Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Research Makes It Clear: Organic food is best for people and the planet” was written by Dan Sullivan for the Spring 2009 edition of Rootstock.


More than 65 years ago, organic farming pioneer Jerome Irving (J.I.) Rodale prophetically wrote: “One of these days the public is going to wake up and will pay for eggs, meat and vegetables according to how they were produced. A sustainable premium will be paid for high quality products, such as those raised by the organic method.”

J.I. knew that there was more to the true value of food in human and ecological health than the price paid at the supermarket. When he started to study the deleterious effects of chemicals on the soil, plants and human health, World War II had just ended. The U.S. government was encouraging the agricultural use of the surplus chemicals of warfare—nitrogen from bomb-making for fertilizer and nerve gas from biological weaponry for pesticides. J.I. said this whole approach was wrong. He wanted to build up healthy natural systems.

“My grandfather’s ideas are even more relevant today than when he thought of them,” said Maria Rodale, who now heads up Rodale, Inc., the publishing empire started by J.I. She also sits on the board of the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “People ridiculed him and called him a quack. Since then, science has proven that he was correct.”

J.I. began to scientifically explore the connection between healthy soil and healthy food, work that became the foundation of the Rodale Institute in 1947. From its decades of research, the Institute can show the power of organics to create humus-rich soil, expand biodiversity and improve water quality—while producing as much as conventional farming—without using chemical nitrogen, herbicides or pesticides. The Institute helps farmers convert to organics and works with international audiences to champion the tremendous potential of organic agriculture to address urgent issues, especially global warming.

Why organic?

Human health care costs are rising meteorically, global warming is threatening our future, lack of safe clean water is spreading globally, and famine-plagued regions will continue to haunt us. When you choose organic, you are doing more than buying the best food. You are investing in answers to four huge problems:

Nutrition: Organic food helps protect against childhood maladies, such as obesity and type-II diabetes. Mounting evidence shows that organic produce, for example, has more macro- and micro-nutrients, more cancer fighting antioxidants and flavonoids, increased levels of beneficial phytochemicals (such as lycopene), fewer nitrates and far fewer pesticide residues than its conventional counterparts.

A recent University of Washington study of preschool children found that kids on an organic diet had one-sixth the pesticide residues in their urine as did kids on a conventional diet. The organic kids were well below U.S. EPA’s standards for safe exposure, while the kids on conventional diets placed well above those benchmarks. When kids on the conventional diets switched to organic, the pesticides in their urine dropped to safe levels within a week.

Highlighting the unacknowledged impact of agricultural pesticides, pediatrician and author Alan Greene, M.D., cites a recent study which shows that children exposed to pesticides in the womb were three times more likely to be obese by age 6, than tested children whose umbilical cords did not contain high levels of pesticides. Pesticide exposure, particularly during gestation and when children are very young, has also been linked to cancer, reproductive system abnormalities, birth defects and autism.

Global warming: “Organic farming in and of itself can effectively reduce global warming,” said Tim LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute. “Very few of us know that.”

After conducting research trials on organic agriculture for nearly three decades on its 333 acres, the Institute’s records show that organic systems’ soils, when intensively managed with compost and cover crops, can sequester (store) more than 2,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year. Our Farming Systems Trial comparison of tilled organic and conventional farming systems showed that over a 20-year period the organic systems sequestered two to three times more carbon than the conventional system.

If all the world’s 3.5 billion tillable acres were converted to these biological farming methods, we could reduce global CO2 emissions by a whopping 40 percent. And if global pastures and rangelands were managed with a focus on improving soil health by greatly increasing organic matter, early indications are that we could easily double that amount, approaching a carbon dioxide reduction of human-caused emissions by nearly 100 percent.

By returning organic matter to the soil, good organic farming practices could be the single most significant act we could perform to correct global warming. If farmers were paid handsomely for their positive, soil-carbon impact—rather than their yields of a few commodity crops—the increase in ecological services to all citizens would far outweigh the costs. “In this age of carbon awareness, we think farmers should be well rewarded for innovative stewardship that builds soil for future generations,” said LaSalle.

Famine prevention: Scientists worldwide are discovering that regenerative organic farming holds the only sustainable solution to effectively fight world hunger. Fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers, that are an expensive finite resource prone to pollute water and degrade soil in North America, are even more of a problem in developing countries. A recent report to the United Nations drafted by more than 400 cross-disciplinary researchers and development workers drew the conclusion that organic, regenerative agriculture utilizing available and affordable techniques— such as cover cropping, crop rotation and composting—would serve the people of the developing world far better than imported “Green Revolution” technology that is dependent upon chemical fertilizer and other outside purchased inputs, including genetically modified crop varieties. Yield data from 286 farms in 57 countries show that small farmers increased their crop yields by an average of 79% using environmentally sustainable techniques including organic farming and crop rotation.

The only hope for a new “Green Revolution” is one that is organic and ecologically regenerative. The fossil-fuel based agriculture of the past is a true dead-end. Ecological sustainability: In their restoring role, organic farming practices help to heal the planet. From Rachel Carson’s seminal publication “Silent Spring” in 1962 to the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2008 report assessing humankind’s impact on our environment, scientists are able to show ever more clearly the profound lesson that everything is connected.

