he reiterates his gratitude to me for intervening.

Saturday November 22 2008

Up to watch sunrise with Rick, he invites me to be a sponsor of the Rotary Club’s (newly formed, he is the Chairman) plan to refurbish the park in Punta Gorda. It’s the triangular shaped space where the Cacao Fest was held last year and where the Settlement Day celebrations were this week. They are going to put in a kids’ playground, repaint the clocktower (done, by a US artist and a local guy, great evocative murals of toucans, jungle, multiethnic faces etc) and put an arbor in front of the stage, in which gazebos can be erected. It’s a nice plan and for BZ$1000 I can have my and Jo’s names engraved in a stone plaque for posterity to wonder who the hell we were.

Then Elliot turns up in the van and Arthur and Marco and I head off to San Antonio for the AGM. Elliot will come back later for John and Jessica. On the way we pass two fishermen who are on the roadside, their small dugout dory tethered along the shore, skinning a massive jewfish – it is the largest of the grouper family and must weight a good 120 lbs, worth about $1000 BZ for these guys. We ask where they are planning to sell it and they say to Emery’s and Marion’s (which is where we are planning to eat that evening). Rachel from Blue Belize, who is the world’s leading whale shark expert and a grouper lover who exhorts fishermen not to keep the 30-40 pound young fish as they are the future breeding stock, has already been notified of the catch and has seen it. We bounce along and get to San Antonio just as Neil LaCroix has finished his speech in which he assures the farmers that Green & Black’s is there for the long term and that we are endowing scholarships for farmers’ kids to go to high school (cost is BZ$500 per year to cover tuition, uniform and books). There are 400 people, farmers and wives and kids and a real festival atmosphere but also real focus and attention on the agenda. We also missed the Agriculture Minister’s speech. The San Antonio Buying Centre isn’t quite complete,

but it looks spanking new with fresh paint and roof and a big sign at the front describing it and with the names of various sponsors of its construction. Green & Black’s aren’t a sponsor but get pride of place at the bottom centre of the sign. There must be 20 buses parked up along the road that the TCGA has laid on to bring farmers from every village. 5 Hogs have been roasted and cooked up with red beans and rice to feed the farmers once the business of the AGM is completed. It started at 8 am, finishes after noon.Justino Peck then speaks, acknowledging my presence in the audience, giving the history of the TCGA in brief detail and explaining how the new buying centre here and the one in Maya Mopan will relieve farmers of the burden and cost of taking their cacao all the way to Punta Gorda to sell. The drying units mean farmers can sell wet fermented beans to the association and they will be dried, without heat, but under cover with air circulation so that they are nice and clean and even and mould-free. It’s a big step forward in rising to the challenge of increased production that has come from the tree planting of the previous 4 years. Then the Minister for Foreign Affairs speaks, taking farmers through the sad history of how Hershey got them to buy seeds that weren’t that good, then dropped the price after the aid workers went home, then how Green & Black’s came in and how they have been struggling to keep up with demand ever since. He talks about fair trade and organic and tells the farmers that they have been a beacon to the rest of the world, that fair trade began with them and that it is now worth $3 billion worldwide. They have much to be proud of, he says, and all of Belize is proud of what they have achieved. During his speech someone starts serving orange juice so lots of people are getting up and walking to the side to get a cup but the majority are listening. Then the accountant goes through the numbers: very profitable year, grants have been a help, new buying centres fully paid for, the association is asset rich and has BZ$ 460,000 in the bank. Wow! That’s $230,000 US, a lot of money by any measure for a cooperative of poor cacao farmers. He proposes more scholarships for high school kids and also a ‘Disaster Fund’ so that if a farmer is hit by hurricane, fire or other natural calamity the association can afford to help them to get back on their feet with new trees, grafting budwood etc.

Then Diego, who is Master of Ceremonies, urges the Minister to help the farmers build roads so that they can get closer to their farms without having to go up foot paths. The minister promises to consider it.

Then it is time to debate the big issues and elect the officers.

The scholarship proposals go through with total support, but one farmer proposes that, as San Antonio produces the most cacao, the scholarships should go to kids from there in preference to other villages. This is firmly slapped down by all – the scholarships will go to the brightest kids, regardless of how much their village produces, but they must be kids of cacao farmers. All agreed.

Then the issue of land tenure. There is a big debate going on where the village leadership have called on the government to recognise the ownership of the land in Toledo by the communities and for communal land ownership, based on ownership by the village but use decided on the basis of whether a farmer is actually using the land actively or not. The alternative is ‘lease land’ where a farmer leases the land and after 20 years has an option to buy it at a discounted rate. Many farmers want lease land as, with cacao, once you’ve planted trees, you want to be sure that you can pass them on to your kids and be secure in ownership. However other farmers who don’t’ grow cacao or on a smaller scale prefer the old system. This is difficult If a farmer owns land they can use it as collateral for a loan, if they can’t repay for any reason, the bank repossesses and the land can be sold to anyone, Maya or otherwise. It is the ‘alienation of native reservation land’ that so vexed the US Congress that they voted in1932 to prohibit it in all cases. By then it was too late for many reservations, including the Winnebago Sioux in Nebraska – I was born on a farm that my great grandparents bought from a trader who had carved out hunks of reservation land to repay debts for, probably, whiskey sold on credit. It was disgraceful, but the title was legal. And no going back. The Indians used to hang out on the slopes on the south side of Emerson, disgruntled and landless, begging occasionally, gradually finding barbed wire hampering their progress across their not-ancestral (they came from Wisconsin) lands. In the end, after animated debate and an organised chant of ‘lease land, lease land’ the vote is heavily in favour of lease land. As the ministry has been refusing to issue leases until the court case over communal lands is resolved, it’s a hollow victory, but farmers continue to put in applications pending resolution of the debate in the Belize Supreme Court. This whole debate is rooted in the decision in the 1990s by the Minister of Natural Resources to give a logging contract to a Taiwanese company called Atlantic Industries that mobilised a massivle local protest. I contacted the Indian law Center in Washington DC, who fight cases using funds from rich Canadian and US tribes, on behalf of their poorer cousins. I met their lawyer in Belize in 1997 and one thing led to another and a landmark decision granting communal land rights to 3 villages in the Toledo District in November 2007. Now all the villages want the same and the Maya are divided.

Then on to the election of officers. Cayetano Ico gets the mike and announces that last year he was elected to the Committee (4 elected officers, 5 appointees ) but went to the meeting and was told he had to go out, which he did. ½ hour later he was told he wasn’t on the committee and should go home. Justino Peck then explained that Cayetano had abandoned his cacao so was no longer a grower, had been nominated by a non member of the TCGA and was therefore deemed ineligible. The matter was left to smoulder.

Justino and 2 other candidates were nominated, Justino with103 bominations, the other with 12 and the last on on the day. Diego called for a show of hands but there was a call from the floor for a secret ballot as people could put up their hands twice, Then papers were handed out where, to cover the illiterate farmers, each candidate was a number : Gregorio Choco 1, Justino Peck 2, the other guy 3. The votes were cast but then there was an objection that some farmers may have cast 2 or more votes. So the voting was resumed with a long queue before a station 1 large box for votes. The votes were cast and nobody came around twice. As Maya women are easily intimidated and the earlier shouting of 'lease land' showed how mob rule can prevail, it was a good result and women were voting in large numbers where few had raised hands on the first round.

Justino won handily and everyone ate a lot of pork caldo with rice and beans.

There were a few large bottles of rum around that were looking dangerously low, the rum must have gone somewhere, so I gathered up John, Jessica, Arthur and Marco and we headed off to Lubaantun to see the ruins. Santiago Coc was in great form we had a great tour, exchanged anecdotes about Anna Mitchell Hedges, who had been there 11 years before. Jessica felt obliged to distribute her wealth equally among all the handicraft sellers who lined our way, we then drove back to San Pedro where I popped in to see Leonardo Akal, leader of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, strong advocate and leader of the movement for communal land rights, but he was not at home and I just left my card and a note to say I was sorry I missed him. Back in Punta Gorda it had started to rain, we chilled for a few hours, then off to Marion’s Bay View where we thought we’d be eating jewfish. No such luck, nothing but snook, which was very good but we were disappointed as we’d seen the giant monster and had been looking forward all day to eating it. Cassava pudding for dessert somewhat compensated for our dismay. Early night as we had a 0645 plane to catch in the morning.

