Last week I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Rodale Organic Farm and Institute in Emmaus, PA - my colleague Ashley Koff, RD and I invited 40 RDs to join us to see firsthand what’s the state of the science when it comes to conventional versus organic agriculture, and how it relates to our mission as nutrition professionals to help Americans Eat Right. Since many RDs (myself included) never actually stepped foot on a farm during our formal training (hovering in the food lab and the clinical setting instead), with the massive shift taking place in the conversation around food in America, we wanted to provide a forum for RDs to hear directly from some organic and sustainability pioneers. So we also invited some wonderful, visionary companies who have shown that the 3 P’s (People. Planet. Profits.) are not only possible, they are downright delicious. Stonyfield Organics, Nature’s Path Organic, Honest Tea, Liberty Bottleworks and Mary’s Gone Crackers provided an amazing organic food and drinks throughout the day, and spoke with us about the steps they’re taking to bring organics and clean eating/drinking to more people, with more integrity, at a lower cost than has ever been seen before.
A steamy 100 plus degrees in NYC, we bolted from the humidity for the haven of the farm. Bustling with trees and songbirds, chickens pecking about the rich green lawns and livestock lolling on the grassy hills, Rodale’s 333 certified organic acre farm felt as good as you can get when it comes to imagining what your food comes from.
What did I learn? That you don’t spend much time on an organic farm before you get to the topic of dirt. Jeff Moyer the farm manager/director at the Rodale Institute for more than 28 years, and past chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, served as our guide, and told us that the best farming should be based in biology, not just chemistry.
“As humans, we’ve learned how to grow great looking vegetables with chemicals’, he says. “But the real key lies in the soil: If it isn’t in the soil, it can’t be in the plant. If it can’t be in the plant it can’t be in you,” he said.
Rodale Institute’s flagship research project is the renown Farming Systems Trial, America’s longest running side by side comparison trial of conventional versus organic agriculture.
While 2012 research is set to focus specifically on differences in nutrient value of the food, here are 3 key findings, they have already published in the research, that might just surprise you:
3 Key Findings from the Farming Systems Trial:
1) Organic is just as productive as conventional: The Farming Systems Trial has found that organic agriculture is equally productive to conventional. Corn yields over 27 years of the trial, for example, were equivalent between the organic and conventional systems.
2) Organic soil sequesters more carbon into the soil, making it a carbon sink of sorts. In contrast, the conventional plots experienced a net loss of carbon-making organic agriculture a powerful tool, immediately available to us, to help keep our climate from warming.
3) Organic soil outperforms conventional in years of drought. In 4 out of 5 years of moderate drought, the organic systems had significantly higher corn yields (31% higher) than the conventional system.With water predicted to become the next oil, this is an advantage whose monetary value will only make organics more cost competitive.
Of course we need evidence based science, delivered in ways that resonates with consumers, to create momentum for change at the policy and consumer level. But my favorite insight of the day turned out to be purely anectdotal: Jeff said that while researchers need GPS to distinguish the somewhat crazy patchwork of conventional and organic plots from one another across the Trial, the deer and gophers seem to know exactly which are which; they only eat from the organic ones, every time. Now that’s something that even my kids would instant connect with.
While our brief day left me craving more time to walk the farm and definitely to nibble from the Organic Pizza Garden ("a great way to connect kids to farming”, Jeff mused), it also got me inspired: The most powerful lever YOU can press in the food system to create change is surprisingly simply: Demand Organic. If the consumer creates demand, the ripple effect will be faster on personal and planetary health than any steps politicians or governments are likely to take. And many companies, such as those who sponsored our day, are making it more affordable and easier to eat and drink organic on the go than ever before.
Need some guidance? Here’s a Great Primer to Shop Organic on a Budget.
What can RDs do to help make buying organics easier for you? I’d love to hear from you.