The U.S. organic food movement started as counterculture but is now accelerating toward the mainstream. Samuel Fromartz’s Organic, Inc. tells the story of how and why.
A business reporter with a soft spot for healthy food, Fromartz pays due respect to both the organic purists, who decry their movement is being sold out to big business, and the organic popularizers like Whole Foods and Earthbound Farms, which have made megabucks spreading the organic gospel far and wide. Along the way, government agencies, agribusiness, and various others players make appearances.
Of the book’s themes, the one I found most interesting was the divergence between healthy food and organic food. In the early years of the organic movement these concepts were nearly synonymous. The goal was food that’s healthy for you and healthy for the planet; organic farming was a key means to the end. However, at the time, whether that healthy food tasted good was a secondary consideration, leading to the societal stereotype of “health food” as bland, killjoy food. But today, people increasingly believe they can have their organic cake and eat it too:
[O]rganic food persisted and grew precisely because the movement defined organic as a production method rather than a prescriptive diet such as Atkins, South Beach, the Zone, or Weight Watchers. The benefit came from eating the food, not from avoiding foods or counting calories. In this way, organic food became associated with a “healthy lifestyle,” which meant you ultimately decided what made you feel good. Whole Foods’s organic chocolate truffles epitomize this for me; they taste good because they contain chocolate, sugar, and saturated fat—not the healthiest mix. Yet by making them organically, Whole Foods tempered the “bad” quotient and transformed them into something “good.”
For the purists, organic chocolate truffles are on the slippery slope that leads to the organic Twinkie, a totemic symbol of the final organic betrayal. Yet for the popularizers, an organic Twinkie is still better, for you and the planet, than a traditional Twinkie.
Adding a twist to this debate, Fromartz notes:
[Organic popularizers] argued that making an organic Twinkie would “Grow the market! Convert more land!” The purists said, “No! Organic food should be kept pure and the Twinkie banned!” What neither side imagined was that consumers might buy conventional Twinkies and wash them down with organic milk, or that such mixed consumption might be preferable.
Per that last quote, Fromartz covers various consumer research that says organic currently is nowhere near an all-or-nothing choice even for price-insensitive people who could buy organic alternatives for most of their food products. Today, people are paying the premium for organic foods selectively, in areas where the benefit is perceived to be most important. For example, organic is particularly strong in baby food, even for lower-income purchasers.
Now, with Wal-Mart looking to drive down organic prices, the further mainstreaming of organic food is inevitable. You may not know it, but healthy-brand icons Odwalla, Boca Burgers, and Kashi are already owned by Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Kellog’s, respectively. And, by the way, not all of these healthy brands’ products are organic—a further reminder that the relationship between “organic” and “healthy” is not simple.
It’s a story with many chapters to play out. Organic, Inc. is a good guide to the action so far.