Sunday November 23, 2008

It’s 0637 and John and Jessica are still not ready to go. I go up to chivvy them along and Jessica is still getting a few things sorted. I grab a suitcase to start moving them along. Rick has already warned that Maya Island Air are sticklers for punctuality, that Tropic Air would wait but Maya go whether or not you’re there. Jessica is mad at me, in a friendly way, for rushing them and, as it turns out, we get to the airfield by 0643, which is OK, we all check in and Jessica takes farewell shots of Elliot, our wonderful driver and others. Then we fly direct to Belize City, high over the mountains and the various nature reserves, forest reserves, privated protected reserves and other wooded land that we want to slowly and sustainably turn into charcoal. We pass over a large Mennonite community, a few token trees, mostly pasture, all livestock, cows, pigs chickens. Bloody Germans, and as I am the descendant of German Lutheran farmers who share the same attitude I feel qualififed to comment. At Belize City we check our bags through to Ithaca and go up the restaurant and ‘waving gallery’ to have some breakfast. I’ve brought along one of Justino’s cacao pods that I pre-cut around the edges. Justino pulls it open along the cut lines and we all feast on the sweet beans and Marco offers some to the waitress, who, it turns out, is from Barranco and for whom cacao seeds are a known treat. She is delighted to share in our after breakfast snack. I hadn’t realise that John and Jessica hadn’t tasted cocao fruit pulp before. Justino then shows us how to eat the placenta, which is also tasty, the stringy thing that holds all the seeds in a bunch as you lift them out of the pod. I ask the waitress if she knew Andy Palacio and she says that his family lives just across the street from hers. Barranco had a few cacao growers but the soil isn’t good for cacao. The Garifuna eat yams, cassava and seafood so this isn’t a big problem for them as these crops grow well on the poor soils of Barranco. In the departure lounge the shop has a display of Green & Black's but no reference to the fact that it contains Belizean cacao, just stuffed onto a Cadbury's display rack, grabbing prime space from Dairy Milk and Bournville.

At Houston we part company with Jessica. She has been a real trouper and her presence and uninhibited female energy had leavened what would otherwise have been a bunch of men and all work and no play. We got a lot done in the past 3 days, understand things a lot better, have gotten to know each other better and we are all, John, myself, Arthur, Marco, Justino and Bartolo Teul from YCT, looking forward to the course. Niclaos knows most of it already, but he has been a mine of information, though he needs to be asked before he comes out with it. That’s fine, scientists should be on tap, not on top, as Churchill once said.

The flight to Newark is uneventful, arriving half an hour early. Then we make the connection to Ithaca, arriving at 10:20, the bags come off the carousel, except for John's and mine. We go to a desk where a woman struggles to work the computer, calls a guy out from the back who is clearly pissed off that we have interrupted his nap, who sorts it out, snaps at her and disappears into the US Air back office. Then to the Statler Hotel where they have an emergency razor/toothbrush/deodorant kit. I advise John to keep his undershirt on to avoid BO tomorrow.

Monday November 24th

We all meet for breakfast, Jerry, Teri, Craig and Richard are here, too, so we all head off to Cornell's ag school building, which looks like Treblinka, no windows, forbidding brick 10 storey edifice, for the char course. Stephen's is more complex than I'd expected for an introductory course and the audience are intimidated by all the science. John then comments "I've got a degree in physics and I don't know what he's talking about so don't worry if you don't." This relieves the anxiety. Stephen also dwells on explosions, crop failures from the wrong kind of char and other downside aspects without really extolling the positives at any point. I tell him at the break that he's scaring the pants off the Belize group and he comments in a later session that he is just trying to make people aware that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things and this course is about the right way. We then do a workshop outlining a project plan, our group does Belize, of course and Arthur is nominated as our rapporteur. Before we report we go to a Cornell-owned farm out in the boondocks where we see a lot of woodburning stoves that are being trialled with different kinds of biofuels made from pelletised switchgrass and other biomass as well as just burning wheat grains. I hold my tongue. Then we go across to see a demonstration of a cookstove that converts biomass into a stream of gas for cooking and leaves a residue of charcoal. It isn't working and the student demonstrating it has eventually put more starter material in than actually pyrolysis material. The wind is blowing through the barn, smoke in everyone's face, snow howling down from the hills beyond, Jerry and I go into the other barn to warm up in front of burning grass pellets. Then we do the presentations and Arthur does a very clear explanation of the range of possibilities, putting the rice mill on the back burner for his talk as it is a very different project, but connects to the rest. Back at the hotel everyone is tired and we regroup at 7 for a very jolly dinner in the Statler's Tuscan style restaurant before retiring, tired little bunnies. Justino is most unwell, but I'm flagging too.

Tuesday November 25th

After 2 weeks of getting up at 4:30 or 5 each morning and being at full attention all day until nearly midnight I finally run out of steam. Really tired but soldier on as the interesting nub of the course is this morning: our chance to design a reactor. Stephen has given us designs with deliberate flaws and our task is to modify them and to improve on the design. We do a great job and John O’Donnell does our presentation but I have to leave before he’s finished as we have a conference call booked for me, Johannes, Debbie, Dan and Jerry for 2 pm. We dial through on Skype, usual echoes and poor comprehension, redial to his land line from Skype and we’re away. The strategy unfolds and Dan will be there from the 4th to the 6th. I may go on the 9th or 10th, if needed. Then I decide to go back to the hotel and lie down in a darkened room. I feel better but don’t join the crew who go out for a Thai dinner, instead eat with Stephen (who’s also reached the end of his tether physically) Niklaos and John O’D. I explain my ‘rags and famine’ approach to biochar – if we just grew biomass for one year and turned it all into char and didn’t eat food or buy new clothes we could remove 60 Gigatonnes of C, that’s 200 Gigatonnes of C02 from the atmosphere in a single year. It’s unfeasible but the calculation helps to put the scale of the task in perspective and we realise it’s not that daunting, we could do it in 10 years with a 10% reduction in food and clothing usage, 20 years with a 5% Reduction. And that’s not counting benefits from solar, wind , insulation etc. We then work out how to utilise the dead forests of British Columbia that are now dying due to a beetle that’s moving northwards in response to global warming. I’m in bed by 9 pm and sleep fitfully until 6 – the longest, if not the best, night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks.

We foregather in the hotel lobby at 7 and the cars are there to take us to Ithaca airport. Jerry comes down and some of the cars leave but no sign of John. I check at the desk and he’s on his way. Jerry and I wait in the lobby rather than sit in steaming cars in gently falling snow. Damn it’s cold here. Eventually we’re all at the airport – they have framed the famous timeline map of the history of civilisation, starting with Adam and Eve and going through to the present. John looks for the Greeks and finds them well represented, I look for Sheba and she’s not there in the time column that includes Solomon. The Arabs get short shrift, too, with the line ‘Ferdinand and Isabella rescued Spain from the Arabs in 1492”

Then onto a 15 seater Jetstream, snack trays from Wegmans, unimpressive pastries and bagels, a little tea and coffee facility, - it’s only an hour to Winchester VA. At Winchester some Homeland Security crew are playing around with empty suitcases, putting little ones inside big ones. Bartolo goes off to the toilet, comes back and his bag has disappeared. He follows the uniformed guys into the room where they’re taking the suitcases and recovers his bag. He emerges but soon a large angry guy appears shouting at him “We’re doing important work training dogs here and you shouldn’t have left your luggage unattended. Do you understand me!??” Bartolo listens to this rant patiently then responds: “But my bag wasn’t empty.” It was the obvious point – how could they have not noticed that one of the bags they were lifting was much heavier than any of the others? It reflected badly on their competence and the guy in uniform then launched into a loud, aggressive and threatening rant against Bartolo saying “When you come into this country you should look after your bags and never leave them unattended, you hear me?” At a small private airport where we are the only people and we've come off an internal flight in a plane with no toilets this isn't quite as relevant as having a fit over someone leaving a bag unattended at JFK but this guy clearly has an inflated sense of the global importance of whatever he is doing here at Winchester VA. Bartolo calmly walks away towards the door with me and this guy keep ranting “Are you walking away from me while I’m talking to you? Are you?” as he follows us out to where our cars are waiting. I should have asked if I could speak to his commanding officer but he was in full spate and the best thing was just to get away from him as soon as possible. This was a small private airport that has no security, the only luggage of the occasional private plane that lands, it’s obvious these guys should have taken more care and not blame their incompetence on the victim. Sadly, Obama being President won’t change this situation. We apologise on behalf of the USA to Bartolo for this scandalously unprofessional behaviour and head off to Josh Frye’s chicken farm at Wardensville in West Virginia. When we get there we huddle in the kitchen and eat chicken noodle soup cooked up by a real country girl in her forties called Jackie. Arthur and I chat to Josh and the subject of moonshine comes up and I quote the old line from White Lightning: “G Men, T men Revenooers too, looking for the place where he made his brew, They just kept on lookin, Poppa kept on cooking: White Lightning.” Josh laughs - it's probably as close as West Virginia gets to having a national anthem.

