Archive for July, 2010

Tell DARE to Admit Marijuana is Safer

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Ah, DARE. I still remember all the anti-drug propaganda from my fifth grade year. I remember thinking they should work on their descriptions of what drugs can do to you, because some of them sounded fun, like, “they make you feel like you’re flying.” Really? Gimme some of THAT! (I was obssessed with birds, what can I say?).

My thoughts about plant allies are much different now…although I don’t personally use anything stronger than chamomile.

Anyhow, now’s your chance to tell DARE what time it is. Dare them to admit that marijuana is safer than alcohol.

From our author Mason Tvert:

It’s time for the nation’s largest drug education program to get its facts straight when it comes to the world’s two most popular recreational substances.

In a guest column in opposition to the marijuana reform initiative on the ballot in California, DARE America Chairman Skip Miller goes off about how marijuana “mushes up your brain,” “lowers inhibitions,” and “makes users engage in risky behavior.”  Meanwhile, the DARE America website discusses how “[s]ocial drinking is an acceptable and pleasurable activity for millions of Americans,” which “relaxes you, curbs stress, and chases away inhibitions.”

DARE instructors from across the nation are gathering this week for the DARE International Training Conference.  We can’t help but assume they will be instructed to continue spreading this misguided and potentially dangerous message that alcohol is an acceptable form of intoxication for adults, yet marijuana is just too harmful, cannot be consumed responsibly, and thus should never be allowed as an alternative.

Take action today and send DARE a message!

Fill out the form on this site:

Mason, along with Paul Armentano and Steve Fox, is the author of Marijuana is Safer, So Why are we Driving People to Drink?, which was read online a whopping 138,799 times since our special promotion on 4/20/2010.

Learning Within and Beyond the Institution, An Interview with Anya Kamenetz

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

The current model of higher education in the U.S. is deeply flawed and unsustainable, says journalist Anya Kamenetz, in her new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Kamenetz’s critique is both economic and social, encompassing such topics as the cost of tuition and textbooks, loan-based financial aid, admissions patterns, and the deteriorated job market.

Despite the gloomy picture she paints of traditional higher education, Kamenetz seems fundamentally optimistic about how technology is lowering barriers, presenting greatly increased opportunity for a “do-it-yourself” education.

Kamenetz gave the keynote address at the June 2010 Sakai conference, the flagship community-source collaboration of higher education institutions aiming to improve online learning systems. I caught up with her to talk about technology, learning, and higher education.Mark Notess

Mark Notess: As I read your book, I found myself wondering what kind of book it really was. What’s the genre: self help, social critique, futurism?

Anya Kamenetz: For all of my career, I haven’t really known how to classify myself. I’ve been a journalist, but one that’s gotten involved in causes and hasn’t been able to keep from saying what I really think.

As I got interested in covering the topic of change, I did shift over into this futurist-ish tenor, although I try to avoid making too many predictions in the book because that’s just a really good way to look foolish. I do try to talk about trends, and I think things are in the process of changing — you can identify some certainties, some clear trends that are happening.

MN: I actually have a question about that because it seems like for any objection people raise about a future vision, you can come up with a website or a blog or something that some faculty member somewhere has done that’s a counter-example. But how do you distinguish something that’s a viable trend from something that’s just a dead end?

AK: That’s a really good point. Since the earliest reaches of the Internet, we’ve had this problem where there are examples that don’t exemplify anything because they don’t become trends. It doesn’t really change anything. People still buy dog food at a pet store and not at

It’s also particularly difficult in the area of higher education because we’re transforming from what I argue is this activity of higher education that is so completely identified with the institution, the university, that it excludes every example that isn’t in a university, and that includes community colleges. It has come to be an absurdity now that community colleges have half of all undergraduates, and yet they’re not considered to be at the center of the project of what we think of as higher education.

And so, when you’re talking about what’s representative in terms of the future, it’s like every part of the future is smaller than the monolithic institution because of its nature. You’re opposing this giant unified vision of the past of the university with a million little things that are happening.

You’re going to radically shift your view of higher education if you just take for granted that you’re going to concentrate on the experience of the average student — the majority of students — because the degree to which we focus our attention on the 20 percent of students at selective institutions, and in particular the tiny fraction at a small handful of selective private institutions is ridiculous. It’s just completely ridiculous.

MN: Technology broadly defined is about efficiency and quality control, and probably some other things, too, but those two leap to mind.

