Maria Rodale is a third generation family owner and CEO of Rodale Inc., a publishing company that has played a key role in the growth of the American organic movement. She is also an author; her most recent book, Organic Manifesto, illustrates how organic farming can “heal our planet, feed the world, and keep us safe”. She speaks here with Women Of Green about misconceptions, the South Beach Diet, and the changing landscape of organics in the United States.
Rodale Publishing was started in 1930 to explore the relationship between how we grow our food, what we eat, and our personal health. How has the purpose of the company evolved?
What is beautiful about the purpose of Rodale is that it is fairly timeless, and we can focus on helping the world evolve. When the company was started in the 1930’s, Organic was just a crazy idea, now it’s a government certified major business. When the company started, people thought running and exercise were not necessary for health, now everyone knows it is, and it’s common to see people exercising. When the company started, doctors recommended cigarette brands in advertisments, and everyone smoked at work. Our office has been smoke free since 1973. However, the world has also gotten fatter, sicker and more environmentally contaminated. So we still have a lot of work to do to fulfill our purpose.
What is your relationship to the company, both literally and philosophically?
I was raised organically. I believe wholeheartedly that organic agriculture and food are essential to our survival on this planet. I also personally believe that the messages we communicate at Rodale Inc. are positive, practical and helpful to creating a healthier and happier world.
Are the challenges that face the organic movement different than they were in the early 20th century?
The challenges are absolutely different, but in many ways we are fighting the same fight. When the organic movement first started in the early 20th century, it was seen as a fringe movement that was a negative reaction to industry, progress and business. People openly ridiculed and laughed at my grandfather and his peers. Today, while so much progress has been made to making organic a legitimate option that is proven to be superior in every way, including form of food and nutrition, those same businesses are bigger and richer than ever, and using their influence to introduce new toxins, such as GMOs, without the research that determines whether they are safe or not.
Sounds like the bigger scale makes for bigger mistakes..
Yes, we are making the same mistakes over again, on an even larger scale. And meanwhile, the supporters of organic, sustainable and local food would rather fight amongst themselves about whose philosophy is superior, because it’s much easier and safer than fighting the true villains, which are the chemical companies and the politicians that support them.
The recent hubbub around Whole Foods, Stonyfield and the Organic Consumers Association is only the most recent example of this… Are there common misconceptions about organics that you find yourself addressing again and again to people outside of the movement?
Common misconceptions: Organic is more expensive. Not true much of the time. Organic is elitist. Not true. Organic is harder — only slightly true because it isn’t as available as chemical foods. Organic is for hippies who don’t shave. Not true (I shave!).
What issues do you explore in your new book that you haven’t seen sufficient treatment of anywhere else?
I am continually shocked and appalled at how the mainstream media ignore the most essential issues surrounding chemical agriculture — the toxic destruction of our health, our soil and our future. I think people are afraid to talk about it, because it’s so frightening. Everything I report in my book is footnoted, fact-checked and approved by a lawyer. What led me to write the book was anger over how these issues are being ignored, even among our own communities.
Many of the publications that claim to promote health- like ‘Men’s Health,’ ‘Women’s Health,’ and South Beach Diet- appear to focus on bigger biceps, flatter abs, and fad diets. How do these topics square with the mission of Rodale Inc? How do they square with you?
We are constantly trying to motivate people to be healthier and more fit — and it’s a primal reaction that people want flatter abs and bigger biceps (for guys anyway!). I am so proud of the fact that because of the South Beach Diet, it is now possible for any American anywhere to buy ORGANIC, WHOLE WHEAT breads, pastas and snacks. That book, which we published, did that.
That’s interesting, I wasn’t aware of that. It’s so common to think that petitions and protests will change the landscape when what we really need are positive options that make obvious economical sense.
I wish people cared more about how their food is grown (and why it truly is making them overweight), and many people do. But we try to meet people where they are at right now and help them evolve and further their understanding so that one day, hopefully, they will not only be healthy and happy, but they will be educated about the importance of organic living to their own personal lives.
What does the word ‘green’ mean to you?
Green means nature, and a love and respect of nature. Nature is the true giver of all — to me, nature is the closest thing to God and I believe in nature, I have faith in nature. We are all part of nature so we are all fundamentally green. And it’s when we fight against, deny or destroy nature that we are also destroying ourselves.
Maria Rodale is the CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., the world’s leading multimedia publisher of advice and information about health, wellness, and the environment, and the largest independent book publisher in the United States. Rodale reaches tens of millions of people worldwide through magazines like Prevention, Men’s Health, and Women’s Health; through books like The South Beach Diet and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; and with the content-rich web sites that complement its publications. Maria is Editor-in-Chief of the company’s newest online venture, Rodale.com, which features the latest news about healthy living on a healthy planet.
Maria is the author of three books: It’s My Pleasure, written with her daughter Maya Rodale, Betty’s Book of Laundry Secrets, and Maria Rodale’s Organic Gardening.
In 2004 Maria received the National Audubon Society’s “Rachel Carson Award” for “Working to Ensure a Healthy Environment for Future Generations.” In 2007 she received the United Nations Population Fund’s “Award for the Health and Dignity of Women.”
Maria lives in an ecologically-friendly house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her husband and three children.