Maria Rodale is the Chair and CEO of Rodale Inc., a multimedia company focusing on healthy living on a healthy planet. The company includes the nonprofit organic research arm, the Rodale Institute, which has been running what may be the country’s longest side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical growing methods. Rodale’s grandfather, J.I. Rodale, founded Rodale Inc. and is widely known as an organic agriculture pioneer in the US.
Maria has won numerous awards, including the National Audubon Society’s 2004 “Rachel Carson Award” and the United Nations Population Fund’s 2007 “Award for the Health and Dignity of Women.”She is also founding editor of the company’s newest online venture, Rodale.com, which features the latest news and information about healthy living on a healthy planet, as well as her popular blog, mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com.
Green America talked with Maria Rodale about her new book, Organic Manifesto (Rodale Books, 2010), and what it’s going to take to change our food system.
Green America/Tracy Fernandez Rysavy: Your grandfather founded Rodale, and you’ve taken up his mantle and his cause. You also seem to have inherited his very real passion for organics. Where does this passion come from?
Maria: It does come from inside of me, not something I’m forcing on myself. When you’re in a family lineage like this, you have to make a choice—do I want to do this, or don’t I? Nobody should be forced to do anything.
I think for me, it starts from a personal love of food and gardening and my children. I had my first child when I was 20, so I started young. All of our research about organics shows that the most important time when women, in particular, get interested in it is when they get pregnant. You have this immense love for this tiny thing that is dependent on you. For me, that happened when I was 20—so I’m gardening, cooking, learning, and reading, and all of a sudden, I felt like I was just put into the right place.
Tracy: We at Green America get asked by our members all the time, “Which is better, organic or local?” I loved the message in your book that unity in the food movement is vital to creating a healthy food supply.
Maria Rodale: Intellectual debate is hugely important, and the freedom to debate is essential and what is great about America. That freedom to debate means that we also have the freedom to be a vegetarian, a vegan, a meat eater, or the freedom to only eat white food. But that freedom shouldn’t ever be at the expense of poisoning our children and the environment with farm chemicals.
There comes a time when in order to get things done, people have to agree—or agree to agree on major points. There’s enough evidence to know that embracing organic food is the right thing: We’d be a lot healthier, and the planet would be a lot more hospitable to us for a lot longer.
Buying local is good, but organic is great, and local and organic is the ideal.
Tracy: What about people who are concerned that organic farming is becoming “corporate” and “corrupt”?
Maria: I find that attitude disappointing and unrealistic. I personally know Myra Goodman, the cofounder of Earthbound Farm, which is often the target of that kind of criticism. There are very few people who have better intentions and work harder and are doing more good in the environment than Myra. People need to go food shopping. People need business.
I think people who complain about companies like Whole Foods don’t remember what it was like before Whole Foods. Back then, organics certainly weren’t available in every community. And regular supermarkets were often sterile warehouses where the only lettuce was iceberg and tomatoes were like red baseballs. Whole Foods brought organic food to places that had never had much access to it.
What we really need to do is turn around and face the enemy—the chemical industry—together. And while organic standards are good, we must make them better. We must work together to create the best definition of what organic means: social justice and Fair Trade standards, humanely raised and grass-fed animals, and worker rights, and more all make the label more credible. We can make it true.
Tracy: The argument I hear about most when it comes to organic is that we can’t possibly feed the world without conventional chemicals and genetically modified organisms.
Maria: We need to change our paradigm about how to grow food and what food to grow. We’re growing the wrong stuff. You have to change the whole way we think about growing food and farming, and have a more integrated approach. Right now, we grow too much corn and soybean, but it's land that's wasted on food both animals and people shouldn't really eat. Is that that healthy for us and for the planet? NO! Studies from the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial show definitively that organic agriculture is just as productive as "conventional" agriculture -- and even more productive in years of drought and flood.
It’s about changing what farming is. You can’t do the same thing without chemicals. You have to change the whole method. We’ll be eating better food, a more diverse diet. Farmers will have more diverse business model. Cows will be happier!
Tracy: You note in your book that organic would even be cheaper than conventional if it weren’t for Farm Bill subsidies.
Maria: It’s true. In an effort to preserve American jobs, the latest version, the 2008 Farm Bill, puts farmers on an economic treadmill by providing payment incentives to keep growing crops like corn and soy chemically. It incentivizes the cultivation of foods that make us sick and fat, yet it bears no responsibility for the costs related to all of us being sick and fat. And ironically chemical farming reduces jobs!
We’re already paying for the health costs and environmental clean-up costs of this chemical use with our taxes.
We’ve also got problems with our health. The US is one of the most developed countries, but we’re not in the top 25 when it comes to longevity and mortality and education. I do believe there’s a connection to the poisoning that’s happening in our food system.
Tracy: What kinds of changes would you like to see in the 2012 Farm Bill?
Maria: I would love to see a huge amount of support for farmers to transition to organic. And a huge reduction of support for commodity, chemical, and biofuel farming, and waste. And tougher regulations on the health—antibiotics and growth hormones and atrazine [an herbicide classified by the EPA as a “likely human carcinogen”] should be banned.
Tracy: Do you have hope that we can get there?
Maria: I do have some hope. But it’s going to take people joining together, and getting really active. I don’t think the chemical companies are laughing, but they are probably feeling kind of smug at the fragmentation in the food movement.
I’ve been thinking about the Civil Rights movement lately. When you think back, for how many years did people argue over slavery and African-American rights? People could have argued forever, but what finally changed things was the groundswell, the marches, the being loud enough that you can’t be ignored anymore. But that takes a kind of courage and boldness. It’s going to take all of us to change our food system. But I do have hope.
Go to DemandOrganic.org for more information. Buy my book and give it to other people, and really get involved in any way that you can. Tap into your own personal passion and embrace diversity and also commit to making positive change. Because it’s going to take all of us.