Author of "Organic Manifesto" speaks at NRDC

On Monday, I had the chance to hear Maria Rodale, author of Organic Manifesto and CEO of publishing powerhouse Rodale Inc. talk about organic farming.  Over lunch with staff in New York, Maria made the case for organic agriculture and shared insights on soil, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), health and the food pricing system.
Maria argued – pointing out that her book was heavily footnoted and supported by extensive research – that organic farming is an effective way to protect soil health, and that healthy soils are critical to the long-term survivability of the planet.  Under the microscope, healthy soils are teaming with life, with bacteria, nematodes, tiny arthropods and mycorrhizal fungi that cycle nutrients back to the plant.  It’s a living city beneath our feet.  Soils doused in harmful chemicals, by contrast, are revealed under the scope to be lifeless and inert.  I’ve done this myself and seen the difference; you don’t need to be a soil scientist to see the contrast between lifeless grains of minerals and squirming stuff.
Why should we care?  It turns out that this microbiota is essential to the structure and fertility of soil.  In the field, healthy “living” soils act like a sponge – the live material keeps it all together, whereas sterile “dead” soils act like a sieve.  Good soil retains water and nutrients, holds its structure, and sequesters carbon for hundreds of years—the missing link in the climate change battle.  The latter, by contrast, leaches water and nutrients, erodes, and releases carbon back into the atmosphere where it traps heat and warms the planet.  (To learn more about what it take to grow in lifeless soil, read this excerpt here from Barry Estabrook's new book, published in OnEarth Magazine).
Maria made clear that we can’t go on treating soil like dirt.  She urged us to step up to the defense of soil, both as environmentalists, and, more pointedly, as the Natural Resources Defense Council. 
And how do GMOs fit into the picture?  I had always heard of GMOs as a possible route to plants that were more nutritious and that could grow in worse conditions.  I was shocked to hear from Maria that most GMOs in production today were created for the express purpose of building resistance to herbicide and encouraging the increased use of chemicals.  Herbicide-resistant GMOs, like Roundup Ready Corn, allow farmers to use massive quantities of harmful chemicals, like Roundup, year in and year out.
At first, this might not seem like a big deal.  It might even seem like a remarkable innovation: these chemicals kill weeds without obvious harm to the crops.  But the hidden costs are huge: washed-out, highly chemical soils and farmers reduced to dependence on the seed companies, not to mention the prospect of creating herbicide-resistant strains of super-weeds.  Plus, all of these chemicals are unhealthy.  And from the perspective of justice, Maria explained, the organic farmer (who does not use GMOs) is nearly helpless against pollen contamination from nearby GMO farms.  Pollen drift is as impossible to control as the wind itself, and organic farmers lack sufficient legal protection.
Can organic agriculture feed the world? Maria believes so—with some provocative evidence to back up the claim.  Begun in 1981, the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial is the longest side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture. Some of this study’s findings include the following:

  • Corn yields over 27 years of the trial were equivalent between the organic and conventional systems.
  • In 4 out of 5 years of moderate drought, the organic systems had 31% higher corn yields than the conventional system.
  • Water volumes percolating through each system were 15-20% higher in the organic systems than in the conventional system, indicating increased groundwater recharge and reduced runoff under organic management.
  • Soil carbon and nitrogen have increased significantly in the organic systems, but not in the conventional system.

Finally, we spoke about the issue of cost: the price differential between organic and conventional food is hard to ignore, and many of us are simply unable to afford the premium.  But just as we pay a high price for cheap fossil fuel electricity (benzene in our water, mercury in our air, rising sea levels and scenic mountain ranges blasted to rubble), so we pay a much higher price for industrial agriculture than what we see at the counter: we pay for the cost of “cheap” food in damaged soils, leached water and nutrients, escalating health care costs, pollution cleanup, ocean dead zones, and loss of biodiversity.
These costs need to be internalized in the supply chain, Maria argued, so that businesses have the incentive to address environmental impacts.  At the same time, we need to applaud those businesses that step out ahead to make healthy and sustainable food cost-competitive in the marketplace, even when the odds are stacked against them.  Maria pointed to Earthbound Farms, in California, run by our friends Drew and Myra Goodman, as an example of this good work in action.  There is a lot of energy for change today, Maria concluded, and we need everybody at the table.

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