Then Jackie asks me if I like chocolate and I explain my particularly fondness for it. She has some moonshine filled cherries coated in chocolate back at her place and I say I have a bar of chocolate with rum soaked raisins and candied orange peel out in the car. I get one from the car and give her a bar and she promises to go and get the cherry bombs later. When everyone's arrived we go and look at the gasifier. The engineers who put it in are there and they say they can make char, but the boss says that at first when someone asked him if he could make biochar he said ‘Sure, what’s biochar?” The chicken poop is mixed with woodchips from a local tree surgeon and also the 75 or so dead birds every day, out of a 96,000 flock, that don’t make it to maturity every day. All end up as grey dust with a byproduct of a lot of heat, which heats the chicken units. There are 3, each with 32000 birds. The heat is drier than propane and this helps reduce ammonia formation and means chickens reach maturity 8% quicker, in 37 days instead of 40. Apparently KFC like these birds as the flesh is more open and cooks more quickly. Maybe that ‘s why they’re called Yum Brands.

We see the whole process and Stephen has lots of ideas for making it work better.

Then we take a peek at the chickens. The ammonia makes the eyes water, I can only look into the long shed full of 32000 birds for a few seconds before I have to withdraw, the chicks are just 2 weeks old, ready for a change of feed – they start as chicks, then growers, then finishers. The chicks and the feed are supplied by Greenfields, who also buy and slaughter the birds. The outsourced farmers get paid on a formula that compares their efficiency to each other, so they are competing to be most efficient. If things go wrong it’s the farmer’s problem, they still have to pay for the feed, chicks and bank loan to put up the unit. Jackie is blithe about the ammonia, saying she can work there all day without a mask or eye protection. I guess you can get used to most things.

She had brought back my cherries and Josh insists she puts them out for everyone to try but there are still plenty left for me to bring back.

We pile into the cars, drive to Washington Dulles, say our fond farewells and head off to Miami, San Francisco and London.

PREVENTION vs CURE - IN FARMING AS IN FOOD for BANT

Untitled
Untitled

The story of my beginnings goes back to 1965 when I first got into the macrobiotic diet.   I had been travelling in Afghanistan and India and amoebic dysentery led to hepatitis. I discovered that a diet of unleavened wholemeal bread and unsweetened tea cured the dysentery and the hepatitis symptoms subsided. This was the beginning of my understanding of the importance of gut health to overall health. Back at university some friends introduced me to the macrobiotic diet and I adopted it enthusiastically

At the time it was radical and Reader's Digest ran a cover story calling it the 'Diet That's Killing our Kids' while the American Medical Association said it could lead to death. Which is pretty much true about any diet, the question is more about when than whether. Nowadays eating wholegrains, organic seasonal and local food, avoiding sugar and hydrogenated fat and artificial additives doesn't seem so weird but at the time it was revolutionary. So revolutionary that the FBI closed down the macrobiotic bookshop in NY and burned its books because they suggested that healthy diet could prevent cancer.

Seed
Seed

So, in 1967, my brother and I started Seed Restaurant, the legendary hip -and hippie - macrobiotic watering hole of the late 60s, where brown rice and organic vegetables formed the backbone of the menu.   We figured if the AMA and the FBI didn’t like it then it had to make sense.

lennon cartoon
lennon cartoon

John Lennon gave my brother Gregory a little cartoon in appreciation of our food and of Harmony, the magazine Gregory published.

Books
Books

I wrote a guide to macrobiotics called, imaginatively, About Macrobiotics, which was translated into 6 languages and sold nearly half a million copies.

More recently I wrote a guide to all issues surrounding food called The Little Food Book

When I wrote About Macrobiotics I just tried to simplify the complexities of Yin and Yang that made some earlier books on macrobiotics daunting and even impenetrable. It was well received for that reason.

We soon had Ceres - Britain's first natural foods store - on the Portobello Road. Then other budding retailers came to us for supplies, forming the customer base for Harmony Foods, which evolved into Whole Earth Foods.

Ceres interior
Ceres interior

Our business thrived on innovation. We were the first with organic brown rice and were known as The Brown Rice Barons because if you bought brown rice in the 70s it came from us.   We bought and milled or flaked all of the organic grains grown in this country and usually exhausted available stocks before the new crop came in. In our retail and wholesale business we only sold food, only wholefood, no sugar and not even honey and no vitamins or supplements. We were macrobiotic then and I continue to follow the diet, not religiously but almost passively. In other words I eat whatever I feel like, but mostly I feel like eating wholegrains and vegetables.   Occasionally I take zinc or Vitamin C when I feel a cold coming on, but otherwise don’t take supplements.

Whole Earth Peanut Butter label
Whole Earth Peanut Butter label

Eventually we pandered to market demand, with a successful brand of peanut butter that rose to take the number 2 position after Sun Pat in the UK market. I created the first range of fruit juice sweetened jams, using apple juice instead of sugar as a sweetener. We had created a market for sugar avoidance - and apple juice - if only for semantic reasons, satisfied it.

In my quest for organic peanuts for our peanut butter I came across a group of farmers in West Africa who also grew organic cacao and from that encounter Green & Black’s, the first ever organic chocolate, was born.

Green & Black's 1st bar
Green & Black's 1st bar

Needless to say, my kids, who had been brought up in a committed macrobiotic household, were somewhat dismayed to see their Dad going into the sugar business, but I consoled myself with the fact that 70% chocolate had a glycaemic index of only 22, less than half the GI of brown rice, and carried on developing the brand.

So what are the key aspects of macrobiotics?

You should eat wholegrains and vegetables as the basis of your diet.

ZEN MACROBIOTICS

You should always choose organic, seasonal and local

You should avoid yeast and sugar

You should avoid preservatives and other chemical food additives.

You should minimise meat and dairy

There are good nutritional reasons for all of the above, seasonal food is fresher, organic food doesn’t contain pesticide residues, wholegrains have more B vitamins than refined cereals and preservatives can give you cancer. But is there more to all of this? A nutritional therapist might feel that there is insufficient emphasis on maintaining a high intake of necessary nutrients and it’s true that in the early days a lot of macrobiotic followers looked rather wan and pasty-faced. They blamed it on expelling toxins but it was more like nutritional deficiency. Was it the fault of macrobiotics or was this part of a transition to better health?

One of the key facets of macrobiotics is that you don’t get sick. Prevention is everything and cures are fairly perfunctory.

One of the key facets of organic farming is that your plants and animals never get sick. Prevention is everything and cures are fairly perfunctory. In fact if you cure a problem with chemicals or drugs on an organic farm, whether with plants or livestock, you lose your organic status.

The Soil Association regularly has a debate about its name. Should we change it to The Organic Society or something similar?   We always decide to keep our rather unappealing name because we firmly believe that ‘The answer lies in the soil.” But we never ask the question: The answer to what?

I submit that it is the answer to the question: “What is the Meaning of Life?”

So how can the soil contain such a revelation?

A gramme of healthy soil contains over 10,000 different species of microbial life, you could say that it is a microbiotic jungle. Except that it is remarkably ordered, with bacteria, viruses, algae and protozoa living in a web of complex fungal growth. Worms play an important role as well.

We are always impressed at how well organised and efficient bees and ants are. But bees only have three variants – the queen, the worker and the drone. Ants are similar.

Yet the most efficiently organised system we know comprises 1o thousand life forms, all working in close tandem. They communicate with enzymes, chemicals and odors and probably electric charges. Research into this is in its infancy. At the heart of the system is the fungal mycelial network that feeds the other life forms, regulates their growth and variety.   In plant growth the most important are the mycorrhizal fungi, which are, to organic farmers the foundation of soil health and fertility.

These organisms predate plants by 100s of millions of years. If your parents predate you then you consider yourself their offspring. We trace our ancestry back to early primates, respecting and recognising their importance in creating what we are today, a recognition confirmed by genetics and DNA research. We respect and honour our ancestors, but soil is seen as something dirty and underfoot, barely worth of recognition. Are we missing the point of our existence?

