State of the Organic Union

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As a third-generation insider, and granddaughter of the original organic iconoclast, I've seen the evolution of the organic food industry happen in real time. Slow-motion real time. (My grandfather started Organic Gardening Magazine in 1942—although truthfully I wasn't born until 1962.) On October 13, 2010, the current leaders of the organic movement in America convened at the 3rd Annual Organic Summit in Boston. The topics ranged from the challenges of procuring organic ingredients, to the overall trends and perceptions of consumers, to debating the strategy for defending against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to how to overcome the seemingly hardwired American preference for everything cheap.

But three major issues became abundantly clear as the day wore on in that windowless, generic hotel ballroom—three major issues that could affect every single person on this planet for better or for worse.

1. Americans are very confused about what organic is and is not and why organic matters. The majority of Americans think that foods with the word "natural" on them are better and safer than "organic." And yet there are no governmental safety standards for using the word "natural." Natural, in fact, means nothing. However, it's a happy word, so food companies slap it on anything they can to make it sell better.

The proliferation of other labels—"beyond organic," "locally grown," "humanely raised," "free-range," and "sustainable" —adds to the confusion. And when people are confused (and frankly, many times even when they are not confused), they revert to their primary emotional driver of decisions, which is most often price. And so they choose the cheapest food rather than the safest for the planet. That confusion plays right into the hands of the chemical food industry.

2. The organic industry must focus on clearing up that confusion and communicating why organic food is so important and the safest food you can buy. We in the organic industry have spent the majority of our time and energy trying to prove that organic is more nutritious when instead, as Kanthe Shelke from Corvus Blue (a nutritional technology think tank) told us, we should be focusing on "what organic does NOT have." Organic foods do not have neurotoxin pesticides, endocrine disruptors, herbicides, or other chemicals, which some doctors and scientists believe might be responsible for everything from diabetes and obesity to infertility, autism, and cancer—especially childhood leukemia.

A giant dead zone is what the whole world is headed for if we don't stand up and do a better job of educating the American public.

The medical studies that support these seemingly inflammatory hypotheses exist and are not getting picked up by the media. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has even issued a call for a moratorium on GMO foods because they have seen evidence of liver, kidney, and digestive failure; infertility; and accelerated aging (hello Hollywood, are you listening?). However, it's almost too late already, since over 75 percent of all processed foods (non-organic) in America already include GMOs. The tragedy of this statistic is that the pollen from these plants has been unleashed into our environment and can't ever be reined back in.

And for any environmentalist to not be a raving organic supporter is outrageous. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by agricultural runoff all the way down the Mississippi, existed even BEFORE the oil gusher—and this year it is the largest it has ever been. A giant dead zone is what the whole world is headed for if we don't stand up and do a better job of educating the American public. Whether it's colony collapse affecting our bees, frog mutations and amphibian decline, jaw deformities in the wildlife of our national parks (which yes, use chemicals like crazy), or the melting polar caps, all of these things can be attributed to agricultural chemicals.

Presented by

Maria Rodale is the CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., the world’s leading multimedia company with a focus on health, wellness, and the environment, and the largest independent book publisher in the United States. More

Maria Rodale is the CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., the world’s leading multimedia company with a focus on health, wellness, and the environment, and the largest independent book publisher in the United States. Rodale reaches 70 million people worldwide through brands such as Prevention and Men’s Health, through books such as The South Beach Diet and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and through numerous digital properties. She is 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 blog, Maria's Farm Country Kitchen.

Rodale is the author of three books. Her most recent work is titled Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe. Organic Manifesto cuts through confusion and misinformation to provide an indispensable and highly readable look at why chemical-free farming unquestionably holds the key to better health for our families—and the planet.

She has won numerous awards, including in 2004 the National Audubon Society’s “Rachel Carson Award” and in 2007 the United Nations Population Fund’s “Award for the Health and Dignity of Women.” In 2009 she was named to Pennsylvania’s “Best 50 Women in Business” List. She is also a member of the board of Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, co-chair of the Rodale Institute, and a board member of the Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Maria is a mother, an activist, and a businesswoman, and has made promoting the benefits of an organic lifestyle both her personal mission and her business. She lives in an ecologically friendly house in Bethlehem, PA, with her husband, three children, one dog, one cat, and six guinea hens.


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