Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto

Maria Rodale’s grandfather, J.I. Rodale, founded the magazine, Organic Farming and Gardening in 1942, and her parents, Robert and Ardath Rodale, likewise championed organic agriculture.  In their footsteps, Maria Rodale, an organic food activist, now challenges her readers in Organic Manifesto (Rodale, Inc. [distributed to the trade by Macmillan], New York, New York, 2010) to demand organic foods and to reject chemical farming.  Ms. Rodale subtitles her book, How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World and Keep Us Safe, but her use of the term “manifesto” in the main title is what grabs our attention.  She is not using this term ironically or playfully in the manner of the Organic Coffee Cartel, the seller of fair trade coffee, which uses the term “cartel” in an extremely ironic way.  Rather, Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto constitutes a powerful and opinionated statement of what must be done in order to save humanity from a future of environmental degradation and disease, which will result from an economic and political model that supports “chemical farming” and rewards the destruction of our planet’s land, water, and air.

Ms. Rodale seeks to change the world, and in her opinion unless the principles of organic farming are adopted, the future of our planet is dire.  In her wake-up call, she strives to prove her case and it is fair to say, she has succeeded in this passionate book in establishing the credibility of her claim that organic agriculture must replace chemical farming in order to regenerate the health of our planet.  It is noted that the President’s Cancer Panel has recently submitted a landmark report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now” by Dr. La Salle Leffall, Jr and Dr. Margaret L. Kripke, which exhorts consumers to choose food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizer and gives a boost to the contentions set forth in Organic Manifesto.  The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff, who saw an advance copy of the report, summarized the findings in a recent column.  The report is available for downloading on the website of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. Perhaps the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will now amend its rules for organic labeling and permit companies to make the claim that “organic is better for you,” as Ms. Rodale urges.

In a chapter on “chemical farming today,” Rodale sets forth what sounds like a post-apocalyptic science fiction story, yet, she explains, “All of this is happening right now.”  In her words, “We must stop poisoning ourselves now.  We must remove chemicals from the process of growing, harvesting and preserving food.”  Pesticides are poisons manufactured to kill insects, rodents, fungi and weeds, but “Traces of all of these chemicals can be detected in virtually each and every one of us.”  60% of the fresh water in the United States is used for agricultural purposes, and the chemicals used in agriculture leach through the soil and into waterways and poison our drinking water, accounting for two-thirds of all water pollution.  Chemical pesticides have been linked to cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and reproductive and developmental defects.  The “safe level” set by the Environmental Protection Agency for arsenic which is used as a pesticide in chemical farming is 10 parts per billion (ppb), while levels range from 50-90 ppb in drinking water in many areas in the United States, and in some parts of Asia, the levels exceed 3000 ppb.  Soil is a living thing: “just one tablespoon can contain up to 10 billion microbes” and it has been mistreated by chemical farming.

According to Ms. Rodale, more than 80,000 new chemical compounds have been introduced since World War II, with many used in agriculture:  “There are 3,000 so-called high-production-volume chemicals, meaning that more than 1 million pounds of each are produced or imported in the United States each year,” including 4 billion pounds of organophosphate pesticides used annually in the United States.  She suggests that there are no safe limits for these chemicals in the human body since “small doses of chemicals can be just as toxic.”  Further, widespread use of antibiotics in raising animals for human consumption has led to drug resistant infections in children.  The New York Times, in an editorial dated September 22, 2010, shares Ms. Rodale’s concern that 70% of all antibiotics sold in the United States goes to the animals we eat and calls for the USDA to make mandatory its guidelines that “agricultural producers use antibiotics only under veterinary supervision and only in cases of illness and emergency” and not allow their use “to speed up growth and to prevent the spread of disease in crowded conditions.”  The litany of problems seems endless: methyl bromide, the fungicide used heavily on strawberries has a direct link to increased prostate cancer.  Organophosphate pesticides are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and Ms. Rodale suggests that, according to some medical opinions, the exposure to endocrine disrupters might be the cause of autism.  More than 76 million pounds of atrazine, an endocrine disrupting chemical used as a pesticide, are applied in the United States each year, while it has been banned by the European Union since 2003.  Thousands of drinking wells in the United States are contaminated with atrazine.

Turning from pesticides to weed killers, Ms Rodale focuses on Monsanto’s Roundup, the most widely used weed killer in America since 91% of all soybeans, 85% of all corn, and 88% of all cotton are grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds.  The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosphate, “gets inside plants we eat and can’t wash off.”  In sum,  “the toxic chemicals we are using to grow food are destroying us.”