Long ago, when the atmosphere contained a lot of carbon dioxide, life forms were anaerobic, they didn’t use oxygen in their life cycle.

CYANOBACTERIA

When the earliest microorganisms dwelt on this planet one group, the cyanobacteria developed the ability to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using sunlight, thereby opening up a new food source, thin air.

Once this ability emerged, it was harnessed by the existing network. The cyanobacterial ability to make carbohydrates out of carbon dioxide was captured and enclosed in cells called chloroplasts and we had the first green plants.

Plants are the means whereby a very well organised team of soil microorganisms can extract food from the air.   The mycelial network brings together the rest of the life in soil to support this food gathering mechanism and to extract its main benefit to them, which is sugar. These fungal webs can have eight miles of thin mycelium in a single cubic inch, stretching over miles underground, communicating with each other.

When you look at a tree or a blade of grass or a fern, you are looking at the food gathering and early stage digestion mechanism of a very clever bunch of invisible organisms. The plant works hard up there, busily converting carbon dioxide and sunlight and water into carbohydrates that it then feeds to its underground masters. It even knows who’s boss. It will only feed those mycorryzzal fungi that have the correct identity papers. They are good servants and only take orders from their master. When this happens the fungal lord inserts a tentacle or hypha into a subcutaneous layer of the plant root so that it can drink its sugar solution direct from the source. It needs to keep the plant going so it gathers phosphorus, nitrates and other minerals to ensure that the plant thrives and competes successfully with other plants. The mycorrhizal fungus lives for about 32 days, then as it decomposes it provides food for a network of other soil organisms that support it and that benefit from its demise. It generates a carbon-rich substance called glomalin, both proteins and carbohydrates, that is sticky and helps bind soil together in aggregates that give the soil structure and keep other soil carbon from escaping.

As the world’s atmosphere became filled with the excreta of these plants the level of oxygen increased.

It was now possible for new complex teams of soil biota to organise themselves to move about and capture plants. Animal life was discovered. In effect they invented airplanes and cars to increase their range and were able to capture from above the food of their underground brethren. With flying creatures and worms and eventually mammals, one thing was shared by all: a set of controlling microorganisms that guided every stage of the animal’s development, ensuring that it could gather food and reproduce.

These mobile plants used smell and vision to identify likely food sources and arms, legs, mandibles, and claws to gather it up.

So if we accept that the soil biota created and control plants, why is it so hard for our egos to accept that perhaps the reason for our existence is to perpetuate the dominion of a very clever collection of soil biota who created an internalised soil environment in the gut of living animals? Is it really that humbling? Consider Genesis 3:19

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

This dated from an era before the sky gods took over and mother earth took a back seat

Let’s take a closer look:

There are 200-600 million nerve cells in the gut - more than in spinal cord, what does this tell us about the importance of the gut to intelligence and consciousness? It appears to be linked to information storage, decision-making and joy and sadness.   The question is, who’s holding the reins? Is the control originating in the gut and determining our conscious decisions or do we make conscious decisions in our brains and then, for some reason, pass this information to the gut? A nerve is a 2 way street. No other part of the so called peripheral nervous system acts autonomously and locally. The Enteric Nervous System is called our ‘second brain.’ I submit that it could well be the Primary brain. After all, why does our gut need to tell our brain that it is regulating intestinal contractions, the release of digestive fluids and all the other activity in the gut? Our gut talks to itself and only bothers to communicate with our brain when it considers a message from the eyes, nose or palate about what food is out there. All the gut needs to tell our cerebral consciousness is if it feels pain, hunger or satiety. You don’t need half a billion nerve cells to do that.

There are 500 to 1000 bacterial species alone in the gut with 2 to 4 million genes, if you look at them as one microbiome they contain 100 times more genes than the human genome and represent 10 times the total number of human body cells.   They are overwhelmingly anaerobic, in other words they evolved in the absence of oxygen and like to keep it that way.

The gut biota make a huge difference to the development of capillaries in the intestinal villi, promoting host nutrition. When they are absent a breach in the gut wall can be fatal, when they are abundant a breach in the gut wall is harmless and doesn’t trigger inflammation.

So if soil biota and gut biota are related and our relationship to plants is derived from that ancient relationship what similarities are there between the way we produce our food, in soil and the way we prepare and digest our food, in our gut soil. Which the Chinese call ‘night soil.

So let’s look at a few examples and compare

In the 1840s, when Baron Justus von Liebig discovered that nitrates and phosphates were essential soil nutrients it engendered a revolution in agriculture. No longer did farmers have to faff around with fallow periods, fertility building cycles or any of the traditional ways of extracting a crop from the earth. Instead they could add chemicals. What happened?

First: The nitrates and phosphates short circuited the cycle whereby mycorrhizal fungi fed these minerals to plants in exchange for sugars.

Second: The mycorrhizal fungi died off, unable to compete with free food. As they died and decomposed, the soil structure collapsed and vast amounts of carbon were emitted. Even Justus von Liebig realised what a terrible mistake he’d made and 20 years after he started the chemical farming revolution he wrote: SLIDE LIEBIG

I have sinned against the Creator and, justly, I have been punished.

I wanted to improve His work because, in my blindness, I believed that a link in the astonishing chain of laws that govern and constantly renew life on the surface of the Earth had been forgotten.

It seemed to me that weak and insignificant man had to redress this oversight.

But it was too late, human greed was in full spate and the farmer who didn’t use chemicals had trouble competing on price as part of his yields were sacrificed to keep the soil biota happy, reducing overall yields and income. Nobody got paid for maintaining topsoil depth and quality.

Nearly one half of all the increase in carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere since 1850 is the result of this folly. Global warming’s roots stretch back to his one big mistake that still haunts us.

Liebig spent his later years on a project to recycle London’s sewage for agricultural use but lost the argument to the great Victorian sewer builder Joseph Bazalgette, who made sure all London’s waste was carried out to the Thames Estuary.

If we are seeking parallels, what is the human equivalent of nitrates? Plants feed the soil biota with carbohydrates in the form of sugars in order to get minerals.   Animals feed on plants in order to get carbohydrates. Around the same time that nitrates were introduced into agriculture, sugar became a major factor in our diet, with equally deleterious effects.

Just as cheap nitrates killed off the web of soil life, so cheap sugar quickly pushed aside slower digestive and gut biota-based mechanisms to deliver glucose straight to the organism. Just like the poor old mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, the carbohydrate - producing digestive flora were outflanked and rendered redundant. Even more humiliating, the consumption of sugar led to rampant overgrowth of aggressive yeasts that caused all manner of upsets and the destruction of whole swathes of formerly stable gut biota. It also led to heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay, cancer and obesity. We don’t know what other quick fixes bypass the gut flora, but we should consider the impact on them when we consume vitamins or supplements that may displace some gut function and render it redundant, creating an ongoing dependency on supplementation.

Bread suffered as well. Roller mills made white flour as cheap as wholemeal and white bread replaced wholegrain breads, with resulting diverticulosis and, thanks to industrial yeast, candida.

Let’s compare 2 ways of making mankind’s principal food, wholemeal bread, the modern and the old fashioned .

Modern – Chorleywood Process – take wholemeal flour and ascorbic acid and sugar and 24 times as much yeast as you would use in a traditional bakery and whizz it in a high speed mixer for 20 minutes until the yeasts are agitated and in a feeding frenzy. Shape into loaves, dump into tins and as they bread goes into the travelling oven it is rising. Oh, add a little hydrogenated fat to give it structure so it doesn’t collapse when it comes out – just one hour after you’ve started. It was introduced in the 1960s, around the time that irritable bowel syndrome, gluten allergy, Crohn’s disease really began to become widespread issues. You could say that we just hadn’t realised those diseases existed before then, but for anyone who’s experienced IBS or had a reaction to gluten you know that’s pretty unlikely

Old Fashioned – Judges Bakery process. Germinate wheat and liquidise. Add to organic wholemeal flour, add kelp powder, sesame seeds, hemp nuts and flax seeds. Make up a dough and let stand overnight in linen lined baskets for 18 hours. The enzymes from the germinated wheat snip the long chain proteins of gluten into shorter, less clingy and tastier proteins and make maltodextrins slowly available for fermentation. The bran softens throughout the process with phytic acid breakdown of up to 90%. Lactic acid bacteria increase magnesium and phosphorus solubitility.

If you were a colony of gut flora, which bread would you prefer?

ROUNDWORMS EARTHWORMS

What about worms? Not only are worms common flatmates with gut flora and soil flora, many species can live freely in soil and also survive quite happily in the digestive system.