As a student, I want a high-quality education. I also want that quality to be acknowledged and recognized by others, say, by people who might offer me a job. So what are some of the dimensions of quality in an education?

AK: I would also add to what you are saying. Technology is about speed. Technology is about ease of communication and ease of access. There are a lot of things technology does for us.

MN: Sure.

AK: What are the dimensions of quality? Transparency about what is your objective in learning and what it is that you are actually learning. The ability to be prompted to reflect on what you learned and to publish it to the world in a way that’s visible to potential evaluators of all kinds who are going to continue to evaluate you throughout your life. Persistence of learning, so that you are able to go back and reconnect with the ideas easily, and also with the people to some extent.

MN: You mentioned Walmart in your talk. I wasn’t sure whether you were talking about the “walmartification” of higher education or about the recently announced Walmart deal with American Public University.

AK: I think both in a sense.

MN: Do you have any thoughts about what Walmart’s doing with APU?

AK: Yes. I think that it’s an important trend, and the most important part of it is the statement of responsibility on the part of a large employer toward its employees to educate those employees.

There are two fronts in the Walmart wars. Walmart has done amazing things to establish itself as an advocate for sustainability, obviously for efficiency. It totally transformed the way the American retail business works. They have an advance in their improving social models. And then they have a retrograde: the anti-Walmart is about the destruction of American communities and the destruction of the American job because they’ve replaced it with this sort of low cost alternative.

This [the APU agreement] is a really interesting example of both. It’s a socially positive initiative that also threatens to cheapen the very nature of what a higher education means. So the degree to which it’s just a public relations maneuver versus the extent to which it is actually taken up by a significant percentage of their employees is going to be proof. I think it’s also going to be something that other large employers might want to define themselves against and say, we agree with this idea of educating our low-wage employees, but we are going to do it better than Walmart does.

MN: Do you have any thoughts on Walmart’s choice of an education partner?

AK: Walmart has been criticized in the past for relying too much on state funds. The company basically assume that the employees are going to be on Medicaid and food stamps in some cases, because they don’t really offer healthcare for workers or their kids. So if they were to partner with a community college, you could argue that they are taking advantage of the resources of the community college-state educational resources.

By partnering with an institution that gets most of its funding through the federal government (through higher education aid but also through investors) you could argue that they’re following their own kind of light and saying that we’re in the private sector, and so our partner should be in the private sector as well. But I’m sure that they also made the decision because of a like-mindedness between having one partner that could serve them across the entire nation and not having to deal with the bureaucracy of local community colleges.

APU and Walmart are both corporate and they have a similar corporate mindset, so I’m sure there’s a complement there.

MN: Traditionally-minded faculty often see technology as a distraction from the business of teaching and learning. In your keynote, you said that distance education is often seen as a “poor, pale imitation of the real thing.” Are there ways that technology can actually improve the quality of education?

AK: When you’re in your car, if you’re texting while driving, that’s an application of technology that is worsening your driving experience. It’s an absolute distraction. If you have a GPS system in your car, that’s increasing your driving ability and increasing your driving experience, because the application of the technology is toward the goal that you’re engaging in: driving. And I think that technology can be used in both ways in teaching and learning.

Professors aren’t happy with students in their classroom using technology to their own ends: to communicate with each other on things that have nothing to do with the class. But professors who have engaged in things like immersive simulations, game-like learning, and online participation in blogs and wikis, have found that it changes the practice of teaching in a way that enhances student engagement, enhances student-professor communication, that opens up the possibilities for what students are able to learn and cover in a smaller period of time. And it totally transforms the teaching experience in a way that is really exhilarating.

MN: Are there example of where it is done well?

AK: The Open Learning Initiative is doing some of the most rigorous research that I’m aware of. The course modules they build offer immediate supportive feedback to the students, to the professor who’s running the course online, so they can see exactly where each person is, and to the researchers so that they can constantly improve and tweak the modules so that they offer the right content to the right person at the right time. They have enough research data now to know that if you’re teaching people how to sum vectors, you should show an animation first and then make them read a text, or the other way around, depending on your population and a set of parameters, and on and on. And they’ve proven that they can teach people a stats course in half of the class time and a quarter of the seat time, with better retention.

MN: That leads me to ask whether Baumol’s disease is real or illusory in higher education. Is it really like a string quartet? [Baumol's cost disease describes jobs where salaries go up even when productivity doesn't, often because it can't. For example, the live performance of a string quartet still requires the same amount of resources it did 200 years ago. The question is whether higher education is similarly immune to productivity gains.]

