Reading List: Organic, Inc.

What really goes on in the organic-food industry may turn you green.

Organic, Inc.

By Samuel Fromartz
Harcourt
April 2006, 320 pp., $25

What happens when a revolution becomes a business? Organic food is now the fastest-growing segment of the otherwise stagnant food business. Last year, Americans bought more than $11 billion of the feel-good goods, a resounding endorsement for small farms, locally grown food, and a healthier lifestyle. But a lot of that growth comes in the form of processed, organic versions of Pop-Tarts and yogurt tubes. Sure, more farmland gets converted to organic production methods to create them, but aping major food manufacturers is an abomination to organic purists. Organic, Inc. surveys the long history of this debate, albeit in a sprawling, sometimes unfocused narrative.

Organic food certainly isn't the first fringe market entrepreneurs have parlayed into a commercial enterprise. Linux, punk rock, yoga—we're surrounded by big businesses that were once smaller, simpler, some would say purer, concerns. In each case, people blame money for perverting credos into logos and missions into marketing statements. Author Samuel Fromartz largely sides with the purists, rooting for the small, noble organic farmers he profiles. But as the book unfolds, he aspires to bridge the gap between small and big, real and ideal. Though he notes "growth and ideals often ended in conflict" in other new industries, "they are not mutually exclusive."

The resulting tale is a revealing, imper-fect history of the organics industry—the literary equivalent of a one-man shaky-camera documentary. Fromartz's lens pans to terrifying scenes such as conventionally grown strawberries being fumigated with a tear-gas derivative, and to delightful ones such as David Coke, an organic farmer, rinsing lettuce scraps in the spin cycle of an old washing machine before selling them to chichi Bay Area restaurants. Just as soon as the author wows us, though, his digressions into science and history—numbers-heavy and overly detailed—can read like a social-studies textbook.

In the end, Fromartz seeks the answer in a Darwin line: "This… is the nature of evolution, which dilutes the original gene pool to maintain survival." Just what a "diluted gene pool" will mean for us as consumers is unclear, but Fromartz gives us a handy tool for educating ourselves.


Timeline

A literary history for the granola generation, including the next book in the lineage.

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