In the soil worms are the great grinders of all vegetable matter into fine particles. Charles Darwin wrote admiringly of their ability to pile up vast amounts of soil and raise its height.

The soil doesn’t have teeth, but we do. Chewing your food 50 times does much of the work that worms do in the soil. This is recommended by all macrobiotic dietitians from Christophe Hufeland (Goethe’s doctor) through to George Ohsawa, creator of the Japanese version known as Zen Macrobiotics. So what if we just puree our food? Doesn’t that do the same thing? What about if you puree food and then spit in it and leave it for a while, won’t the salivary enzymes do the job for us?

Research published in the Archives of Surgery showed that patients who had part of their colon removed passed gas and solids up to a day sooner if they chewed gum. The process of chewing stimulates nerves in the gut and hastens recovery. Now we have to ask what is stimulating those gut nerves, is it the chewing, or does chewing activate the gut flora, which then stimulate the gut nerves? When you chew the gut biota are getting a signal that food is on the way, so they become active in anticipation. This activity stimulates the nerves in the gut.

GUT WORMS

In the gut worms are seen as parasites, but they fulfil similar functions in the case of roundworms, of helping with the digestion of food, particularly when it has been poorly chewed. They also provide exudates that prevent auto immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and they are food for many fungi.

EARTHWORMS

In modern sterile soils worms are infrequent. I remember visiting Paul McCartney at his farm in Sussex, which is certified organic. He commented – ‘the Soil Association may say my land is organic but I don’t believe it really is until the soil is teeming with worms when the plough goes through.’   Could we consider the absence of worms as the pathology? When 80% of the world’s population are host to worms, can that be abnormal?

What about Gooey stuff – mucus and humus.

In the soil Glomalin is the product of the mycorrhizal fungi. It is sticky like glue and it binds together bits of sand and clay and organic matter into joined up granules called aggregates. These help to keep carbon in the soil instead of escaping into the atmosphere and they also help retain moisture. This creates ideal conditions for soil biota and a soil that is rich in glomalin has a high and stable population of bacteria, fungi and protozoan life.

What is the digestive equivalent of gooey stuff? It’s the mucus membrane, but how do we support it?

In macrobiotic medicine the cure for all tummy troubles is ume-kuzu. That’s a blend of kuzu arrowroot and pickled underripe plums that are rich in sodium sorbate, a natural yeast inhibitor. The yeasts get controlled and the kuzu provides a rich sticky matrix in which gut biota can flourish and rebuild their populations. Other sources of mucilaginous material are traditional remedies such as comfrey and aloe vera, both of which contain allantoin, which encourages cell proliferation. Chicken soup is a natural gel that also helps in this way.

If our gut biota came from the soil itself, then is soil good for you?

There are lots of examples of what is known as geophagia and not all of them relate to desperate hunger or psychological disturbance.

When we don’t have food, we can still feed our gut flora and they can still feed us. We don’t just eat clay to fill our bellies, it may not have nutritive value by analysis, but if it provides a medium where gut biota can proliferate. We can then get nutrition from them.

KWAN YIN

Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth describes how Chinese peasants would eat what they called ‘Goddess of Mercy earth’ named after Kwan Yin, the goddess of Mercy of Taoist tradition. In Taoism Yin is the earth and Yang is the sky.   In Haiti mud cakes are a traditional food, particularly sought after by pregnant women, a compound of clay, fat, salt and pepper.

MUD CAKES FACTORY IN HAITI

Hippocrates described Geophagia 2500 years ago, saying “If a woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.’

Pliny recommended red clay as a remedy for mouth ulcers. In the Levant it was called Terra Sigillata and used to help childbirth and alleviate menstrual problems.   In France they call it argillophagy and a popular hangover cure is to take argile verte, or green clay, in a creamy solution on the morning after. A three week course begins with a twice daily glass of white clay and then a transition to green clay mixed with liquorice powder, with separate doses of charcoal.

CARBON GOLD

And what about charcoal? I must confess a commercial interest here as the founder of Carbon Gold, an enterprise that seeks to restore the soil’s carbon content by the expedient of turning biomass into charcoal and ploughing it in.   Charcoal encourages high populations of soil biota which are extremely stable, very water retentive and antagonistic to pathogenic fungi and bacteria, helping to prevent soil-borne plant diseases. Charcoal stays in the soil for hundreds of years so it effectively is the only way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keep it out.   It also reduces the acidity in soil that causes methane, turning this toxic greenhouse gas into the 60 times less toxic carbon dioxide.

CHARCOAL BISCUITS

Charcoal biscuits and charcoal tablets are a common treatment for wind and other digestive upsets. They adsorb gases like methane and create a healthy environment for the gut biota to thrive, providing niches and structure in which a shattered gut population can rebuild itself. Just as it suffocates toxic bacteria in the soil, in the gut it cracks down on aerobic bacteria such as salmonella and shigella.

Charcoal in soil encourages microbiological density, reduced activity but higher population.

In the soil charcoal maintains an ideal slightly acid pH but even adding wood vinegar to a char- enriched soil doesn’t make it more acid, the bacteria maintain stability at an optimum pH level that is unfriendly to pathogens

What about Fallowing?

Let’s compare organic farming’s fallow periods with our own dietary resting times.

One of my least popular sayings is: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day - to skip.” I always try to skip breakfast and also to fast at least one day a month. Why?   If your digestive transit time is somewhere between 12 and 18 hours then skipping breakfast means that for a few hours each day your gut is empty.   This allows the gut flora to rebalance their population. Every time you excrete, one third of the weight of the faecal matter is gut flora who get flushed away, the remainder need time to recover from the loss of their gutmates. There are of course, also other factors – the blood glucose and the liver’s stored glycogen are used up by the time you wake up in the morning and so the body has to turn to its fat reserves for carbohydrates. It’s like the Atkins Diet, but without all the meat and fat. But it’s a good idea to let the gut flora have a rest in between bouts of food digestion.

Organic and traditional farmers have fallow periods, the farming equivalent of fasting, where nothing is added to the soil, it is just left alone. The soil flora need a period when nothing is happening so that they can sort themselves out, deal with imbalances, before the next crop is planted. Fallow is not just about rebuilding fertility, it’s about recreating a healthy balance of food gathering biota. Eating food is like ploughing manure into a field. There is nutrient being introduced but there is also disturbance as a new set of nutrients is introduced, along with the oxidising effect of air on stored carbon, along with the disruption of the mycelial networks.

I’ve just been in Belize. The farmers there don’t even plough the soil. The grow on quite steep hillsides with no erosion problems. Every year they let an area of ground become overgrown, sometimes for several years, then they cut the resulting vegetation and let it rot or, in some cases burn it off. They plant their corn direct into the ground, where the crop takes off, surrounded by beans and squash as ground cover, so that other plants are crowded out. The soil has no fertilisers, not even compost or manure, added to it and it generates healthy crops of corn with plants 12 feet high.   The farmers abhor the idea of tearing up the soil and have resolutely avoided offers of rotovators and other mechanical ploughing aids.

NEZ PERCE CHIEF JOSEPH

"The earth is our mother. She should not be disturbed by hoe or plough. We want only to subsist on what she freely gives us." --Chief Joseph, Nez Perce

We can’t go back to that level of respect for the soil in today’s crowded world, but it is worth noting that in the long term agriculture has to address its problems of unsustainability and treat the soil as a living organism, not as a hydroponic system with dirt added.

I was there in Belize because they supply cacao to Green & Black’s. They provide us with fully fermented cacao beans in which all the simple cyanins have been oxidised and have lost their astringent taste. The reason our chocolate tastes so good is because the farmers are so good at fermenting the beans.

Every few months Mars publish more research saying that chocolate is good for the heart and have even launched a chocolate range in the US called Cocoa Via based on research that shows that anthyocyanins from unfermented cacao lowers blood pressure. So I took at look at the research to see why they’d launch a chocolate with a mildly unpleasant taste as a nutraceutical. What I came across was the European Polybind Project. They were looking at polyphenolic substances and trying to assess how they could help prevent cancer. They studied onions, apples, broccoli and chocolate. What did they find?