AK: I love the string quartet analogy. If what you want is a live performance of a string quartet, you have an irreducible problem. But if you like MP3s and you like having a whole Garage Band simulator, remixing and re-recording, if you like having a choice and a decision to listen to any one of a thousand renditions of the same quartet on Youtube at the click of a button, it’s not the same thing as being in a room with a live string quartet. Some people would argue that it’s much much better.

MN: Or if you want to listen to it while you’re running.

AK: They might have trouble keeping up with you! So it becomes an apples to oranges comparison, yanking us away from a single pointed conception of what higher education is, just as we might yank ourselves away from a single conception of what music is. It can be very valuable in challenging fatalism.

People who are immersed in social media talk all the time about the high bandwidth of “meat space” and the idea that there is something irreducible. We may not be able to define it or know what it is, but we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What we want to do is take a close look at those benefits, how they’re being delivered by people face-to-face, replicate them as much as we can, and supplement that.

MN: I want to take issue with one thing you mentioned in your keynote, which is the discussion of your Facebook friends who post an article and talk about it. I’ve seen that behavior too on Facebook. But that kind of behavior, when I compare it to sitting in a classroom with a cranky professor who is making you define your terms, and so forth, is so different.

AK: The rigor.

MN: I find on Facebook that’s it’s more like “don’t we all think this person’s an idiot.” It’s a lot of like-minded people comforting you in your identity more so than challenging the thought process and teaching you how to construct an argument.

AK: It’s interesting. There’s all kinds of conversations that go on online and there’s a vast range of tenor of discussions. I participate in a lot of online communities, so I don’t take a one-dimensional view of it.

MN: I’m thinking specifically of Facebook here.

AK: There are blogs that by there very nature demand that you support your points with evidence. There are very adversarial conversations going on with people coming from very different points of view, which can be wonderful if you’re trying to construct an argument.

I also find on Twitter that there’s a skittering kind of curiosity that goes on, and people dip in and out of things, and they’re offering links and pointing into other ideas, and that can move off of Twitter and onto other forums.

So yes, I think that different discussion areas lend themselves to different kinds of discussions just like on campuses. People can meet under a tree and have one kind of conversation and meet in the library and have another kind of conversation and in a seminar room, yet another kind.

MN: I’ve been playing in my mind with the “DIY” metaphor. If I remodel my bathroom, it either works or it doesn’t. But I don’t have to carry a credential from that to anyone. Does the need for a credential move away from the DIY model?

AK: It’s a multi-dimensional issue. If you teach yourself to fix a toilet, and you can show people the toilet that you fixed and the bathroom you remodeled, you might be able to get people to hire you. If you have demonstrable results from your learning, and you live in a community that is open to recognize the ability of people to participate based on what they’ve actually accomplished and not just on their credential, this can happen.

But the other thing about DIY, it has its hardware store connotation, but it also has the connotation of punk, where DIY is a positive value within a community that supports that idea. If there are communities that support the recognition of people’s opportunity to demonstrate their work in an independent way, and we say we like that or prefer that, it creates a counterbalance to this one-path meritocracy.

MN: Do you think that’s a trend that will persist-the punking of the workplace? Or is that something that just happens for a few people in a few types of disciplines or careers, but it’s not really going to take over and replace the existing paradigm?

AK: I think the fact that there’s so much interest in these kinds of models from Silicon Valley and from the venture capital community — and these are some of the most innovative parts of our economy — tells me that this is a trend in the way things are going. We recognize that the current system is leaky and it’s facing huge access and capacity problems.

What that creates is an arbitrage opportunity because there are people out there who are extremely talented and valuable, who don’t have the resources to succeed in the current system. In a crass sense, they are undervalued talent. They’re non-credentialed talent. Is there a way for them to prove their talent in order to succeed? Are they going to be able to advance that way? On their way up they’re going to get hired by forward-looking companies who are going to underpay them because they don’t have a credential, and then those companies are going to succeed wildly. So that’s the opportunity that the Silicon Valley group sees. And I think that’s going to be a growing opportunity until it evens out.

DIY U is available in our bookstore.

Permaculture & The Flowering of Happiness

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Maddy Harland runs Permanent Publications, who publish books like Rosemary Morrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, which we distribute in the US. She also edits Permaculture Magazine, and blogs at Permaculture Magazine Editorial. This is her most recent post.

