Organic, Inc. is a look at the beginnings of organic agriculture in this country, how it has evolved, and it's uneasy co-existence with the industrial food culture.
Author Samuel Fromartz is a business journalist who has written for Fortune, Business Week, and Inc. magazines. So it makes sense that Organic Inc is organized as a series of long documentary essays on related topics.
It was interesting to read about the organic food industry from Fromartz' perspective, that of a somewhat health conscious, non-vegetarian, business oriented foody. He loves food, loves to cook, and is genuinely interested in his subject.
I didn't get the impression that he has a burning mission to promote organic non-gmo food as the birthright of every human being. But Fromartz does a good job of presenting both sides of the food industry.
His first chapter has the unfortunate title of Hummus Worshippers, The Origins of Organic Food. 'Hummus worshippers' tends to characterize the leaders of the early organic food movement in this country as hippies, an entirely inaccurate association. On the other hand, this chapter - the origins of organic food - is well researched, thoughtful, and gives a valuable historic perspective to the current state of the organic food movement.
Fromartz talks about research on industrial chemicals in food, the work of Sir Albert Howard, Rodale and other early organic agriculture exponents, and about the concepts of 'health' connected with organic food.
Ironically, although most people who eat organic food do so for health reasons, that fundamental principle has been suppressed in order to advance the cause of organic food against the industrial agriculture dominated food system.
Samuel Fromartz uses crops such as strawberries and lettuce to highlight the differences between organic and industrial growers, their farming methods, markets, means of distribution, and the inevitable clashes, with all the frustration, anger, heartbreak, triumphs and disappointments involved. He recounts conversations, tells stories, paints word pictures, and it all makes for an excellent read.
He makes an interesting point about local organic farmers. A high percentage of people in a number of different surveys stated that they would pay a premium for organic food, especially grown by small local organic farmers. Local organics is a growing trend.
Trouble is - where are the small local organic farmers? 1% of the population now farms, compared with 23% just before the second world war. The largest 2% of farms account for half of all sales, including for organic food. Suburban housing tracts occupy what once was farmland adjacent to cities.
It'll be fascinating to see how the local organic food movement evolves. Have all the farmers forced off the land after WW II been reborn? Will they somehow get to farm again? Will things go back to the way they used to be before industrial agriculture reared it's ugly head?
Fromartz is optimistic about the future of organic food, but he says, "It's hard to imagine that organic food will ever become a 'parallel food system', rather than a discrete set of products that people buy - more of a model of how farming and business can put values at a the core of a mission, rather than a wholesale solution to all the ills of conventional agriculture."
Which means, I think, that he believes industrial agriculture is here to say. And I agree - that is, unless unforeseen circumstances arise, which they always seem to do.
My take on the current situation with organic agriculture is - anything can happen. After all, who ever thought that the automobile would completely do away with the horse and buggy? And until less than 100 years ago, throughout the ages, food was organically grown. There wasn't a special word for it.
If things can flip one way so quickly, they can just as quickly flip the other way, in the right circumstances. For some reason, that possibility rarely occurs to us human beings.
'Organic Inc.' is an entertaining, informative, thought-provoking book. I recommend that you read it, think for yourself, and create your own circumstances. Perhaps that's what Samuel Fromartz is really after. He doesn't have an answer to the big what ifs?, but he does provoke us to imagine them.