Can big agribusiness and local organic farming co-exist and thrive? Samuel Fromartz' new book, Organic, Inc., is a fascinating journey through American agricultural movements, starting around the turn of the century, when farming was still a small-town venture and tracing its development into agribusinesses whose products are now found on most American tables - and the movement into locally grown, organic foods, which represents not so much a return to the past as a return to wholeness and healthy living.
The problem seems to be that the organic movement itself is being challenged by the very agribusinesses it once eschewed. There are really few ways to farm sustainably (which will in most cases mean organically and without genetically modified foods or chemicals) AND use the systems that have come to mean "factory farms" - livestock confined for their entire lifetimes in areas so small they cannot turn around or lie down (chickens, for instance, and pigs), never mind see the sunshine or walk around and enjoy fresh air, eating what they would eat if humans were not around.
Agrisystems, as they exist today, are basically unhealthy - and unsustainable. But they are profitable, and make it easy for "food" (if you want to call it that) to arrive at your table packaged neatly and processed to death. Rare are the children being raised today who knows what "food" looks like in its natural state. Do they know what a carrot or beet looks like, while it's growing in the ground? Do they know that the hamburger they eat comes from a being that has a face and makes sounds, and may (depending on your viewpoint) be sentient?
Being removed from the source and sight and smells and knowledge of how your food comes to you - how it was grown, and what has happened to it all along the way - makes for some dangerous possibilities. We cannot know (or control very well, despite so-called legal safeguards meant to protect us) where our food has been, before it reaches our table, unless we have grown it ourselves (which is not easy or possible for most people) or have bought it from someone in our community whose farming practices we know - and could actually go there and see.
Fromartz comes from a reporting background, and knows how to dig out factoids that will leave you breathless for the sheer scope of what has happened to our food and our food production systems. It should leave you with both concern and hope, at the end.
Organic, Inc. Is not exactly the "story of food" but it truly is the tale of two different visions for how food is produced and made available to consumers. One (local biodynamic farming) is sustainable; the other (multinational, corporate agribusiness) is not.
Fromartz carefully traces how we got where we are, without suggesting where we will go in the future. However, his bias for a sustainable natural foods future is clear - and it's one I share. If you care about what you eat, how it got here, and whether you will be able to find more like it tomorrow, you should read this book, think about what it means, and DO something about what you believe is the best course of action for a world where what we eat determines how healthy we and our future generations will be.
Yours for extraordinary dining -- for everyone,