 In these times of disruption, change and transition, all of us can be excused for sometimes feeling perplexed, challenged, even a little lost. We are watching the old world slowly disintegrate. Our financial and political systems in the West are under the greatest of duress. Our natural global resources are seriously diminished as we face not only peak oil but also peak water. Whilst the work of earth restoration has never been more important, it is still largely ignored, subsumed by the broader fears surrounding economic chaos. It is understandable that any one of us can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the scale of what is wrong.

When those dark times envelop me what do I do? I go home and walk in the woodlands or go up on to the Downs and look out over 360 degrees of countryside. I savour the light dancing on the Solent and the silvery glints from the high rises of the City of Portsmouth. I look out over my bioregion and feel gratitude that I live in such a beautiful place. I am glad it is designated as a National Park, open to anyone, celebrated and preserved for future generations.

Having got my dose of landscape expansion, I go home to my garden and enter into a connection with the natural world there too. As Emma Cooper, friend and author of The Alternative Kitchen Garden, an A-Z, said to me recently, “Just putting my hands in the soil makes me feel better.” She has certainly entertained me with some of her wonderful experiments!

I know every tree and shrub in my garden, its habit and blossom, its coming fruits. I know where the wrens nest and where the robins stake their territories in my hedgerow, and all the species of wildflower that bloom from early January right through the year. I love to listen to the drone of insects and happen upon shy common lizards that hunt in the long meadow grasses.

You may imagine that I have a smallholding, but it is a garden (admittedly a good size), full of as many habitats and species as we can invite in. It is near the greater habitat of the wild South Downs, full of deer, foxes, badgers, owls and birds of prey. I feel a part of this land. It nurtures and feeds me and places in perspective my small concerns within the largeness of Life and its mystery.

You may also imagine that permaculture gardening is a rather functional affair, where the focus is on yields of food, fuel and medicinal plants. This is a part of it, but gardening is also my art. This last year, with climate change pressing painfully into my consciousness and with fellow businesses struggling and failing, I took sanctuary in growing and planting. Tim and I have planted many hundreds of bulbs so that next Spring they will provide the plummeting bee populations with early nectar and ourselves with balm for the soul.

For me flowers are the equivalent to happiness in nature – as well as a practical key to planting robust diverse ecologies. I grow many types of fruit and none of my trees require sprays or codling moth traps because the pests are in balance with the beneficial insects and birds.

This passion for nature and celebration of biodiversity is not just an organic technique. It is both a meditation and a way of connecting with the powerful forces of nature. It makes me feel aligned to the other kingdoms, a co-creator of a beautiful place. Most of all it makes me happy.

Happiness is one of the most powerful forces in a human life. It opens us up and encourages us to love. It brings energy and appreciation, gratitude, reverence, and the capacity to invite adventure into our lives. It is incredibly important that we nurture it – for our health, wellbeing – and also to help make us more effective and loving human beings. Above all, happiness is a skill that can be learnt.

My friend, Chris Johnstone, has taught me much about the value of happiness and the importance of nurturing it. Dr Chris is an addictions specialist who has helped thousands of people overcome their problems, and he is a happiness ‘expert’. He works with Rob Hopkins, co-founder of The Transition Movement, and Joanna Macy, the inspirational teacher and activist who developed The Work That Reconnects.

His book, Find Your Power, is not just another boring pop psychology book. It is the distillation of his rich approach, helping people to become more effective and live the life they dream of. The book is also a call to adventure at this time of deep and challenging transition. In the latest Permaculture mag – out on Wednesday 21st July – Chris shares tried and tested strategies for growing happiness.

 I like the way he ends his article, “Mood isn’t just something that happens to us, it is also influenced by choices we make and strategies we can learn. By recasting happiness as something linked to skills we develop, challenges we face and relationships we value, we contribute to a cultural recovery from over-consumption and help grow instead a model of sustainability that is attractive and deeply satisfying.”

Because ultimately we have to change the way we live and move beyond our dependence on relentless economic growth to fuel our economies. What and how we consume will be the most vital and empowering factor in that process of change. It really is in our hands.

Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture Magazine – inspiration for sustainable living.

Rosemary Morrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture is available in our bookstore.

Praise Cheeses—All Cheese Books 25% off Until August 1st!

Friday, July 16th, 2010

End of July Cheese Book Sale! We’ve got a fine selection of books about cheese and cheesemaking on sale for 25% off until the end of the month. These five tomes about tommes (…and other treats for turophiles) will tempt your tastebuds and teach you the wheys of the curds (if you’re a cheesemaker yourself). Whether you want to discover a new special type of cheddar, or learn about best-practices in your own small-scale creamery, this sale is for you!

