Food & Drink : Organic America

A new book plumbs the true meaning of the ‘O’

When Wal-Mart’s charisma-challenged CEO starts touting his interest in 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 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?

All right, so these aren’t questions that keep most grocery shoppers up at night, but it’s what business journalist Samuel Fromartz probes in Organic Inc.:Natural Foods and How They Grow. Fromartz became interested in the subject organically enough — through his stomach. He loved cooking and food and its presentation and ecology, so he soon fell in love with Whole Foods. He also loves knowing from whence his ingredients come, and some of the best parts of Organic, Inc. serve as an extension of the farmer’s-market ideal: to put a human face on the otherwise anonymous food-supply line.

This is accomplished 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 sustain 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.

Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grow

By Samuel Fromartz
$25, 320 pages
ISBN: 0151011303

Produce companies like Earthbound Farm, soy processors like White Wave, and retailers like Whole Foods are no longer niche operators, and are pushing into the mainstream fast. While they still only account for a little more than 2 percent of domestic food sales, organics are one of the fastest-growing segments of that market, expanding by 20 percent since 1990.

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 culled down to digestible form does much to eradicate the noxious stereotype that only yuppies care about organic food, as though being authentically anti-elitist requires a disdain for one’s well-being.

What unites the best of both strains of the organic movement is the worthiness of tackling the following question, asked by White Wave’s soy guru Steve Demos: How do you create a health food Americans actually want to eat? In a time of rapidly bulging waistlines, it’s more than a mere marketing quandary.

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