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Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew Hardcover – April 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
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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.
I am always a fan of books written by journalists, who often know better than others the importance of interviewing real people and capturing all sides to a story. I thought, however, that Fromartz's writing style could have used more of an edge. The book read like a 275-page newspaper article, was dry at times as a result, and failed to create the urge to "read one more page."
That said, I would recommend Fromartz's book to anyone who is interesting in the past and present issues about the organic food industry.
He notes that sales of organic food shot up 20% per year since 1990, and "The trend wasn't lost on mainstream industry, which reacted by creating organic food aisles (or ghettos) in their stores or by buying up organic food companies for market share." (Pg. xvii) He also points out that "Establishment nutritionists" (who were often funded by food companies) claimed that the whole-grain, whole-food dogma was "nothing more than fiction," until the 1980s, "when the industry realized it might actually be profitable." (Pg. 23) "Health, or the appearance of it... has often been a selling point in the mass market." (Pg. 144)
He observes that small-scale local farmers don't produce enough volume to make purchases worthwhile for large chains (Pg. 70), yet farmers' markets are NOT a "main outlet" for organic produce; Natural-food stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and food-service suppliers were "a more vital market." (Pg. 87) He admits that "labor is crucial to produce farming---organic or conventional---which is why migrant workers are hired throughout the industry." But he added, "If you were going to hire migrants, there were ways to do it right." (Pg. 104)
Progressing from their original stereotype as "a bunch of hippies from Santa Cruz" (Pg. 131), the organic food industry is now "littered with founders who built companies, then cashed out to mainstream food giants." (Pg. 185)
This is a personal, but well-written and highly interesting look at the organic food industry.