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Organic a labor of love for Maria Rodale

Nutrition Business Journal recognizes Rodale and her 200-page Organic Manifesto with its 2010 Organic Achievement Award.

February 1, 2011

4 Min Read
Organic a labor of love for Maria Rodale

“If you do just one thing—make one conscious choice—that can change the world, go organic.”

So begins Maria Rodale's unflinching, 200-page Organic Manifesto, a pain-stakingly researched indictment of chemical farming and its impact on human health. The book is a wake-up call for consumers, who Rodale believes have been lulled into believing that “natural” and “locally grown” products are just as good for us.

“Organic has gotten beaten back a bit by the recession, the locavore movement, and the fact that people are responding to ‘natural’ more than ‘organic’ in the supermarket,” says Rodale, CEO of Rodale Inc., the multimedia giant responsible for Men's Health, Women's Health, Prevention, and media properties that reach 70 million consumers across 50 different countries. “But I think organic is ready for a resurgence. For the first time, we are making a strong connection between organic and health. I believe that will turn the tide.”

Rodale's passion for the organic movement was instilled as a child, growing up on what is now considered the nation's first organic farm. Her grandfather, J.I. Rodale, bought the 65-acre farm in 1940. Two years later, he founded Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, sparking the birth of the organic movement. His son, Robert, carried the torch forward, establishing the Farming Systems Trial—the longest-running scientific study comparing synthetic agriculture to organic—before his untimely death in a 1990 car accident.

By seventh grade, a young Maria—one of five Rodale children—had secured her first job in the family business. “I started in the mail room at age 13,” she recalls. Since then, the mother of three has climbed from positions in circulation and direct marketing to editor-in-chief of Organic Gardenings—and, since 2009, the role of chairman and CEO.

Clearing up confusion

Rodale says the idea for her book came to her four years ago, on her father's birthday, as she sat at a quiet spot on the family farm. “I was frustrated,” she says, referring to a tendency on the part of the environmental movement to emphasize alternative energy, recycling, and buying local far more than choosing organic. “I felt like I needed to clear up the confusion.”

Organic Manifesto does just that, making the passionate case that, while it's fine and dandy to recycle and upgrade your light bulbs, organic products play a critical role in solving our climate crisis. Buying local is also important, but it doesn't do much good to buy products made with chemicals that contaminate your community.

One chapter spells out with careful attention to science—drawn largely from the Rodale Institute, a leading research and advocacy group that she co-chairs—how organically farmed soil, loaded with mycorrhizal fungi, soaks up carbon and counteracts global warming. Another makes the case that our preference for cheap, non-organic food is actually costing us money, via farm subsidies and increased health costs.

Still another chapter traces the history of genetically modified organisms, explaining how the advent of Roundup Ready seeds has led directly to vast increases in the use of chemicals. Since plants are now bred to survive a Roundup bath, evidence suggests that farmers have upped their application rates.

Interestingly enough, Rodale downplays the oft-touted argument that organics are more nutritious. In reality, she finds the research mixed. “No offense, but nutrition is the least of our worries,” she says. “It's the diseases caused by these chemicals in our environment that are the real problem.”

Poisoning our ourselves and our children

In chapters with names like “We have poisoned ourselves and our children” and “How industry and the government have betrayed us,” Rodale spells out with convincing language and argument how agricultural chemicals—not so much those that linger on our fruits and vegetables, but rather those that end up in our soil and streams—are impacting our health.

Rates of drug-resistant infections are soaring, due to our constant exposure to antibiotics. Girls are entering puberty earlier and the diabetes epidemic rages on, due in part to endocrine disrupters found in pesticides. With our soil's carbon sponge depleted, air quality continues to deteriorate, leading to greater incidence of respiratory disease among children. Rodale's knowledge of the topic runs deep, and it's always heartfelt.

“She just gets it, in the amazing way that women do when we have children to protect,” says Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing for organic food company Nature's Path. “As someone who is not only a mom but also running a major corporation, Maria has the power to be incredibly influential.”

Still, Rodale laments that only 1 percent of American farms are organic. What will it take to raise that number? “We all need to be demanding organic from our governments, our restaurants, our supermarkets and our schools,” says Rodale. “We have to take a more offensive approach and fight back. This is the most important thing we can do for our health and our environment.”

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