“If you do just one thing–make one conscious choice–that can change the world, go organic….No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater positive repercussions for our future.”

That’s a bold statement. Is eating organic more important than avoiding meat, stopping coal plants, biking instead of driving or donating to worthy causes?

Maria RodaleYes, declares Maria Rodale, the CEO of the Rodale Inc. publishing empire (Mens Health, Prevention, Runners World) and author of the aptly-named Organic Manifesto: How Organic Food Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World and Keep Us Safe (Rodale Books), from which the quote is drawn.

“There’s so many benefits that come from that one choice,” Maria explains. “You’ve removed a bejillion pounds of dangerous, synthetic, disease-causing environment-destroying chemicals from the soil, the water our bodies. We would all immediately be healthier. Our children would be healthier.”

Farmers and their families and farm workers would be better off, too, she goes on: “And our kids would be smarter. There are actually studies that show that a lot of these chemicals do reduce intelligence.”

I arranged a phone interview with Maria after meeting her last spring during Cooking for Solutions, a great conference and food fest on sustainable agriculture and fishing organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d read her book and wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding organics. Tomorrow, I’ll offer a dissenting view from Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant who is dubious about many of Maria’s claims. 

Maria, who is 49, is the scion of America’s first family of organics. Her grandfather, J.I. Rodale, started Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, which is now known as Organic Gardening, in 1942. He put his ideas into practice on a 60-acre farm near Emmaus, Pa. She was raised nearby. “I grew, I weeded, I picked, I cooked,” she said. “I was very aware that we were a little different from everyone else, at least once I started going to school.” The family farm became a tourist destination. “For many people, it was like a pilgrimage,” she remembers. Those were the days when organic food could be purchased only in health or natural food stores.

ImageToday, while the acreage farmed organically remains small–less than 1% of U.S. farmland–organics are a big business. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic fruits and vegetables represent more than 10% of all sales of fruits and vegetable, the group says.

Conventional foods are worse for us than we realize, Maria argues. The government responds to problems after the fact and is overly influenced by big agricultural firms, which also shape university research. In her book, she writes:

There is enough evidence to know now that synthetic chemicals are destroying our health and our ability to reproduce and, thus, our ability to survive as a species. Agricultural chemicals have statistically and significantly been implicated in causing all sorts of cancers, behaviorial problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, Parkinson’s disease, reduced intelligence, infertility, miscarriage, diabetes, infant deformities and low birth weight.

No specific studies are cited in the book, so I asked Maria for a couple of references. She sent me a link to Beyond Pesticides,  website, where a blog with headlines like Low Doses of Pesticides Put Honey Bees at Risk. Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York provides a fact-sheet about pesticides here which says, among other things, that

Pesticides have been shown to cause a wide range of adverse effects on human health including acute and chronic injury to the nervous system, lung damage, injury to the reproductive organs, dysfunction of the immune and endocrine systems, birth defects, and cancer; these effects can manifest as acutely toxic effects, delayed effects, or chronic effects.

For its part, the agricultural industry says pesticide residues on food are harmless and regulated by the government.

The picture is darker when it comes to farm workers. A long-term government study of more than 80,000 farmers and their wives from Iowa and North Carolina, called the Agricultural Health Study, offers some warnings. While the farmers studied are generally healthier than the general population, pesticide exposure has been  linked to Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, lung disease and some brain disorders. (Details here.) One study found that farmers who “used pesticides longer and more often said they had more neurological symptoms than those who had not used pesticides or had used them less frequently and for fewer years.”

What’s more, anecdotal evidence on the impact of synthetical chemicals on birth defects is downright scary, as Barry Estabrook reported in Tomatoland. [See my July blogpost, Rotten tomatoes.] Tom Philpott of Mother Jones recently reported on methyl iodide, which is sprayed on strawberry fields and has been called “reliably carcinogenic” by the Pesticide Action Network.

That’s probably reason enough, for many of us, to choose organic. But what about the costs? Maria makes a couple of good points in that regard. First, she says: “If you can, grow a garden, which is fun and good. It’s great exercise, and kids love it.” If not, shop carefully and cook more: “Eat less processed food. Do more cooking. Every step of processing food add more cost.” In Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen, she offers gardening tips, recipes and political commentary:

Stop wasting American tax dollars supporting, subsidizing, and encouraging the toxic chemical and GMO farming that are promoted by unethical companies who spread lies and poison around the world in order to line their own pockets. We’ve been ripped off and contaminated long enough.

I asked Maria about evidence that organic growers are less productive that conventional farmers. That’s not so, she says, noting that most big farms in the U.S. produce corn and soy for non-food use.

“Most people don’t eat that corn and soy,” she says. “It’s made into high fructose corn syrup. It’s made into feed for factory grown animals. It’s made into biofuels that do not feed people.” She’s right about that–more than a third of the US corn crop goes into the making of ethanol. Something’s wrong, she says, when “a farmer who is growing chemical corn is getting subsidized and a farmer who switches to growing food that people need to eat gets no help whatsoever.”

What do you think? Should we be subsidizing organic farmers? Or not?

 

Related: Why Steve Savage believes that organic food, whatever its virtues, can’t meet the world’s growing demand for food. Organic Food Is Not the Answer.