Organic farming regenerative practices invest in the biology of the soil to:

  • Build topsoil instead of losing it to erosion or degradation.
  • Store water and dramatically reduce evaporation and runoff by building soil organic matter.
  • Decrease crop failure due to drought, boosting national food security.
  • Reduce flooding and excessive runoff due to the sponge-like effect of organic matter.
  • Clean up our waterways, restoring life to the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and restoring marine life to Chesapeake Bay, as well as purifying our cities’ aquifers.
  • Provide healthier, more nutrient-dense food.
  • Play the largest, quickest and most practical role of any known technology to convert the most prominent greenhouse gas—carbon dioxide—into carbon safely stored in soil, where it can provide all the benefits above.

Regenerative (resource-improving) organic farming as practiced in this millennium combines timeless farmer wisdom with the best scientific evidence of how to sustain natural systems while producing food and fiber. Farming with petroleum-based chemicals is no longer a viable model. Farming organically provides nutritional health, encompasses a plethora of environmental benefits and makes sense economically and socially to boost farmer net income, keeping farm families on the land.

Pioneering partnerships for change through organic

Tim LaSalle came to the Rodale Institute in mid-2007 with a long history as an agricultural educator. He is a former professor at Cal Poly, and a trainer of leaders; he holds advanced degrees in population genetics and depth psychology and has a broad range of executive director experience. At the Institute’s 60th anniversary celebration in September of that year, he met Arran Stephens, CEO and cofounder—with his wife, Ratana—of Nature’s Path organic food company.

An organic pioneer in his own right, Stephens had opened Canada’s first organic supermarket in Vancouver in 1971, the very year the Rodale’s purchased the farmstead that was now hosting this fabulous picnic. The Stephens were impressed both by what they saw on the farm and what they heard at the podium, as LaSalle outlined a plan to fight famine, epidemic health problems, and to curb global warming through farming that paid attention to the soil.

Several months later LaSalle visited Organic Valley’s CEO, George Siemon, and staff in LaFarge, Wisconsin, to learn of the great work their farmers across the United States are doing through the nation’s largest farmer owned cooperative venture. OV staff and family farmers cooperate to forge economically viable markets for their products and show they care for their environment and communities both through their farming practices and their innovative marketing and education programs.

To mirror this spirit of the organic farming community in general, Nature’s Path and Organic Valley Family of Farms have joined forces, along with Rodale Institute and Organic Gardening Magazine. The collaboration marks a new era of cooperation and support between the two Rodale entities advancing, respectively, organic agriculture for the world and organic gardening for every homeowner and community, together with these mission driven businesses that continue to pioneer the future of organics.

“We at Nature’s Path are in our third generation of commitment to healthy, sustainable organic food production,” said Stephens. “I was lucky to be born to farming parents who loved the land and created one of North America’s first organic farms in the 1950s. They instilled in me a lifelong respect for the earth,” Stephens said.

“When we formed CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley in 1988, agriculture was in crisis. Conventional farming methods employing synthetic chemicals and focused on high yields were firmly entrenched, and there weren’t a lot of voices out there advocating for nurturing the soils and farming in harmony with nature,” recalls OV’s Siemon.

“J.I. Rodale was one of the exceptions. He was, in many ways, the founding father of organic agriculture in America, and an inspiration to all the early pioneers of today’s organic movement. Partnering with Rodale Institute […] is a natural evolution for us, and we’re proud to join with Nature’s Path and Organic Gardening magazine to support such a worthy cause.”

It’s all about you—and the world

Thanks to consumers who expect more from their food, current organic demand remains strong in many sectors despite the economic downturn, making it a bright spot in U.S. agriculture. But the nation needs many more organic farmers. While organics now represents about 3 percent of all food purchased in the United States, only one percent of U.S. farmlands are currently under organic production. The Rodale Institute is working at both the federal and state level to help farmers make the switch to organic production. With Institute research providing strong support, Pennsylvania has dedicated $500,000 to a landmark program to help farmers offset the cost of organic transition.

Organic food is still a bargain, looking at its full value. “The cost of non-organic food doesn’t include the loss of topsoil or crop disaster relief, health concerns, climate change or dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico,” says the Institute’s LaSalle. “If you factor in all that, conventional chemically grown food is actually much more expensive than organically produced food.”

Through their persistent commitment to higher standards, Nature’s Path and Organic Valley can connect consumers with these deeper benefits. “Today’s leading-edge business values of transparency, a ‘triple-bottom line,’ employee empowerment, humane animal practices, sustainable financial goals and lifestyle changes are ones that we have long advocated as part of the organic movement,” Siemon said.

Organic farming keeps family farmers on the land, carbon in the soil, and families and communities living productive, healthy lives. By supporting farmers and companies dedicated to social equity and the environment, by encouraging elected officials to reward farmers who practice ecological stewardship (“carbon over commodities,” quips LaSalle), and by advancing all the good things that organic agriculture accomplishes through our wise food choices, we can meet the most pressing challenges of our day. One organic bite at a time.

*This article has been edited to remove past events and promotions.

Dan Sullivan is an experienced environmental journalist who formerly worked at Organic Gardening magazine and the Rodale Institute.