Got a foodie in your family and wary of shipping a gift wheel of stinky, creamy Red Hawk cross-country? One of these books would be an excellent substitute. Not as tasty as a chevre button or a wedge of Petit Basque, but guaranteed to stay fresh and informative in the mail.

Cheesemonger, A Life on the Wedge by Gordon EdgarWitty and irreverent, informative and provocative, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge is the highly readable story of Gordon Edgar’s unlikely career as a cheesemonger at San Francisco’s worker-owned Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. A former punk-rock political activist, Edgar bluffed his way into his cheese job knowing almost nothing, but quickly discovered a whole world of amazing artisan cheeses. There he developed a deep understanding and respect for the styles, producers, animals, and techniques that go into making great cheese.
The Farmstead Creamery Advisor, The Complete Guide to Building and Running a Small, Farm-Based Cheese Business by Gianaclis CaldwellThere has never been a better time to be making and selling great cheese. People worldwide are consuming more high-quality, handmade cheese than ever before. The number of artisan cheesemakers has doubled in recent years, and many of the industry’s newcomers are “farmstead” producers— those who work only with the milk of their own animals. Today, more than ever before, the people who choose to become farmer-cheesemakers need access to the knowledge of established cheese artisans who can help them build their dream.
American Farmstead Cheese, The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses by Paul KindstedtThis comprehensive guide to farmstead cheese explains the diversity of cheeses in terms of historical animal husbandry, pastures, climate, preservation, and transport-all of which still contribute to the uniqueness of farm cheeses today.
Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by Jeffrey P. RobertsThis is the first reference book of its kind and a must-have for every foodie’s library. Jeffrey P. Roberts lavishes loving attention on the growing local food and farmstead movement in what is fast becoming a national trend. This fully illustrated atlas of contemporary artisan cheeses and cheese makers will not only be a mainstay in any cookery and cuisine library—guiding consumers, retailers, restaurateurs, and food professionals to the full breadth and unparalleled quality of American artisan foods—it will be the source of many a fabulous food adventure.
Italian Cheese, A Guide to Its Discovery and Appreciation by Gigi Piumatti, Angelo Surrusca, Piero SardoMany of the cheeses portrayed in this delightful book–stracciata, giuncata, formaggio di fossa, formaggetta della valle Argentina–are not household names and they probably never will be. They’re a few of the 201 traditional Italian farmhouse cheeses lovingly described in this new book from Slow Food International as a “contribution to the conservation of a vast heritage of local products, born of Italy’s extraordinarily varied landscapes, natural environments, dairy breeds, and cheesemaking techniques.”

WATCH: A Quick Tour of Joan Gussow’s Garden

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Thanks to the folks over at for sharing this video tour of Joan’s lovely garden.

Joan is the author of This Organic Life (available now in our bookstore), and the upcoming book Growing, Older (available for pre-order).

She is a major figure in the organic food movement, and has been ever since she pretty much started it! Her new book is a meditation on aging gracefully, dealing with the vicissitudes of the natural world as a constant gardener, and (not) missing your late husband.

Pot Inhibits Cancer

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML and co-author of Marijuana is Safer, blogs for his organization. His latest post is on yet another kindness dealt to us by this lovely plant ally: it helps kill cancerous cells! Oh, Cannabis spp., what did we do to deserve thee?

A Couple Of Recent Studies The Mainstream Media Forgot To Mention

Investigators and pundits alike are fond of calling for ‘more research’ into the safety and efficacy of marijuana and its active compounds. Ironically, when such calls are heeded and new research is published, nobody wants to talk about it.

For example, researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY), Upstate Medical University in Syracuse published data in the June issue of the journal Pharmacology concluding that the administration of the plant cannabinoids delta-8-THC and delta-9-THC halted cellular respiration and tumor growth in human oral cancer cells. Specifically, investigators reported that cannabinoids were a “potent inhibitor” of Tu183 human cancer cells, a notoriously difficult to treat type of oral cancer.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that pot’s compounds have been demonstrated to possess anti-cancer properties. As has been widely reported here and elsewhere, US government researchers were first aware of this finding over 35 years ago, and today there exist published scientific studies demonstrating that cannabinoids can inhibit the proliferation of a wide range of cancers — including brain cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, pancreatic cancer, biliary tract cancer, and lymphoma. Nonetheless, abstract prohibitionist concerns regarding marijuana’s supposed cancer risk continue to dominate the headlines while actual scientific studies debunking these allegations tend to go unnoticed.

