Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They GrEw by Samuel Fromartz (Harcourt), 320 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
When Wal-Mart's charisma challenged CEO starts touting organic food, you know the stuff is no longer the domain of back-to-the-land hippies.
What's not clear, however, is what "the stuff" actually is. For example, can an organic farmer use preservatives or pesticides and still claim the O? Does an organic dairy give a cow chemical medication or maintain its purity by letting the animal suffer through an illness? Does supporting organic really mean helping the small farmer, or just a few large conglomerates beyond the pale of mainstream agribusiness?
Business journalist Samuel Fromartz got interested in the subject organically enough through his stomach. He loves cooking and food and its presentation and ecology; he also loves knowing whence his ingredients come.
Some of the best parts of Organic, Inc. serve as an extension of the farmers market ideal: to put a human face on the otherwise anonymous food supply line.
This he accomplishes in a series of profiles of farmers and industry icons, which combine to form a diverse portrait of an industry that's still very much in its childhood.
From Harvard-educated soybean farmers struggling to make a profit, to the salad empire of Earthbound Inc., to struggling strawberry growers in California, Organic, Inc. is about an industry caught between the idealism of its founders and the profit motives of both modest and imperial players.
Aside from a punishingly dull chapter on pesticides, Fromartz does a fine job navigating the line between the idealism of the early "movement" farmers and their contemporaries, many of whom are merely trying to stay afloat in an ever-fragmenting marketplace.
And some of the marketing data broken down into digestible form does much to eradicate the noxious stereotype that only yuppies care about organic food as though being authentically anti-elitist required disdain for one's well-being.
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