Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew Hardcover – Apr 10 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In recent decades, organic food—the idealistic, natural alternative to industrial agribusiness and processed packaged foods—has grown into a multibillion-dollar business. Fromartz's portrait of the adolescent industry reveals that that success has prompted an epic identity crisis. Big corporations like Kraft and General Mills own the bulk of the market, and half of all organic sales come from the largest 2% of farms, alienating those most committed to producing chemical-free fruits and vegetables on small family farms, and selling them locally. Business journalist Fromartz uncovers the trailblazers' tactics: how Whole Foods Market developed a religion of "moral hedonism," how Earthbound Farm launched a revolution with bagged salad mix and how Silk soy milk became "the number one brand in the dairy case, among all milk and soy milk brands." But if big business is now the muscle of the organic industry, Fromartz demonstrates that small growers remain at its heart. Fromartz's profiles—of pioneers who sell their produce at farmers' markets and foster cooperatively-owned, local distribution networks—deftly navigate the complexities of pesticide issues, organic production methods and the legal controversies surrounding organic certification. This is a pragmatic, wise assessment of the compromises the organic movement has struck to gain access to the mainstream. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Although initially attracted to organic food from his encounters with it as a cook, business journalist Fromartz scrutinizes this ever--growing industry from an economic perspective. He focuses on the raising of strawberries, a fruit perpetually in high demand nationwide. Citing the example of a California grower who grew berries both conventionally and organically under virtually identical conditions, Fromartz declares organic farming to be indeed economically viable. Fromartz also examines the use of chemical pesticides, initially lauded as agriculture's great savior until the appearance of Rachel Carson made public their baneful long-term effects. Fromartz finds a different but similarly successful road to economic success in the story of Earthbound Farms, whose leafy mesclun mixes now appear in markets all over the country. Lest today's organic food producers become complacent, Fromartz recounts the tale of Kellogg, a company whose founders cherished lofty aims of spreading health and nutrition but who ironically ended up promoting mass-market, sugar-laden cereals quite contrary to what they had originally envisioned. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Mr. Fromartz provides a brief history of organic farming as an alternative to a deeply flawed agro-industrial production system. We learn that organic methods were developed for ideologically diverse reasons but tends to produce nutritionally superior foods when compared with conventional farming practices. Although yields are usually smaller, the author discusses how organic strawberry farms in California are an example of how organics can outperform when allowing for decreases in energy and fertilizer input.
Mr. Fromartz profiles some of the small organic farmers whose deference to health, environment and community were shaped by the 1960s counterculture. A small but vital network of farmers, distributors and retailers supported a fledgling movement that defined itself by remaining outside the conventional food system. The author describes how such farmers often devised creative marketing strategies by catering to specialty restaurants or selling their produce directly to the public at farmer's markets. As health and safety concerns about pesticides and rBGH growth hormones caught the public's attention, organic farming has become more widespread, emerging as an increasingly important survival strategy for more and more beleagured family farmers.
Mr. Fromartz traces the rise in popularity of pre-packaged salads and refrigerated soy milk to discuss how mass market success has created divisions within the organic community. The development of large-scale organic enterprises has intensified competition and shut down smaller, less efficient producers. Regulation has become a contentious issue, with small farmers seeking to hold large farmers accountable to maintaining high standards. As supermarkets such as Safeway and Wal-Mart have begun to add organic sections to their stores, issues of local production, fair wages and sustainability are heightened. Yet, the author is upbeat in his assessment that small farmers can continue to find their niche by satisfying the needs of the more sophisticated organic consumer.
I recommend this highly readable and informative book to everyone.
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,
Organic foods sales grew at 20 percent per year during the 1990s, attracting the attention of the food business. In the process, organic went mainstream and became an accepted niche market at grocery chains and even big-box retailers such as WalMart and Target. The author's real question is whether this represents "progress" or "problem" for fans of simpler lifestyles and all things organic.
The documented answer is some of both. Fromartz is a highly accomplished business journalist who takes a (mostly) unsentimental look at the business of marketing organic foods. Interviewing small and large merchants plus the `man on the street,' Fromartz discovers that organic is profitable and growing, yet at the same time poses a risk to traditional fans who are unlikely to shop at big boxes for the food they know and love. While the mainstream consumer `discovers' organic, the core organic customer may be wondering if she can trust anyone, anywhere, any more. This dilemma, the author notes, resembles putting up "a neon sign for an organic Twinkie."
After an entertaining and excellent investigative look at the business of organic, Fromartz holds out hope that both kinds of organic - mass market and small market - may find ways to thrive. For the core customer, related values like humane treatment of animals, fair market pricing, and sustainable agriculture may become more relevant indicators of value than the simple phrase `organic.' These savvy shoppers may continue to trust the small, unique brands and identities of traditional organic suppliers.
Meanwhile a certain amount of industrialization, mass-market methods and persuasive advertising messages can be expected to boost sales of anything termed `organic' in the aisles of a mega-retailer near you, where the organic business is currently booming.
Whether you like your organic "all natural" or with "always low prices," you'll be likely to find it readily available. Which type you choose will say a lot about your personal values and expectations.
Armchair Interviews say: The good news, from the author's point of view, is that at least you'll get to choose! In a free market, our choices define our future opportunities.
Samuel Fromartz's account of the organic industry (as I have come to see it) was a solid introduction that I will have to probably reread to fully take in. Peppered with facts, figures, vignettes, anecdotes, and opinions, it is clearly the writing of the converted, rather than a deliberately skeptical examination. Nonetheless there is room for reflection and critical analysis - I flagged dozens of pages that gave me points to ponder and further examine. The book touches on related topics like local agriculture without straying too far from the topic at hand.
My one criticism, after moving on to other books about food agriculture, is that this book, when it was dealing with facts and figures, seemed get weighed down, but at the same time, seemed to leave identifiable voids of information. How a book could be both occasionally tedious, and occasionally too light, I'm not entirely sure.
Diane C. Donovan
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