Chocolate contains procyanidins and other simple phenolic compounds. When it is fermented these become oxidised polymers and lose their astringent taste. They also don’t have a noticeable effect on blood pressure, unlike unfermented chocolate where the phenols trigger a measurable pressure drop soon after ingestion.   Hence Mars’ excitement about using unfermented chocolate in their products.   But the Polybind Project found something else: the complex phenolic compounds stayed in the gut wall. When the host was stressed the gut flora would snip them up with enzymes and pass them into the host in the exact amount needed to modify blood pressure.   Instead of outwitting and bypassing the gut flora, it makes more sense to work with them.   The same arguments apply to inulin-rich foods such as chicory and Jerusalem artichokes.

A ‘gut feeling’ is more than a feeling, it’s knowledge, indeed wisdom.

The gut flora control intelligence. They can memorise and learn and encode much faster than multicelled organisms such as us.   They don’t forget as their memories go straight to their DNA, which is constantly in flux.

By maintaining a healthy balance and large population of gut flora the nutritional therapist also offers psychotherapy in a genuine way - this may be described as a ‘placebo effect’ by some, particularly doctors whose summation of nutrition is ‘eat your greens.’   By eating organic food we are mirroring the natural process by which healthy food is grown and we are avoiding the chemical residues that are just as toxic to the health of our gut biota as they are to the health of soil biota.

To me the importance of nutrition has been a guiding light. I have not had to see a doctor since 1965.   Nutritional therapy is ultimately about treating the originators of plant and animal life on this planet with the respect they deserve. More than that, with the respect they demand. They can get quite angry if they are ignored, as sufferers from IBS and colitis, to name a few examples, can attest.

To go even further, if the gut biota are really the All-Knowing, All-Seeing masters of our universe, our original and true Creator, with a capital C, then the nutritional therapists are the high priests of human society and are our true link with the infinite and unknowable!

Thanks

Cacao Story

On Monday (May 7th) of this week I was in Hastings at a celebration called 'Jack in the Green'. A large leaf-covered man paraded through the streets, accompanied by hundreds of dancers and drummers dressed in leafy green garb, or as giants, foxes, deer and badgers. Our house, which was on the procession route, was decked in ivy and other leaves, as were most of the houses on the street. Everything was garlanded with ribbons, mostly yellow, green and white, echoing the colours of early leaf and blossom. On Sunday the local 14th C Church, much to the disgust of some of its more sanctimonious members, had even allowed the dancers into its sacred precinct, where they played and sang and danced. This ancient celebration is rooted in the old pagan festival of Beltane and acknowledges the idea that there is a 'green spirit' which was long ago anthropomorphised into the "Green Man." There is a stone carving of the Green Man's leaf-clad face carved into the stonework of the Church, reflecting a time when the Church was more accomodating of what are still seen by purists as heretical views. Jack in the Green has survived tenaciously and now the celebration grows in numbers every year and seems doomed to become a tourist attraction.

When we look at cacao, we see a tree that embodies the spirit of the forest and acts as a link between the canopy, the middle storey and the ground level. Cacao plays an important role in the rain forest where it grows, a role which extends into its products, which are pivotal to human trade and society and which have led to its propagation around the world wherever growing conditions are suitable. As an unreconstructed Lamarckian, even a Lysenkoite, I intuitively believe that an organism can consciously evolve and that the discoveries of Crick and Watson and the Human Genome Project actually confirm the Lamarckian idea that acquired characteristics can be transmitted to future generations. This contradicts the Darwinian thesis that evolution is just a series of mass extinctions punctuated by lucky genetic accidents.

I am intrigued by the conspiracy theory that humans are not the masters of the planet, but merely the mandarins or administrative class who run things for the cows, who reward us with their highly addictive milk and meat. In exchange for their products, we manage the surface of the planet to accommodate their needs, clearing forests and creating artificial pastureland in areas where forest would otherwise prevail. While cattle exist in smaller numbers than humans, their combined weight exceeds that of all humanity and the land area they occupy is greater than for any other land life form. Certainly the close cohabitation with cattle that prevailed until recently in the southern Jutland peninsula, home of the Holstein and Friesian breeds, as well as the myth of Europa, reflects an earlier belief in the mystic power of these life-giving and life-saving, beasts. If there is a candidate for a vegetable counterpart to the cow, I submit that it must be cacao. Its character, its cultivation and its natural history suggest that it is worthy of the deification that it received from the Maya and other Central American civilisations.

Every plant, as it follows and reveals the universal principles that animate all living systems, can tell us much about ourselves.

Nicholas Culpeper, the pioneering 17th Century English herbalist, wrote in his introduction to The Complete Herbal: "God has stamped his image on every creature, and therefore the abuse of the creature is a great sin; but how much more do the wisdom and excellency of God appear, if we consider the harmony of the Creation in the virtue and operation of every Herb? "

So, what is it about cacao that makes it such a special food? Theobroma Cacao grows wild in Central America in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize. Cacao is a unique tree with a unique way of capturing nutrients, protecting itself and reproducing in a harsh environment and rearing its offspring in a caring and nurturing way. In the process it produces substances that have a profound attraction to humans.

In the wild the cacao tree grows to a height of 10-20 metres, which for other trees in the rain forest would mean an inability to survive. Typically, the mahogany tree, which occupies the canopy of the forest, drops its crop of seeds to earth where they will germinate and grow to a few centimetres fed by the nutrients in the seed and then enter a sort of stasis. It takes an event such as a hurricane or logging or the collapse of an aged or diseased tree to allow in enough sunlight for the mahogany to seize its chance and make a bid for the top.

To flourish in the middle storey of the rain forest requires a very different strategy. The cacao tree still needs some sunlight, it just gets by with a lot less than most plants need to survive, by exhibiting a frugality and intelligence of function that enables it to live and reproduce in extremely deprived conditions. It tends to do best on hillsides, where glancing light increases the otherwise sparse availability of sunshine. Hence its success in the Maya Mountains, where south-facing mountain slopes allow light to cut through the canopy at an angle. In the wild it is often found in stands, where it has managed to colonise an area. The cacao tree flowers on its main trunk and leading branches. The flowers are pollinated by midges which breed on the rotting debris of the forest floor. The pollinated flower forms a pod which grows on a callus-like pad directly off the trunk or branch. The pod is as hard as wood. Each pod contains 30 or so seeds surrounded by a sweet juicy milky pulp. As the pod ripens the seeds begin to germinate, still in the pod. When the shoots and roots are a few millimetres long the pod falls to earth and rolls away from the parent tree. The pod still forms a helmet-like protective barrier over the seedlings. The clustered seeds all send down roots and send up shoots together, closely packed on the jungle floor. Eventually the shoots raise the pod up and it falls over and off, but by then the seedlings are off to a good start. If they are all successful then they gradually merge into one tree. In this respect the cacao tree has evolved in a way that is rare in nature: 1. Like a marsupial, the offspring is retained by the parent and not released into the world to fend for itself until it has developed beyond a certain point. The mother tree feeds its children until they have developed sufficiently to survive in the wild 2. Even with developed shoots and roots, the plantlets still stick closely together and sacrifice their individuality in the interests of common survival in a hostile environment.

In domesticating cacao the Maya made few changes to the wild tree. As the matriarchal horticulturalists who created many of the world's most commercially important and sensual plants including maize, amaranth, pumpkins, kidney beans, papaya, guava, chilli peppers, vanilla, tobacco and dahlias, it is perhaps not surprising that they could effect precise changes in developing the 'criollo' cacao tree. ('criollo' means 'native' in Spanish). The criollo tree differs from the wild cacao in three main ways: 1 The pod is softer and easier to open with a stone or a knife 2 The tree grows to a limited height, reduced from 10-20 metres to 3-5 metres, making pruning and harvesting easier. 3 The seeds, which are creamy coloured in wild cacao, are purple in colour in the criollo variety. This reflects a greatly increased content of alkaloids and other compounds.

It was women who domesticated cacao and created maize. With sacraments including morning glory seeds, they developed a deep rapport and understanding with plants, persuading them to evolve in ways that are beyond the ability of modern plant breeders and molecular biologists to comprehend.

The Maya cultivated cacao in forest gardens in which every tree had a function. As a result, the trees that provided shade for the cacao also provided thatching and building material, fodder, oilseeds, wood, medicines, fruit and allspice. Careful management of the shade ensures that the cultivated cacao doesn't grow too quickly and thrives in a healthy and controlled environment that closely replicates the natural wild environment of the cacao tree.

(An example of how successfully the Maya domesticated the cacao without depriving it of its intrinsic ability to live sustainably in the wild happened two years ago. One of the members of the cooperative of Maya Indians who supply us with cacao led an archaeological expedition to ruins in a remote region of Belize that has not been inhabited since the collapse of the Maya civilisation in the 9th Century. In the surrounding forest he found a stand of several hundred domesticated cacao trees that have reproduced without human support on that spot for over a millennium).

