Interview with Maria Rodale

Air Date: December 5, 2016

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am so honored today to be talking with Maria Rodale, who is CEO and chairman of Rodale, Inc., but she’s also an author, journalist, activist, businesswoman, and a mom—just a wonderful example and model for all of us women out there that there’s so many things that we can do. She’s also the author of Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe; and, very exciting, a new cookbook called Scratch. She’s a regular contributor to Huffington Post. Welcome, Maria.

MARIA RODALE: Thank you, Theresa. It’s so great to be here, and I always love talking with you.

TM: I’m so grateful that you are taking the time, after listening to all those things that you do. You must be one heck of a busy woman! And I want you to know just how important Rodale is to me personally, because when I was just turning 18 or 19, someone gave me this little book called Organic Gardening, and it was one of the things that changed my life and led me to the Good Food movement. And I’ve been following Rodale ever since. So, Maria, I think it would be just super if you could tell our listeners, for those of you who don’t know the Rodale Institute and Rodale, Inc., just a little bit about the history of it as the number-one, premier, organic proponent.

MR: Well, I’d be happy to explain a little bit. So my grandfather, J. I. Rodale, is considered the founder of the organic movement in America. And he discovered the idea of organic while researching his own health issues and wanting to improve his own health. And he was also a wannabe publisher at the time, so he started Organic Gardening and Farming magazine in 1942, and then, because he was so concerned about health, he launched Prevention magazine in 1950. And I’m third-generation. My father and mother were both actively involved in and leading the organic movement through the times when it was considered quackery and radical insanity up until today. And my father was the person who launched the organic Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute, which is a nonprofit, which has studied for over 35 years the side-by-side and comparison between organic agriculture and conventional chemical and even GMO agriculture. So we’re heavily involved in the whole situation and true believers, not because of some romantic ideal but because we truly believe in it and have seen scientifically that organic is healthier for people and the planet. And it’s just a better way to live if you want to live on this planet for a very long time, which we would like to do.

TM: We would like to think that we can sustain it, don’t we, for our children and our grandchildren. But that’s like—I’m just doing the math in my head while you were talking—that’s 74 years of really being and working hard and doing such amazing things. And I think, for our listeners, when they [you] talked about trials, they’ve been planting crops both for organic, in organic systems and conventional systems for, now, 35 years—the longest trials, actually, that are out there. But I surely don’t want to knock common sense here. Being a commonsense person, it seems to me that if you ingest poisons that you could potentially get sick!

MR: Yeah, I mean I’ve done a lot of researching and thinking over the years, and I think you know, for some of us that’s common sense. For another group of people, there is this kind of, their own romantic fantasy that science and technology is always going to be better. And what I believe we need to do is merge the beauty of science and technology with the respect and love of nature, and appreciation of nature, and not try to fight against each other.

TM: Tell us about the different publications. You said Prevention, which has got to be one of the most well-known magazines, and imagine, since, did you say 1952?

MR: Nineteen-fifty.

TM: Nineteen-fifty, okay.

MR: Prevention has been in publication since 1950. It originally started being fully supported by vitamin manufacturers—and, you know, readers and advertisers, which is the traditional magazine model. And then, over the years, as vitamins started moving into supermarkets and they didn’t have to advertise direct mail-order to consumers, we ended up needing a lot of pharmaceutical advertising to support it. And just this year I made the decision to go advertising-free completely on Prevention magazine, which has been a fairly radical decision in the magazine industry. I mean, we had to raise the price to consumers, but what it does is it gives us complete independence and freedom to write the truths about health for our customers and our readers. And it’s been a wonderful, completely liberating moment for all of our editors and writers. And so if you haven’t looked at Prevention in a while, I’d urge you to take another look, because it’s a brand-new and better-than-ever magazine.

TM: Thank you so much, Maria, for pointing that out. And gee, I haven’t looked at it for a while. It must have made everyone a little bit nervous, a little bit high-risk.

MR: As the Wall Street Journal said, everybody in the whole publishing industry is watching this very carefully, because what the digital disruption has done is shifted all the advertising dollars to Facebook and Google. So as a businesswoman I have had to really get creative about how we continue to spread our message. So hopefully readers are willing to pay for true good content.