Similarly, preclinical data published online last week in the journal Cell Communication and Signaling reported that the administration of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) increases adult neurogenesis (the active production of new neurons) in laboratory animals. Authors speculated that cannabis’ pro-neurogenic effects may explain why the plant appears to be useful in the treatment of certain neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease or ALS.

As I wrote last week, to date there are now over 20,000 published studies or reviews in the scientific literature pertaining to marijuana and its active compounds — making marijuana the most studied plant on Earth. But what’s the point in further research if nobody even bothers to pay attention to the research that’s already been done?

Marijuana is Safer, So Why are we Driving People to Drink? is available in our bookstore.

We recently did a creative promotion of this book, in partnership with Scribd. They thought it was so cool they blogged about it on HuffPo. Check it out!

WATCH: Charlotte Dennett on the Feminist Media Review

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Charlotte Dennett is the author of The People v. Bush, One Lawyer’s Campaign to Bring the President to Justice and the National Grassroots Movement She Encounters Along the Way, and a candidate for Vermont Attorney General.

She speaks on the Feminist Media Review about her campaign for Attorney General, on the promise of bringing George W. Bush to trial for murder, and the incredible support she gathered along the way.

Dennett is again running for office in Vermont, and is working to raise awareness about the rule of law, and how it doesn’t work in America. Fascinating, frustrating conversation.

The People v. Bush is available in our bookstore.

Wild Fermentation is “The Fermentation Bible”, According to Newsweek

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

This originally appeared in Newsweek.
The traditional fermented tea kombucha is gaining rapidly in popularity as fans tout its supposed health benefits. But is it really good for you?

Growing up in New York City, Sandor Katz couldn’t get enough deli pickles. As a child in Virginia, Jessica Childs skipped the pickles and drank the briny juice directly from the jar. Devon Sproule was surrounded by fermented foods growing up on a hippie commune, but she didn’t start drinking kombucha, a fermented tea, in earnest till she was an adult, to stave off illness during prolonged periods without health insurance.

Call them “fermies”—fermentation foodies. They are everywhere, from small towns to foodie-central Brooklyn. And the mounting interest in live-culture fermentation owes some of its success to their blend of locavorism, raw and probiotic diets, artisanal and do-it-yourself foodmaking, and, yes, a lack of health insurance. Mostly, though, it’s the foods’ reputation as detoxifiers and immune-system boosters that is pushing fermentation into the mainstream. But do the benefits of live-culture fermented drinks or foods extend beyond the anecdotal into scientific fact?

Though live-culture fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir (a fermented yogurt drink with grains), the current clamor is for kombucha, a fermented tea with ancient roots in Russia, China, and Japan. Corporations have taken note: companies such as Coca-Cola (Honest Tea Kombucha) and Celestial Seasonings now sell their own versions of the drink. While extremely small, the beverage-market share of kombucha skyrocketed from $80 million nationwide in 2008 to $324 million in 2009, according to Kombucha Brooklyn, a small-batch brewer and distributor. But much of kombucha’s appeal may come from its do-it-yourself applications.

“We always sell out our fermentation classes, whether it’s kimchi or kombucha,” agrees Taylor Erkkinen, owner of The Brooklyn Kitchen and The Meat Hook, which hosts four to five fermentation classes per month. Her store has sold out of home-brewing supplies.

“There’s a revival, a resurgence of interest in fermentation, a huge amount of do-it-yourself activity in this realm,” says Katz, who lives in Tennessee and teaches fermentation workshops throughout the country. He’s the author of the fermenting bible Wild Fermentation. “I don’t think it’s happening in a vacuum. There’s a major resurgence in people wanting to feel connected to their food, as well as some nutritional movements that emphasize the importance of live bacterial cultures.”

Most fermented foods are not revolutionary: bread rises because yeast ferments it, grapes ferment with the assistance of yeast into an alcohol known as wine, and coffee beans are placed in a warm-water bath to ferment until a slimy outer membrane disintegrates, thanks to lactic bacteria. To make each of these, yeast, bacteria, or both release enzymes that break down a food’s sugar and convert it to lactic acid or alcohol. Fermentation foodies, in contrast, create and consume live-culture ferments—foods that maintain living bacteria or yeast (and sometimes both) at the time of consumption. Bread is baked, coffee beans are roasted, and many other commercially available ferments, such as types of yogurt or pickles, do not qualify because they are heat-treated after the fermentation process, killing off living microbes.