Organic Manifesto includes a very clear explanation of the nature of GMO seeds.  They are not like the seeds farmers have used for 1000’s of years.  Rather, they are seeds which have been genetically modified with the help of a bacterium, Escherichia coli or salmonella, in order to resist the herbicide, Roundup, which is used to keep fields weed-free:  “These bacteria act as a kind of barrier for the DNA being transferred and they create antibiotics in the process.”  The GMO seeds are protected by patents, and chemical farmers must buy new seeds from Monsanto each year.  With this choice of GMO seed, farmers are thereby choosing the system of chemical farming over organic.  Ms. Rodale’s description of the fascinating history of chemical farming dating back to John Bennet Lawe’s discovery of the first synthetic superphosphate fertilizer in 1842 to Monsanto’s development of Roundup and GMO seeds and bovine growth hormone is eye-opening.

Still, Organic Manifesto is ultimately a hopeful book, which provides a remedy.  Choosing to eat organic foods is “not a fashion or lifestyle choice but a responsible health and environmental choice.”  Organic agriculture, as defined by the USDA, is food grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and seeds that have been genetically modified, and,  for animals, without hormones or antibiotics.  It focuses on “building soil and ecosystems that are healthier than when we began and able to heal the damage we have caused,”  and is not merely “sustainable” agriculture (a term Ms. Rodale dislikes for its vagueness) but “regenerative” agriculture.  Her book includes a detailed and useful description of the variety of practices and procedures of organic farming, including composting, use of cover crops, crop rotation and a diversity of crops to avoid “catastrophic problems,” turning farm waste into fertilizer, as well as the avoidance of tilling to control weeds.  Instead, she prescribes the use of mulching techniques.  She also provides a fascinating history of organic agriculture including reference to F. H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries published in 1911, which explored how China was able to grow highly productive crops on the same land for thousands of years by using human and animal fertilizer.

Ms. Rodale points to the results from the Farming Systems Trial (FST) Study begun by the Rodale Institute in 1981 to establish that organic farming is an efficient method of farming that provides better results than chemical farming.  Although organic crop yields are comparable to chemical yields, in years of drought, organic farm yields are higher than those of chemical farms due to the stronger root systems of organic plants and better moisture retention in the soil.  In flood situations, organic yields are also higher due to stronger root systems and organic soil’s ability to absorb more water and prevent runoff and erosion.  Citing this study, Maria Rodale strongly rejects the fears stoked by chemical companies that to “feed the world” their poisonous chemicals and GMOs are needed in agriculture.  For further support, she points to the work of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, funded by the World Bank and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and which included the participation of more than 400 scientists and 30 countries.  This assessment of world agriculture resulted in recommendations which include “returning to more ‘natural’ and traditional farming methods (away from GMOs and chemicals).”

According to Ms. Rodale, “if all the cultivated land in the world were farmed organically,” it would “immediately reduce our climate crisis significantly.”  Organic soil has significantly greater carbon and nitrogen storage capacity than that of chemically treated soil because desirable mycorrhizal fungi naturally occurs in organic soil and can absorb carbon from the air and store it in the soil for decades.   Similarly, nitrogen stays in organic soil and is utilized by plants rather than running off and polluting ground water.  Further, with labor inputs 15% higher in organic agriculture, jobs will be created.  (In the early 1900s, 50% of all Americans worked on farms or ranches while today fewer than 1% of Americans work on farms.)

The Organic Manifesto coins the term “conscious capitalism” for a system of economics that makes positive change for the world and measures economic “strength” and not “growth.”  Although Ms. Rodale believes organic farming will provide a way for small farms to continue to exist and earn a fair living, she offers praise for large companies like Stonyfield Farm, Earthbound Farms, Nature’s Path, Organic Valley, Cascadian Farm and Whole Foods which have the size to spread the message that food must be grown organically without the use of chemicals and GMOs.  For example, Earthbound Farms which sells organic fruits and vegetables grown on 33,000 acres of California farmland “kept 10.5 million pounds of chemical fertilizers and 305,000 pounds of chemical pesticides out of the environment and saved 1.7 million gallons of petroleum.” To her list, she should also consider including Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is transforming the American concept of  “fast food,” inexpensive, standardized food items served quickly, by its concern for the integrity of its food and the use of ingredients “raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers” including meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotic or added hormones and “organic and local produce” and “dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones.”

No doubt the current statistics are sobering;  “Chemical farms are in production on about 930 million acres in the United States and 3.8 billion acres globally.”  In contrast, with 13,000 certified organic farmers in America, and a few thousand more who are organic but uncertified, organic farming practices are in use on only 4 million acres in the United States and 30.4 million acres globally.  Still, with even the CEO of Monsanto, Hugh Grant, choosing to eat organic food according to Ms. Rodale [Kai Ryssdal, “Using Technology to Grow More Food,” interview with Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, Marketplace, America Public Media, August 20, 2008], and the additional 108,000 small farmers who have just started farming in the last 5 years, there is hope that this statistical breakdown of acres of chemical farms in production verses organic farms in production may change for the better, hopefully much sooner than later for the future of our planet (FWB 9/18/10).

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