TM: And, you know, Maria, there’s so many other magazines, too, that are part of Rodale, Inc. Could you just spout out a few? Because I bet some of our listeners know some of them.

MR: Yes. So Men’s Health is our magazine, and it’s actually the largest men’s magazine in the world. And we publish it in over 90 countries, which is an amazing and wonderful feat, because when we launched it, the general view was that men didn’t really care about their health and they wouldn’t read about it. So that’s been a huge success for us. We also publish Women’s Health, which is a younger-than-Prevention kind of orientation, much more heavily fitness. We have transitioned Organic Gardening magazine to now Organic Life, because, you know, when we first started—“we,” before I was born! I’m only 54—if you wanted organic food you had to grow it yourself, and now you can get it almost anywhere. So we have transitioned it into a lifestyle magazine called Organic Life. And then we also publish Runner’s World and Bicycling magazine. And a whole bunch of books—our book publishing is really important to us. And if you’re a vegan you might have heard of Thug Kitchen; Wheat Belly; we’ve published books like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and The South Beach Diet. So we’re a diversified media company that’s focused exclusively on health, wellness, and the environment.

TM: You even have a blog.

MR: Yes.

TM: You do it socially. You do it for those of us who still like to hold on to things and read from paper, but your social site—tell us a little bit about that.

MR: Well, I’ve been blogging for about seven years at, which has now been consolidated at with all my other writings. And you know, I personally love business and I love activism, but I really love to write. And I love to write all sorts of things, and that’s my outlet. So right now I have a cookbook out called Scratch, which is about home cooking made simple, easy, and delicious. And that is really the compilation of seven years of recipes that I blogged that got great feedback from my readers. And it’s really about making cooking, which is the best way to kind of eat and know where your food comes from very accessible and fun for people to do. It takes kind of the hoity-toity-ness out of it.

TM: Well, you know, just the magazine Prevention, just the name of it kind of is its own testimony to “Do you want to be healthy? Well, do your best not to get sick.” I think the way that you’ve approached it, which I admire so much, is that you’re saying it isn’t just sitting down and stuffing yourself. There’s a lifestyle component here. Can you talk a little bit more about that, Maria?

MR: Well, yeah. I mean, I grew up with a front-row seat to the whole health-and-organic movement. And at my dinner table, growing up, when my mother and father would sit down, we’d often have visitors and guests from around the world, and discussions about what’s good for you, what’s bad for you, what’s the right thing, what’s the wrong thing. And so I’ve seen all these discussions—you know, vegetarianism versus non-vegetarianism, low fat versus high fat or no fat, sugar… I’ve seen all these arguments play out right in front of my eyes. And at the same time, I’ve observed. And I observed that sometimes people who are technically healthy are not happy and they still get sick, and that sometimes people do all the wrong things and they’re still healthy and they don’t get sick. And at the end of the day, you can live a long life and leave a kind of damage behind you, or you can live a short or long life and leave a lot of joy and a lot of happiness behind you. And you know, what’s more important? What is the most important thing? And to me, the most important thing is living a good, loving life, and respecting everyone and respecting the earth. And food is a joyful expression of that. And I definitely, one of the things I observed is that the people who are well fed, and well-rounded fed, tend to be happier than people who are either starving themselves or starving. And I’ve noticed that as a mom, with my kids. You know, a lot of times we think kids are misbehaving, and they’re just hungry or tired.

TM: Or they’ve had too much sugar.

MR: Or they’ve had too much sugar, too much of the wrong kind of food. And also, when I was younger, starting out cooking, if I wanted to eat certain things organically, I had to make them from scratch, because there weren’t all these modern-day processed options. So it became like a deconstruction puzzle for me. It’s like, okay, how can I make these foods I love, and make them organically, and feed the people I love, and all of us will feel better and feel happy and healthy? And that’s what this, not just this book is about but I think what my life is about, is really helping people feel nourished. And that’s, to me, the most important step in terms of being healthy and feeling loved.