In the case of kombucha, the fermenter adds a slimy silicone-like pancake called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to a jar of sweet tea, starting a 10-day process. In the end, the bacteria will have consumed 95 percent of the sugar, leaving behind lactic acid, alcohol, and several B vitamins, according to a study of AIDS patients who used kombucha therapeutically during the 1990s.

Recently, the FDA cracked down on unpasteurized commercial kombucha, which has an unpredictable alcohol level. The high-end Whole Foods grocery chain removed unpasteurized bottled and on-tap kombucha from its stores as part of a recall from suppliers after allegations that the alcohol content went as high as 3 percent, far above the 0.5 percent limit for nonalcoholic beverages.

Devotees of kombucha say the live cultures have helped clear up their acne, soothe their heartburn, and quiet headaches. “There are some microbes that have found a competitive advantage by living in animals—typically they are toxins like salmonella and E. coli—and these are bacteria that use our bodies to replicate themselves, making us sick,” explains Jessica Childs, a professional tempeh maker and former microbiologist who owns both Tempeh Shop Brooklyn and Kombucha Brooklyn with her husband, Eric. “So because microbes are in constant competition for limited space, the best defense we have against the microbes that make us sick is ingesting the ones that can survive and colonize our bodies while protecting us against the microbes that hurt us.”

Devon Sproule is a touring musician in Virginia who is married to another touring musician. She credits ferments with helping her maintain her current lifestyle as she gets older, and with helping her husband with his acid reflux. “Being a nighttime person and a drinking person who doesn’t have health insurance,” says Sproule, “kombucha and other fermented foods are a lot about prevention.”

But scientists and nutrition experts aren’t convinced.

“Oh, please. Fermentation is a way to preserve foods and, therefore, the nutrient value of those foods,” says Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. “But I’m not aware of convincing scientific evidence that they have special health benefits beyond [the preserved item’s] basic nutritional value.”

The evidence for kombucha’s health effects is indeed slim: a 2003 study published in Biomedical and Environmental Science found that it improved and stimulated the immune systems of rats that had symptoms that mimicked Parkinson’s disease and other disorders. However, that same year, a German review of all scientific research on kombucha found that it could not be recommended for therapeutic use because the risks outweighed the benefits. Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Cancer Center warns immunosuppressed people—such as patients undergoing chemotherapy—against using kombucha because of the possibility of contamination with a fungus called Aspergillus. A few cases of contamination with anthrax have also led to recommendations to avoid kombucha.

Meanwhile, those same live cultures are also found in non-heat-treated kinds of yogurt. Studies into the health benefits of Lactobacillus acidophilus in yogurt are more plentiful, possibly because yogurt has been on the market longer. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that women who ate yogurt reduced their chances of yeast infection by two thirds. And a 2000 Tufts University study found that consuming the bacteria helped maintain intestinal-tract health, especially for people with weakened immune systems, through an “immunostimulatory effect” in which the body reacts to the bacteria ingested, bolstering the immune system.

Despite the success of yogurt live-culture studies, one major impediment to studying the health properties of fermented foods is that they can vary widely because no two ferments form exactly the same way. So while kombucha may have some beneficial effects, it’s really too new to the market for anyone to know. Nonetheless, as long as fermies continue to sing the praises of the fermented brew, it’s likely to gain in popularity.

We will definitely continue to sing those praises! If you feel the same way, you can get a copy of the fermentation bible, Wild Fermentation, in our bookstore. You can also pre-order one of Sandor Katz’s popular fermentation workshops on DVD, available this fall.

WATCH: An Interview With Michael Ruppert

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Michael Ruppert, author of Confronting Collapse and subject of the documentary film Collapse, talks about the “long emergency” now upon us.

Confronting Collapse is available in our bookstore, along with Collapse the documentary. They are also available as a set. Twice the fascinating gloom at a bargain price!

Robert Kuttner on Firedoglake Book Salon

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

This article originally appeared on Firedoglake as an introduction to the discussion that takes place in comments to the post, which can be followed here.

Host Mark Thoma.