Nowadays cacao plantations are laid out on three basic patterns. 1. The oldest are in Belize and were planted on the 'whole pod' basis The farmer would simply prepare a space in the forest and then plant a germinating mature pod. Once the tree had emerged he would allow all the branches to grow and then, as some revealed themselves as more productive than others, would prune selectively to maximise yield. Yields are about 400 Kgs per hectare, combined with other forest products. 2. The typical plantation-based mode of most of the last century was to plant the cacao in rows that were 5 metres apart, growing the trees from seed. This leaves sufficient space between the trees to allow for tall shade trees, which are then managed to provide the appropriate level of light. Yields are about 500 Kgs per hectare, but considerable other economic benefits accrue, particularly to those farmers who also plant mahogany and red cedar as shade trees. Over a 25 year period the income from wood can greatly exceed that from cacao and increase with each further year. Unfortunately, because of forest protection laws and land tenure uncertainties in many areas, smallholders often do not plant high value trees in case they are confiscated by the national government. 3. The most modern and intensive method represents the system imposed by American, British, Dutch, German and Swiss 'aid' organisations in the 1980s. This massive aid programme successfully created global overcapacity in cacao and was in response to the upswing in cacao prices caused by the President of the Ivory Coast's decision to hold back supplies from the market in 1982. The trees are closely planted at 2.5 metres apart. The only shade comes from small and economically valueless shrubs and also from the top part of the cacao tree itself. Fertility comes from regular applications of nitrogen fertiliser. Yields are around 800Kgs per hectare, double the least intensive system. But, there is no other income from the land used. Disease is rampant and requires constant control. The fungal diseases Witches' broom and black pod, are common and devastating and becoming more virulent. This method represents a step too far in intensification. There are large areas of Brazil where cocoa production has collapsed completely due to ineradicable disease that has wiped out the entire base of cacao trees. A conference was held in Costa Rica1998 at which the leading chocolate companies met to seek solutions to the crash in cacao production. The conference concluded that a return to less intensive practices was the key to sustainable production. However, the legacy of the 1980s aid programme will haunt the industry for decades.

In the first two systems, fertility is almost entirely 'passive' and this has attracted criticism from organic certification organisations which are wedded to the idea that good organic agriculture requires the production and use of animal manure and vegetable composts to encourage growth. However, excessive growth, due to fertiliser and sunshine, leads inexorably to fungal disease in the cacao tree.

In a well managed plantation following the first two systems the fertility sources are manifold, but fertility is delivered over a longer time frame. The shade trees draw mineral nutrients from deep below the forest floor and transform them into leaves. When the leaves fall these nutrients are made available to the cacao tree, which has a shorter taproot combined with a mat-like network of surface-feeding roots. If you scrape back the leaf litter on the forest floor you immediately come upon the cacao roots, some of which are pointed upward, clinging to and eating into the decomposing leaves without waiting for them to break down into humus. Canopy-dwelling birds and mammals regularly deposit small amounts of guano and manure which splashes on the leaves of the cacao trees and then is washed down to the soil by rain. Because it is drip-fed to the cacao tree in continuous small quantities it does not encourage the soft sappy growth that is prone to fungal and insect attack.

Perhaps because it is slow-growing and accessible, the cacao tree exudes caffeic acid from its leaves. It is common among the Maya to snap off a leaf of cacao and chew it to a pulp, extracting a mildly stimulating dose of caffeine. In the beans in the pod, caffeic acid becomes the alkaloids theobromine (food of the gods)and theophylline (leaf of the gods), both methylxanthines in the same group of alkaloids as caffeine, which is a breakdown product of their consumption. The levels of theobromine in cacao are highly toxic and are targeted at birds and mammals. For a squirrel or a monkey one or two cacao beans are enough to bring on heart palpitations and a speedy retreat to the treetops, reinforcing the memory that this is a food not to be toyed with. Other predators on cacao don't eat the cacao, but use it to farm other food products.

Woodpeckers will make a hole in the cacao pod. This is done in order to attract flying insects that lay their eggs in the sweet inner pulp surrounding the seeds. The woodpecker then returns at regular intervals to eat the larvae. Leafcutter ants march across the forest floor carrying small sail-shaped pieces cut from leaves of cacao. They do not eat them however, but take them below ground where they provide food for a fungal culture. It is the fungus that the ants then consume.

The Maya believed in a sort of coevolution with animals, plants, soil and water. Their belief was that the quest for perfection that characterises humankind cannot be achieved without the collaboration of perfected plants and animals. The frog and the jaguar, the morning glory and the cacao tree all played significant roles in this evolutionary process and were accorded a value not solely based on what they could give to humanity, but also, like household pets, loved for themselves and treated with the same care that one would give to a family member.

Cocoa beans were also used as money during this era, one of the few instances of money truly growing on trees. The Maya trading economy used cacao as capital, in much the same way as cattle were used in Europe.

In Mexico, hot chocolate is never served at funerals but everyone drinks it on the Day of the Dead, when the souls return from another world, temporarily reborn to this world. There are many present-day cultural associations of cacao with fertility and regeneration. Hot chocolate is a symbol of human blood, much like wine in Christianity. In the bad old days of human sacrifice, the Aztec priests would wash the blood off the sacrificial obsidian knives with hot chocolate and give the resulting drink to calm the nerves of those awaiting sacrifice. In the iconography of Maya archeological sites, cacao is associated with women and the Underworld, where sprouting and regeneration are portrayed in myths with echoes of Persephone and Demeter.

The cacao tree figures prominently in Maya creation myths, being considered one of the components out of which humanity were created. Dedicated deities embody the spirit of the cacao tree and it features in the Popol Vuh as well as in the 4 day long Deer Dance. I witnessed the cutting of a tree which was to be used in the Deer Dance during the Harmonic Convergence in August 1987. It took nearly an hour of explanation, persuasion and extracting of permission from the spirits of the forest and of the specific tree before any Maya would dare to presume to touch it with an axe.

The Maya's 4-day long Deer Dance evokes the entire history of the Maya, with male dancers dressed as black dwarves in black masks referring to the era when the Maya had no culture and lived in caves. Other male dancers in pink masks and women's dresses evoke the horticultural matriarchal era before 'the Grandmothers' created corn. The dance depicts the moment when the leader of the men gently but firmly tells the Grandmother: "Henceforth we men will grow the corn." This was the moment when the holistic and horticultural matriarchal world succumbed to the hierarchical and agricultural world of priests, warriors and princes that led to the extraordinary flowering of Maya culture, short-lived but incredibly diverse, and then to sudden collapse as maize cultivation stretched the ecosystem beyond its limits. The Maya had abused their historic partners in coevolution.

Nowadays, smallholder cacao is increasingly shade grown, bird friendly, sustainable and organic. By contrast, plantation-grown cacao depends on management as waged labour cannot be relied upon to show. The usual capitalist measure of productivity, return on capital employed, does not apply in cacao production, where land value bears little relation to net income, which depends heavily on chemical inputs and waged labour. It takes one foreman to oversee about 4 labourers and the reliability of foremen is hard to measure. If trees are planted at too great a spacing then management becomes correspondingly more difficult as control depends on lines of sight and voice commands. Planting trees more closely creates more problems than it solves. Low world prices and increasing input costs put downward pressure on labour costs. This leads to increasing dependence on slave labour. This occurs in the Ivory Coast of non-Ivorian Africans, in Malaysia of tribal people. Many of these are women, who are short enough to get under the trees with backpack sprayers and then fog the tree with fungicides. Smallholder grown cacao offers the following advantages: 1 Trees enjoy considerable longevity, exceeding 100 years 2 A forest canopy performs the functions of chemicals and low waged labour in providing nutrients and preventing disease, thereby increasing carbon sequestration and biodiversity 3 Slavery is avoided 4 Sustainability is achieved as diseased trees are rare and fossil fuel inputs are not required 5 Individual freedom and enterprise, the foundation of stable democratic societies, is encouraged among smallholder farmers.