TM: I really loved the quote from your book that said at the dinner table there’s the opportunity to share meals that heal. And I think that you were talking not just about healing physically but healing with each other. Have you experienced that, Maria?

MR: Yes. Well, I mean, first of all, scientific studies have shown that families that sit down and eat together, you know, the kids do better at school; they become like healthier, more well-adjusted adults. And yeah, I mean that’s where we sit down and really are present with each other, and we can listen and ask questions. And sometimes it’s not good—I mean, there were plenty of times when I was growing up or during my marriage, which no longer exists, where you play out your problems as well. But that’s also an important indicator that there’s work to be done, and not just food work but emotional work. So I highly recommend everybody sit down and eat a meal together with the people that you care about.

TM: I so am going to agree with that. I read a rather horrendous statistic of something like over 40 percent of our meals were taken in the car.

MR: It’s also where our children learn from us and observe. And you know, I can’t help but think that some of the seeming lack of civilization in our society right now, you know, post-election, is because people just haven’t learned the basic things of how to be kind to one another and how to respect each other and learn from each other. So those are the things that happen at the dinner table.

TM: I want to go back a little bit in time. I’m so excited about Scratch and I can hardly wait to get my hands on it. But you also wrote a very wonderful book in 2010 called Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe. And what a wonderful, provocative title! And that was in 2010—I’m sure a lot has happened between now and then. But I know that one of the burning questions that keeps coming up over and over again is, gee, what—what? Organic can feed the world? Can you say a few things about that?

MR: Yeah. So, I mean, I wrote that book because even though I had grown up in the family, I felt like I had some missing pieces in my own mind about what really happened. And I needed to do the research so I could fully understand and believe it myself and not just believe it because somebody had told me about it. And one of the premises I kept hearing from the conventional ag community was, “Well, we need to feed the world, we need to feed the world.” I mean, it’s remarkable how consistent farmers were when they justified the use of chemicals by saying, “Well, we need to feed the world.” So I really wanted to delve into that. And what I found is, first of all, that “We need to feed the world” was actually a marketing slogan by the chemical companies to tap into the emotional, kind of patriotic heart of the American farmer, and that actually there were a plethora of studies that showed that actually if you really want to feed the world, and feed the world for a long time, organic was by far the best way to do it. And our own studies at the Rodale Institute had shown that as well, but I didn’t want to be, because I’m also a journalist, I didn’t want to have a conflict of interest, so I only quoted and referenced footnoted studies that were done independently from the Rodale Institute. And there’s so much data out there to support the fact that organic farming is more productive over the long term, and especially during droughts and floods, because the soil, you’re building up the life of the soil. And it also—we discovered this at the Rodale Institute and again it’s been confirmed by other studies, that organically farmed soil stores carbon in huge quantities, and it is a key way to stop climate change. And what stores the carbon in the soil are the living organisms. So now we’re going back to common sense. It’s common sense, if you kill things they can’t do their job. And you know, just killing something is not going to make your problem go away. I mean, I wish we would learn that as a culture, that killing things doesn’t make it go away, it won’t make the problem go away. So what you want to do is really encourage and support the diverse life in the soil, and that does the work of both feeding the plant and storing carbon and ensuring that we can feed ourselves for a long time.

TM: So excellent—I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I think what we found that actually the chemical and pesticide regime has been exacerbating the problem—22 super weeds, and so on.

MR: Exactly.

TM: If you’re joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Maria Rodale, CEO and chairman of Rodale, Inc., and author of two books: Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe, and Scratch, a new book of excellent recipes that Maria has been sharing on her website, Maria, back to this “organic equals soil”: a lot of people don’t realize, they think organic is a marketing term or whatever, but organic has always meant “build the soil.” And so what an important lesson that we learn when I hear you say that soil, in droughts and in floods, does better because of that healthy soil there. You know, the Organic Manifesto, you mentioned that you might be working to update that because, gee, so much has happened in the last six years. Is that something that you think that’s going to be, just jump in, you’re going to do it?

