Last May in D.C., I attended the Washington Post Live’s Future of Food conference. Throughout the day, an impressive series of speakers took the stage, most notably The Prince of Wales, a vocal advocate of organic farming. At lunch, I sat next to an eloquent young woman who was expounding on organic farming in a calm but firm way. She turned out to be Maya Rodale, the communications director of the internationally renowned Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, herself a part of the fourth generation of Rodales who have loudly championed organic farming over the last century. I tend to prioritize buying local and seasonal over organic, but I found her arguments for buying organic pretty convincing. I also love the fact that her other job is writing romance novels, the latest of which, A Tale of Two Lovers, looks mighty steamy. I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to read it when I go to the beach later this month! Below are Maya’s answers to some questions I asked her about organics.
Lucid Food: You have a strong opinion about eating organic food. Please elaborate.
Maya Rodale: My great-grandfather popularized the term organic as it pertains to agriculture, and kicked off the organic movement in America. It’s my family legacy to passionately and rationally promote organic food and farming. But it’s not just blind obedience to the cause: I’ve eaten cheetos, drank coca cola, and I liked it! But I’ve also done the reading and research and I am convinced that organic is the healthiest option for people and the planet. Unless I’m traveling and it’s impossible, I live and eat organically. I’m so happy to report it’s getting easier and more affordable every day.
LF: Do you prioritize organic food over locally grown food, or do they both have equal importance?
MR: Everything is local somewhere, but only organic guarantees that chemicals are kept out. I love fresh produce, I love farmers, I love knowing the person that grew my food. But local does not always equal organic; in fact, local can be putting chemicals in your own backyard! Given the choice, I want food that is free of toxic chemicals. I want to support farmers that keep these chemicals out of our soil, air and our water–no matter where their farm is located.
LF: How do you respond to the criticism that organic food is too expensive for most consumers? What about the accusation that aspiring to eat organic is elitist?
MR: I’m not sure that it is more expensive. The prices are in part determined by things like government subsidies to artificially keep conventional food prices low, so you may not pay at the grocery store but you’ll pay in taxes. Organic depends on more labor–JOBS!–so you’ll see that reflected in the price. Or it comes down to foods that make you sick, or foods that make you healthy. Would you rather pay a farmer or a doctor?
When it comes to cooking, food can be an fancy or plain; it depends on the chef. I grew up eating traditional American comfort food–mac n’ cheese, meat and potatoes, etc–it just happened to be made with organic ingredients.
LF: Do you think it’s realistic that the United States could transform its farming system to one that is completely organic?
MR: It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen over night but we’ll have to. Our conventional ag system is heavily dependent upon oil. What are we going to do when oil prices skyrocket or oil runs out? Organic releases fewer greenhouses gases, so it’s not accelerating climate change. Most importantly of all is that organic feeds and nourishes the soil instead of depleting it so we’ll simply be able to grow food. We see the tide turning. Consumer demand for organic is there. A new generation of farmers are interested in organic.
LF: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to growing organic in this country?
MR: Two things: consumer knowledge and agribusiness money.
Consumers are swayed by natural or local because one can instantly understand them on an emotional level, when they might not with a term like organic. So a consumers best intentions might not translate. And many people just don’t even think about it. But why should every one need a serious education to seek and understand clean, safe food? That information should be available, but I’d like to see laws and the market shift the balance so that healthy, safe, organic food is super easy and accessible and the default, not the specialty item. The other thing is the agribusinesses spend an enormous amount to weaken laws, mislead people, or bully people into doing what’s good for business, not what’s good for the country or humans. That needs to stop.
LF: What should people do if they want this country to embrace organic growing more fully? How can people help to change the system?
MR: Buy organic. Don’t be afraid of the O word! It means something–it has strict government backed rules and is certified by a third party. And then tell your friends you’ve gone organic and it’s ok. Ask stores to carry organic if they don’t. Follow action alerts and call your elected officials asking them to support organic. And support your local farmers.
LF: How would you describe the Rodale Institute’s role in organic farming in this country?
MR: The Rodale Institute was founded in 1947 (by my great-grandfather) to scientifically study organic agriculture. Instinctively he knew it was better. His own experience on his farm and with his health showed him so. But he knew that scientific evidence was required and the universities and businesses weren’t studying it at the time, so he started his own organization and studies. Our most notable study is the Farming Systems Trial (FST), which is America’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic vs conventional agriculture. We’ve found organic yields match or surpass conventional, outperform in years of drought and sequester more carbon (which means healthier soil and may mitigate climate change). Through it all, we’ve been studying the hows and why’s of organic, and then teaching farmers how to do it on their own.
To learn more about Maya, and read the delightful musings on her blog, check out her site.