Sunday, October 8, 2006

Organic, Inc. by Samuel Fromartz

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.


  1. I'm in the middle of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It tracks the "natural history" of four meals from soil to plate, and spends quite a bit of time addressing some of the shortcomings of the mass-organic market as distributed by Whole Foods and produced by Earthbound Farms, Cal-Organic, and Grimmway.
    The rise of Whole Foods & the USDA-sanctioned "organic" label is a good thing, but it is not the final goal. Pretty much any item purchased at Whole Foods is the product of fossil-fuel intensive monoculture farming, and as a result is unsustainable. The use of organic inputs to replace non-organic pesticides is a good first step, but it still takes tens of calories of fossil fuel to grow & distribute a single calorie of mass-organic food. Chilean asparagus in winter, anyone?
    The truly sustainable option - one which doesn't collapse when the oil runs out - is to consume locally grown produce. This means that we'll once more have to follow the seasons in our consumption, but this may be good thing - how tasty is a tomato in January, really? It might look like a tomato, but it doesn't taste much like what you can pull from your backyard in August.
    For those wanting to dive a bit deeper into the economics of local food, Brian Halweil's book "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket" is an informative read.
    Diatribe soon to end ... for anyone looking for an easy way to up their intake of locally grown food, a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program might exist in your location. These programs give you a weekly delivery of locally grown produce in exchange for a single, upfront payment at the start of the season. The farmers win because they have a guaranteed market for their goods, and it works out to be a good deal for the consumer as well - not only can you feel good about being connected to the food you're eating, but it also can be a relatively inexpensive source of organic produce. In Seattle, a good CSA program is run out of Pike Place Market; there are hopefully similar options in most major cities.

  2. Organic, Inc. covers the "locally grown" angle as well. Fromartz profiles several different farmers, including at least one that has attempted a CSA-style program. In addition to selling direct to consumers, organic farmers often offer subscription packages for local chefs and restauranters.
    The challenge of the locally grown model would seem to be it imposes direct negatives on the consumer (higher costs, less choices) in exchange for indirect positives (supporting the environment and local small farmers). Even if we posit that it is ultimately in everyone's overall self-interest to follow this path, the problem of getting from here to there is a big one.