It’s possible to give two very different interpretations of the Obama presidency so far. The first is a relatively positive interpretation. Proponents of this view argue that even though Obama has faced a united GOP willing and able to use filibusters to thwart initiatives, and even though he has had opposition within his own party to progressive initiatives, he has still managed to rack up an impressive list of achievements. Take health care as an example. The health care legislation wasn’t all that progressives wanted, not by a long shot. But the legislation is an impressive start and, importantly, it leaves the door open to further change. Though people forget, programs such as Social Security or Medicare weren’t perfect at first, but were improved substantially over time.

Proponents of this view also argue that a more aggressive posture would not have done any good, and it may have even been harmful. Taking the Republicans to task publicly and forcefully would have hardened the opposition and caused the few Republicans that have been cooperative to vote with their GOP colleagues rather than cross the line. Centrist Democrats who share many of the Republican concerns and worry about how support of such policies will affect their reelection chances might have been alienated as well.

Obama doesn’t have FDR’s filibuster proof majority, and he faces both a united GOP determined to thwart his success for political purposes and concerned centrists who are reluctant to support the progressive agenda. To make things worse, the narrative from the press has not been helpful. If a much more aggressive posture toward Republicans would get more votes, it might be worthwhile, but this type of leadership is not the change people were looking for when they voted for Obama.

The positive view asserts that despite all of this, Obama has been one of the most effective presidents ever in his first year and a half in office, and he has passed the most important progressive legislation since Johnson in the 1960s. A lesser president would have wilted, and it’s time to start giving him the credit he deserves.

The negative view, and this is the view taken in Robert Kuttner’s book, sees the last year and half very differently. An outline of the case is presented in the introduction to the book:

Obama’s inspirational eloquence, his call for transforming change, and his skill at the mechanics of retail politics suggested a president who could mobilize citizens as a necessary counterweight to the concentrated power of financial elites. … So the stage was set, seemingly, for a great ideological and political reversal, comparable to the Roosevelt revolution of 1933. Obama was poised to create a new majority coalition…

But … this hopeful scenario is not the way Barack Obama’s first year unfolded. Instead of making a radical break with Wall Street, he delivered a startling continuity with the ad hoc bank rescues of the Bush administration. … As populist anger rises, and the real economic pain of regular Americans contrasts with lavish Wall Street paydays, Obama and the Democrats are becoming targets of the rage rather than instruments of its remediation. …

So the stakes are immense. A rare opportunity for realignment and reform is being missed. … For progressives like me, Obama represented a chance to reclaim a tradition of enriched democracy, affirmative government, and social justice. If Obama does fail, he takes down our hopes with him.

This book is an exploration of why Obama did not rise to seize a Roosevelt moment. What happened to the audacity? What stunted the promise of sweeping reform? The book also asks: Was the path that Obama chose the only politically possible one? And what would it take for Obama to redeem his promise? Is there still time for him to recoup? The chapters that follow offer not just reportage, analysis, and criticism but some strategic ideas and a basis for hope. …

I agree with this interpretation, at least for the most part, and have often wondered where the leadership has been on issues such as financial reform. It’s been frustrating to watch the administration cave in every time there’s dissent from the right, but stand tough against dissent from the left. There doesn’t seem to be an urge to fight toe to toe and to take the case directly to the public in Reaganesque style as a means of putting pressure on legislators to support the administration’s policy initiatives. Instead, we get backroom deals that compromise away core principles. And all of this in the search of bipartisanship that turns out, in the end, to be nothing but Lucy and the football.

But the book is not all pessimism, it offers many prescriptive steps the administration could take to enact a more populist, progressive agenda. And perhaps the administration is listening. Today, Obama began taking Republicans to task and accentuating the differences between the parties in a way we haven’t seen since the campaign trail, just as the book calls for. Here’s a sample of quotes:

Obama Sharpens Attacks on GOP, CBS News: President Obama hit Republicans hard … in … fundraisers he’s appearing at today for Senate candidates.

“The other party spent a decade driving the economy into the they want the car keys back. They can’t have them back. They don’t know how to drive,” the president told a crowd…

“They don’t think in terms of representing ordinary folks. That’s not their orientation. So that’s the choice that we face in this election”…

“They are peddling that same snake oil that they’ve been peddling for years and somehow they think you will have forgotten that it didn’t work”…

We’ll see if this is a trend for the future, or just a brief poke in another direction before returning to the centrist path the administration has preferred up until now. And even if it is a new trend, it may be too late to reverse the emerging view that Obama has been too cozy with banks, health insurance companies, BP and so on and has not done enough for working class households and other traditional Democratic constituencies. But it is an encouraging sign.

A Presidency in Peril; The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future is available in our bookstore.

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