Organic, Inc

Organic, Inc is a good companion to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Where Michael Pollan deplores and bemoans the corporatization of organic food, Samuel Fromartz investigates it, tracking the rise of Whole Foods, Earthbound (the salad mix people), White Wave (the commercialization of soy milk). Fromartz is a business journalist by trade, and he does a good job of tracking the “Rolling Stone” narrative where the counterculture becomes mainstream. He also astutely perceives the increasing segmentation of the market between supermarket organic, and local CSA/farmers market which can exist alongside.
The book takes on a bittersweet, world-weary attitude about commercial success, in telling the story of the mega-lettuce growers who put their small counterparts out of business, and the visionary soy entrepeneur who stole an idea from a former business partner, and was himself ousted by his corporate acquirers. Sure they are selling out, but compromise is part of the price of going mainstream. This attitude, ironically, buys into the mythos of the organic counterculture, where a set of values are tightly woven together: local, small, humane, unprocessed, authentic, and deviations from the norm are seen as selling out.
I am skeptical of romantic purism, and much more concerned with sustainability. What kind of food system is needed to feed the population without environmental disaster, especially after the cheap oil is gone. So I would rather see the strands teased apart and tested — which aspects are inherently required for sustainable agriculture, and which aspects can scale up sustainably.

  • Fromartz observes that big organic dairies start looking like CAFOs because they can only grow so big before it’s impractical to walk the cows out to pasture. If so, why not just divvy up and have more than one barn, spread out according to walking distance for cows?
  • The book is ambivalent about the rise of organic processed foods — more of a market is created for organic ingredients, but we’re back with a diet of TV dinners and twinkies. But traditional food customs also include some extreme processing — cheese, sausage, pickles, kimchee, and other complicated preserved foods. The badness of pop-tarts and chicken mcnuggets isn’t just that they are processed, but how they are processed.
  • The “heritage” food movement in the US includes many foods that were introduced to the continent by Europeans — they would be considered “invasive species” if they were brought in last year and not 200 years ago.

Recent studies show that organic farming can feed the world. If so, what social and economic structures are needed to make that happen? That’s the evolving story I’d like to see covered. It’s possible that the answer is homesteads where we bake our own bread, brew our own beer, and beat our laundry on rocks again, but I doubt it. Civilizations tend to move by evolving, not by simply turning back the clock.
In his blog, Fromartz shows less of need for “on the one hand/on the other hand” neutrality, and is more of an investigative activist. The lack of false balance is better journalism.

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