August 9, 2012

Organic to the Max

Max Goldberg ’98 shares his passion for organic food through his popular blog, Livingmaxwell.com.

Amanda Chalifoux

For Max Goldberg ’98, creator of Livingmaxwell.com, organic is a way of life. But finding his passion didn’t come easy. After working in biotech and software following business school, Goldberg ended his nearly 11 years on Prozac in the summer of 2001. Over the next three and a half years, as he struggled to put the pieces of his life back together, his zeal for healthy, organic living was born.

Today, Goldberg splits his time between trading commodities, working with a start-up company that he is helping to launch, and running his blog, which has been featured in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and CNN. His first book, a memoir about his years on antidepressants, is due out early next year. He remains as passionate about organic food as ever, campaigning for legislative changes in support of the industry, sharing all things organic with his readers, and becoming a recognized figure on social media with his 20,000 Twitter followers and as manager of the organic food industry group on LinkedIn.

How did Livingmaxwell.com get started?

Someone taught me about organic food in 2001, and I had one of those proverbial “lightbulb” moments. After doing a decent amount of reading and research, I was stunned at what I was willingly putting into my body. Since 2001, I’ve been eating close to 100 percent organic. Of course, there are times that I can’t, but when I have my choice, I eat entirely organic at home and only go to organic restaurants.

Once I adopted this lifestyle, I knew that I wanted to work in the organic sector but didn’t have a good idea about how to get started. Several years later and still not doing anything in the industry, I decided to launch the blog. Livingmaxwell allowed me to be firmly and immediately entrenched in organic and also gave me the opportunity to be on the reporting side of things. When you’re in the media, you get to tell the world compelling stories and introduce fascinating people. At the end of the day, however, you’re a curator. People will read what you have to say based on your judgment of what is interesting.

I’ve been doing the blog for about two and a half years and traffic continues to grow. I write about organic products, news, trends, and legislation, attend all of the industry trade shows, and interview CEOs of companies. One of the most surprising aspects of doing the blog is how politically engaged I have become. I now participate in marches and rallies around the country, cover all of the political issues around organics, and have put on a fundraiser for The Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., one of the most important nonprofits in the organic sector.

What are some of major political issues facing organic food right now?

The most pressing issue is getting GMO (genetically-modified organisms) labeling approved. It has been estimated that 70-80 percent of the food on supermarket shelves contain GMOs, and the United States is the only developed country in the world that does not require foods that contain genetically-modified ingredients to be labeled as such. The US Patent Office gives genetically-modified crops their own patents because they are unique and different. Yet, the USDA and the FDA say GMOs are the same thing as non-GMOs. Aside from the fact that there is a glaring inconsistency of policy within our own government, consumers have a fundamental right to know what they are eating. In my opinion, not requiring the labeling of GMOs is a violation of our civil rights.

The reason that industrial food companies are fighting tooth and nail against GMO-labeling is that they know most consumers are completely in the dark when it comes to GMOs. If shoppers saw the words “Made with Genetically-Engineered Ingredients” on the label of food products, they would either stop buying them or start asking real questions. GMOs have been shown to cause organ failure in laboratory tests with animals, contribute to the pollution of our water supply, and have helped create 13 million acres of “superweeds.”

The key event that the entire country should keep an eye on takes place later this fall in California when residents in that state will vote on a ballot initiative to decide whether GMOs must be labeled or not. If California can pass this law, it will have huge implications for the rest of the country and could encourage other states to follow suit. Up until this point, the Obama administration has stonewalled the organic industry’s attempt to label GMOs on a national level.

What are the most important products to buy organic, especially if money is tight?

If you have a family, kids need to come first when eating organic. Their bodies are still developing, and they’re much more susceptible to pesticides, GMOs, and synthetic growth hormones. Overall, I would say the number one priority is milk because a good deal of conventional milk is produced with animals that receive synthetic growth hormone. Meat is another one — not only are you eating animals that might have been fed this growth hormone, but you don’t know if the food they ate was genetically-modified or has been sprayed with chemicals; most likely it was.

Coffee is another product where consumers should choose organic. Coffee is one of the most chemically-treated crops in the world. And fruits and vegetables that have no skin — like apples, grapes, celery, peppers, and strawberries. Forty-eight different pesticides have been found on a conventional apple.

How can consumers tell if a product is truly organic?

You need to look for the USDA organic seal — that’s a rigorous, third-party verification process. People are under the assumption that ‘natural’ is better than organic, and nothing could be further from the truth. Organic has standards, regulation, and enforcement. Natural does not, and as a result, all these major food companies are plastering ‘natural’ on everything they sell. The lawyers have gotten hold of this and class action lawsuits have been filed against companies like Naked Juice and Wesson Oils, since they’re using genetically-modified foods and calling their products ‘natural.’ Kashi is facing a class-action suit for calling their products natural when they’re using hazardous substances and uranium by-products. Natural means minimally processed, but no one is enforcing it. Natural doesn’t represent anything while organic does.

What does the future of food production look like?

I don’t think genetically-modified food will ever disappear because the companies that produce them are too powerful. But I believe that there is an awakening in the US population to organic food, and demand continues to grow. The United States just signed an organic trade agreement with the European Union, which should greatly the benefit the global industry. Furthermore, conventional food companies will continue to acquire small organic brands because organic is where the growth is.

There are only two things that could stunt the growth of the organic industry. One is the rising cost of food, which impacts both the organic and non-organic markets. The other is the US government and the negative impact of recent USDA and FDA policies on the organic sector.

What advice do you have for current MBA students planning their future careers?

To all MBA students, I would say to use the time in school to figure out what you’re really passionate about and don’t just go with what the crowd is doing. If money were no object, what would you do with your time? Start with that. Use your two years and go do as many internships as you can, even for free if you have to. Go do things that pique your interest. Obviously, everyone needs to make a living, but if you can do something that you love and make money, that’s the best of both worlds.

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