There is one cloud on the horizon for cacao. Genetic engineering of rape seed is being developed which will produce oils with the same characteristics as cocoa butter. If successful, this will lead to the reduction of the cacao tree population of the planet, with consequent loss of forest canopy and forest biodiversity that is inherent to successful cacao cultivation. A tonne of cacao costing $1000 yields approximately 1/2 tonne of cocoa powder worth $300 and 1/2 tonne of cocoa butter worth $2000. If cocoa butter is genetically engineered in rapeseed the overall value of cocoa beans will be greatly diminished. This will lead to a considerable reduction in land area devoted to cacao production, regrettably at a time when mainstream thinking is moving back to the forest-based and more extensive systems that preceded the ultra-intensification of the 1980s. More cacao and more cocoa butter, if grown on a sustainable smallholder basis, means sustainable agroforestry, with all the consequent gains in CO2 sequestration, soil protection, biodiversity and economic and political stability. More rapeseed means more soil erosion, more biodiversity loss, more concentration of power, more CO2 creation, more poverty, more subsidies and more asthma.

What is it about chocolate that makes it addictive? Is it good for you?.. What are the chemical constituents of cacao that make it so appealing? How come the cacao tree hits so many of our deepest needs right on the button? Here we come back to my cow analogy - are cacao's properties part of a pact with humans to ensure the plant's survival? A plant that is clever enough to survive in the middle storey can make itself indispensable to potential protectors. Cacao is rich in; 1. Polyphenols - these are the antioxidants found in red wine green tea, grapeseed and bilberry, are also present in chocolate. A single 20g bar of dark chocolate contains 400mg of polyphenols, the minimum daily requirement. 2. Anandamine - this substance locks onto the cannabinoid receptors, creating mild euphoria. 3. Phenethylamine - this is the substance that is found in elevated levels in the brains of people who are 'in love.' The association of chocolate with Valentine's Day and romance has sound chemical foundations. 4. Methylxanthines - Cacao's theobromine and theophylline are kinder stimulants than caffeine. They provide less coercive stimulation than coffee as they take time to break down into caffeine. 5. Magnesium - As you might expect from a plant that was developed by women, cacao is the plant world's most concentrated source of dietary magnesium. Falling magnesium levels create the symptoms of premenstrual tension, hence the premenstrual craving many women feel for chocolate. 6. Copper - an important co-factor in preventing anaemia and in ensuring that iron makes effective haemoglobin. The Maya view of hot chocolate as blood is more than a metaphor. 7. Cocoa butter - Cocoa butter is the perfect emollient for the skin, far better than the petroleum jelly substituted for it in cheap bodycare products. It melts at precisely the human body temperature. That's why people love the mouthfeel of chocolate. As the cocoa butter melts, it acts as a heat exchanger on the palate, cooling the tongue as it goes from a solid to a liquid state. Unlike hydrogenated fats, which are often substituted for it in cheap confectionery, cocoa butter stays liquid at normal body temperature, thereby avoiding the occlusion of arteries and distortion of lipid metabolising functions that hydrogenated fat consumption entails.

You show me a cow that can deliver such a comprehensive package of addictive, stress-reducing and health-enhancing ingredients.

Maya Gold In 1987 I visited a cacao grove for the first time, in Belize. I was transfixed. I was with a film crew making a film about the Deer Dance and the Crystal Skull, a Maya artefact, but something told me that cacao would be part of my future. It was one of those moments when something undefinable happened, when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. My diary of the time includes drawings of chocolate bars called 'Maya Maya'. In 1991 a series of coincidences led me to add a chocolate business to my trading portfolio, hitherto a wholefood range that proudly proclaimed that we had never sold anything containing sugar in 24 years. Our Green & Black's organic chocolate was successful and in 1993 I contacted the Maya cacao growers in Southern Belize. This soon led to the production of Maya Gold, the first ever controlled named origin chocolate. The marketing of Maya Gold emphasised the biodiversity contribution and the social and economic benefits of smallholder cacao. To date, just a few of these benefits have been 1. Secondary school attendance has risen from under 10% to over 90% 2 A logging permit granted to a Malaysian logging company was successfully challenged by a coalition led by the cacao growers' association and 100,000 hectares of rain forest were spared the axe 3 The Kekchi and Mopan Maya, who communicate in English because their Maya languages diverged such a long time ago, have overcome mutual suspicion and work together in harmony in the democratically constituted growers association 4 Women's rights and health have benefited. Although the men do the planting, pruning and harvesting, the women control the post-harvest fermentation and drying and therefore control the end product and income from it. They are less likely to spend it on beer than men, thereby ensuring it is invested in education, clothing and health.

Maya Gold is now a supermarket staple in the UK. Of course, it helps that it tastes delicious and echoes the Maya recipe for hot chocolate, which uses allspice, vanilla and choisya (Aztec Mock Orange) leaves as flavouring. In our recipe we substitute orange for choisya but think we have recaptured the essence of the Maya cacao experience.

The success of Maya Gold shows that consumers respond to a processor's declared commitment to acknowledge and support the integrity of the cacao plant, of its forest world and of the people who tend it. They understand their place in the web of life and the leveraging impact of their purchasing decisions on issues of global concern. We are privileged to have been able to make and illustrate this connection and to profit from it, along with the Maya growers and the cacao and the forests which cacao production generates.

Ten years of Fair Trade

This month the Fairtrade Foundation, along with Green & Black’s Maya Gold, celebrate their 10th anniversary.

Fair trade hadn’t been invented in September 1991 when we launched Green & Black’s 70% cocoa solids – the first organic chocolate . Our biggest ethical dilemma was that it was made with the dreaded sugar. But it was organic, forest-friendly, sustainable and much lower in sugar than other chocolate. Ethically traded, it empowered Ewé tribal women in Togo – and, of crucial importance, it totally blew away your taste buds. “Guilt-free chocolate”, we called it.

Looking for further supplies, I contacted some old friends among the Maya in Belize and found that, after USAID had encouraged them all to plant cacao, they were facing ruin. Why? As soon as the aid workers had gone, Hershey’s buyer progressively reduced the price paid from $1.75 to 55¢ a pound. So we worked out a new deal for a new concept – Maya Gold - and made an offer to their cooperative, the TCGA. We offered: a five year rolling contract to grow cacao for Maya Gold paying $1.75 per pound, help to obtain organic certification, a $20,000 cash advance, and training in correct fermentation and quality control to ensure the best quality cacao.

British and UN aid experts advised the Maya strongly against going ahead with us and particularly against going organic, which they said would be a disaster. But the deal was agreed and signed.of the Fairtrade Foundation, who were looking for a first licensee. So we applied for Fairtrade certification. Maya Gold was the first product to bear their mark.

Maya Gold and the Fairtrade Mark were launched together on March 7 1994 at the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia. BBC News sent a film crew to Belize and came back with footage of Maya villagers harvesting cacao, and of their kids munching on the very first bars of Maya Gold. The story was on the afternoon and evening television news and in the press. The Independent headlined it: ”Right On – And it Tastes Good Too.” Young Methodists did an Olympic style run for fair trade, carrying a torch in relays between various English towns, haranguing supermarkets and shops to stock this first Fairtrade product. The senior confectionery buyer at Tesco phoned up: “Here, what’s this product all these vicars are phoning me about? You better come in and see me.” Fairtrade was on the map, with a product that (nicely) encapsulated its ideals. Cafédirect and Clipper soon signed up and the Fairtrade market went bananas.

For the Maya, fair trade’s benefits aren’t just economic:

- Women’s rights. Controlling the post-harvest processing (fermentation and drying) women get some or all of the money earned from the crop, which they spend on education and nutrition.

- Secondary education has increased from 10% of the kids to more than 70%

- Migratory bird populations have increased due to increased forest cover and reduced pesticide residues.

- Every Maya village is sited on a river, which serves as bath and laundry. Pesticide-related skin diseases, rashes and blisters are a thing of the past.

- As a result of working together in a successful producer cooperative the Maya have become an organised political force and recently blocked a timber project that threatened 250,000 acres of rain forest.

Now DflD has granted £240,000 to help the Maya quadruple their cacao output and improve their business skills in recognition that organic farming makes sense for unsubsidised small scale farmers. Can fair trade apply to British farmers? Although they have subsidies and welfare, they too are victims of globalisation. Forget job security or even long-term contracts when supermarkets can source food worldwide at the cheapest price.

At the beginning of the year the Soil Association launched Ethical Trade Organic Standards as a pilot scheme. In due course consumers will be able to buy organic produce knowing that a fair contract has been agreed with everyone in the food chain. Organic producers – and that includes UK ones – need a fair price, covering the cost of production, and giving a reasonable return, if family farms and artisan farmers are to survive.

Is that too much to ask for those hardworking, risk-taking producers who maintain the highest standards of animal welfare and enhance this green and pleasant land of ours?