MR: Well, l mean, it really depends. I mean, if you go back and look at Organic Manifesto, I wrote it right when Obama was taking office, and a lot of the messaging was kind of aimed towards him, especially towards the end, in my Recommendations. And so, as we all know, we now have a new president-elect, and you know, I think I would revise it in a way that makes it a little more timeless. But also, you know, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last six years, believe it or not. I spent quite a bit of time in the book writing about triclosan and how toxic that is for people, and yet every hospital has Purell everywhere, and that’s—the antimicrobial stuff is really a form of pesticide that we’ve been using mostly out of fear of germs. And what we found in like the gut microbiome is that you need all the germs, and you need the germs in balance. And again, just killing one germ or killing a few germs, or trying to kill all germs, is actually killing ourselves. So the progress is that triclosan has now been banned, although it’ll take a while for it to get out of all our CVS’s and Walgreens. So there’s a lot of other progress like that that’s been made, and I just want to make sure people have the most recent information.

TM: Well, I hope that you do update it. That would be terrific. I guess the thought about talking about what just happened to our country in the last couple of weeks, it seems like, I guess, the dichotomy of the election has been kind of a split in the American people in a rather painful way. I’m thinking about Scratch again and how you talked about healing, and, you know, when can we get to a point where we look and see what our similarities are and our differences? Do you think that women, for starters, and women through food and the Good Food movement, could have some influence on how we could come together more and heal our differences?

MR: Well, yes and no. I think it’s everyone. And you know, I think women have a special role in the world, but we don’t… Women are not perfect and neither are men. And I think the most important thing—and this isn’t just between women and men, but also between different races and different religions and different, you know—is to get to know one another and to really try to understand each other. I mean, we all have a responsibility to get to know each other more and to ask questions. And I always find, like, food is the best way to do that. I think we have to respect each other’s differences and realize that together we make a complicated microbiome that obviously has some purpose that’s bigger than any of us realize.

TM: Thank you for that, Maria—that was so well said. You know, as you look forward to Rodale and both the Institute and the magazines, what are you seeing as your forward momentum and some of the things that you’re excited about with your work?

MR: Well, you know, let me start with the Institute, because that’s really the easier one. What, I think, moment we’re at is where actually the demand for organic has been tremendous. You know, in Organic Manifesto, I ended by saying “Demand organic!” Okay, well, Americans are demanding organic like never before, and I hope I played some little role in that. But now there’s not enough farmers in America to supply that demand. And when I went and traveled around and talked to a lot of farmers, I realized the three-year transition period to become organic is really risky for a lot of them. And a lot of them are older and don’t want to make that kind of change at the end of their farming career. So I think the big challenge that the Institute is working on is how can we help more farmers transition? I think there should, somebody could start a bank to help farmers transition. I know a lot of food companies are looking at kind of transitional labels so that they can get the supply that they need to feed the demand. So to me, that’s exciting—that’s great. On the publishing side, that’s a little bit more challenging because of the digital disruption dynamic, the fact that people aren’t reading as many magazines as they used to. But I think the other thing that this election showed is that there’s a lot of bad, false news out there. And to me, the most important thing for Rodale is conveying to people that we are the source of health information and news about the environment, news about the world, that you can trust, because we do our due diligence, we are tried-and-true journalists. We have the largest private health library in the country that provides backup research for all of our editors. And you know, it’s important that everybody understands that there is good news and there’s, you know, not so… There’s true news and there’s not-so-true news. And I’m hoping that people will understand that our intentions are to always deliver people information that they can truly trust.

TM: Maria, it is so wonderful to hear you say that. And from my point of view, the Rodale, Inc., publications are high-integrity publications, really trying to put forward well-researched and well-documented information, and then letting people make their own decisions about how they want to use it. I’m really, really excited that Rodale, Inc., and Rodale Institute exist. They’re such important parts of my life and of so many people who really value good food. So it’s just super, super work that you’re doing, and so kudos.

MR: Thank you.

TM: Definitely going to be looking at Prevention magazine! Very, very excited. One of my favorite magazines is The Sun, and I like the fact that there’s no advertising. And plug in with Maria: Participate in her blog, try some of her recipes—the mac and cheese, I’m really thinking, I might better clip that out!

MR: Thank you so much, Theresa.

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