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Organic Food: Cutting Through The Confusion

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As a third-generation insider and granddaughter of the original organic iconoclast, I've seen the evolution of the organic food industry happen in real time. Slow-motion real time. (My grandfather started Organic Gardening magazine in 1942 -- although truthfully, I wasn't born until 1962.) On October 13, 2010, the current leaders of the organic movement in America convened at the Fourth Annual Organic Summit in Boston. Topics ranged from the challenges of procuring organic ingredients, to overall trends and perceptions of consumers, to strategies for defending against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to ways of overcoming the seemingly hardwired American preference for everything cheap.

But three major issues became abundantly clear as the day wore on in that windowless, generic hotel ballroom -- three major issues that could affect every single person on this planet for better or for worse.

1. Americans are very confused about what organic is and is not, and why organic matters. The majority of Americans think foods with the word "natural" on them are better and safer than "organic." And yet there are no governmental safety standards for using the word "natural." Natural, in fact, means nothing. But it's a happy word, so food companies slap it on anything they can to make their products sell better.

The proliferation of other labels: "beyond organic," "locally grown," "humanely raised," "free range" and "sustainable" adds to the confusion. And when people are confused (and frankly, many times even when they are not confused), they revert to their primary emotional driver of decisions, which is most often price. So they choose the cheapest food rather than the safest for the planet. That confusion plays right into the hands of the chemical food industry.

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2. The organic industry must focus on clearing up that confusion and communicating why organic food is so important and the safest food you can buy. We, in the organic industry, have spent most of our time and energy trying to prove that organic is more nutritious, when instead, as Kanthe Shelke from Corvus Blue (a nutritional technology think tank) told us, we should be focusing on "what organic does not have." Organic foods do not have neurotoxin pesticides, endocrine disruptors, herbicides and other chemicals, which some doctors and scientists believe might play a role in everything from diabetes and obesity to infertility, autism and cancer -- especially childhood leukemia.

The medical studies that support these seemingly inflammatory hypotheses do exist, and they are not getting picked up by the media. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has even issued a call for a moratorium on GMO foods because it has seen evidence of liver, kidney, and digestive failure as well as infertility and accelerated aging (hello, Hollywood, are you listening?). But it's almost too late already, since over 75 percent of all processed (non organic) foods in America already include GMOs. The tragedy of this statistic is that the pollen from these plants has been unleashed into our environment and can't ever be reined back in.

For any environmentalist to not be a raving organic supporter is outrageous. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by agricultural runoff all the way down the Mississippi, existed even before the BP oil gusher -- and this year it is the largest it has ever been. A giant dead zone is what the whole world is headed for if we don't stand up and do a better job of educating the American public. Colony collapses affecting our bees, frog mutations and amphibian declines, jaw deformities in the wildlife of our national parks (which yes, use chemicals like crazy), and the melting polar caps can all be attributed to agricultural chemicals.

Finally, here's what organic does not do: destroy the soil, which destroys the carbon-capturing capability of our planet, which destroys our atmosphere and causes global warming. Numerous studies have shown that chemical agriculture destroys soil structure, leading quickly to desertification and even more quickly to way too much carbon dioxide leaching into the atmosphere. Yes, it's complicated. But we can't keep living on this planet if we don't start understanding this and paying attention to it soon.

3. If we are going to save the world, we will have to unite and work together instead of fighting among ourselves. One thing is true about Americans, if you believe what you see in the TV ratings, we prefer arguing to action. But there comes a time when all that philosophical hot air (left and right, mind you) needs to take a back seat to true responsibility.

What does that mean for the organic world? We actually have enough scientific evidence to know that modern organic farming is our best shot at long-term survival for all, so now it's time to unite and focus on what is most important. The vegetarians need to get along with the omnivores. The locavores need to draft a peace treaty with the fair traders. Slow foodies will need to hang out a bit more with the fast foodies. Those who support their local, small family farmer will have to learn to appreciate industrial organic, which feeds a lot of people without creating tons of toxic waste. And we all need to start singing from the same songbook.

"Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of ineffective communications," one speaker at the summit said. And while we have each been singing our own songs and marching to the beats of different drums, chemical companies -- including Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Pioneer, Cargill, ADM and DuPont -- have been making huge profits with the financial and legislative support of our government. But here is the good news: Despite all our stumbling and well-meaning confusion and the worst economic times since the Great Depression, the organic industry grew 5.3 percent in 2009. The USDA Certified Organic label is still the strongest, safest and most trustworthy label available to consumers and is backed up by independent testing. Many of the longtime leaders who spoke at the summit have already exceeded their expectations of success.

So now, together, we are all standing on a precipice. We can all work together to build the road to the other side (where the water is pure and clean, the children are healthy and strong, the air and soil and forests alive and thriving). Or we can continue to go our separate ways, each one thinking his own path is the best path, and creating a web of meandering, poorly marked trails that lead in circles going nowhere fast.

The first step is supporting the USDA Organic Label, supporting certified organic farmers, buying certified organic foods, and not being embarrassed or apologetic for using the word "organic." The scientific evidence exists to prove it is safer and healthier for everyone and the environment. Now it's time for action. It's time to demand organic, support organic, buy organic, and protect and defend organic. It's our best hope for a healthy future for us all.

Maria Rodale is CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., and the author of "Organic Manifesto."