The Locavore’s Bookshelf: Organic, Inc.

Samuel Fromartz’ excellent and well-researched book, subtitled, Natural Foods and How They Grew, takes a look at the rise of organic foods from its its infancy as a niche agricultural method practiced by a very few who were often laughed off as cranks and crackpots, to the continually growing, increasingly corporate sector of the food industry. Along the way, he puts the research surrounding organic agricultural techniques, the nutrition content of organic foods, and pesticide residues in the bodies children under the intense focus of his microscopic attention to detail.

It all sounds so very boring, doesn’t it? All of this talk of corporate buy-outs and the ancient history of the organic movement, mixed with a healthy dose of Rachel Carson’s gloom and J.I. Rodale’s visons of health seems guaranteed to put a body to sleep, with or without a glass of warmed organic, rBGH-free milk.

I was surprised to find that this book wasn’t boring at all; in fact, it is written in a style that balances the dogged determination of an investigative journalist ferreting out truth from a tangled skein of myth and misdirection, with the passion of a man on a personal quest. Fromartz starts the book with his own personal background of how he came to want to tell the story of the growth of natural foods from a hippy dream to big business, and from the beginning, he draws the reader in with the power of his electric prose and his ability to convey personality as he tells the individual tales of organic pioneers as a microcosm of the whole movement.

He manages to, in the course of 259 pages, spin the tales of how farmer Jim Cochran came to nearly single-handedly create the methods of growing organic strawberries while making a profit, how soymilk came to be widely available in most supermarkets in the US, and how Kellog’s, current purveyor of empty calorie sugar-frosted cereal horrors, started out as a health-food manufacturer.

He also outlines the recent split in the organic movement between the Organic Consumer Association and the Organic Trade Association over a court case brought by a neo-luddite organic blueberry farmer from Maine, which threatened to completely disassemble the current USDA Certified Organic labelling rules. Fromartz gives a full accounting of the case in true, unbiased journalistic form, filled with the nuances and shades of grey that all court battles which are essentially about semantics, which led me to have a bit more sympathy with Arthur Harvey’s (the blueberry farmer) case, However, I still have to say most of my sympathy lay with the OTA, rather than the OCA. The media fear-mongering media blitz carried out by the OCA that trumpeted the “35 synthetic chemicals allowed in USDA Certified Organic foods” was not based upon solid facts, but rather were the attempts of extremists to get the public to blindly follow their lead, thus setting back the organic food movement by about twenty years.

(For my take on the OCA’s stance on the chemicals, as well as my own listing of the chemicals involved, including annotations on what they are, what they are used for and how the National Organic Standards Board approved of their use, see my 5-part series of articles, written last October: Those Darned Chemicals, TDCII: What is Really Going On Here?, TDCIII: What Are Food Additives, and Why Worry About Them?
,TDCIV: What, Me, Worry?, and finally, TDCV: The Final Confrontation, which contains the complete annotated list of the thirty five synthetic chemicals which the OCA took issue with, along with my final comments. This essay and listing is linked at the OTA website.)

Be that as it may, Fromartz’ book is an outstanding read, and well-worth the time of anyone who is interested in eating locally, organically, or just plain better. Parts of it are funny, parts of it are sad, and parts of it will undoubtedly make many readers angry.

Which is a good thing, as there are many reasons for consumers to become peevish with not only conventional agriculture and factory farming, but also with some large organic producers, such as Horizon Organic, which produces “organic” milk in a factory farm setting.

But, while some of the facts presented in the book will ruffle some feathers, others offer hope for the future of American food, so one need not worry–this is not a tome filled with gloom and doom.


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  1. Um, is that first comment spam?

    Comment by Sterno — May 5, 2006 #

  2. Not anymore.

    I terminated it with extreme prejudice, which is what I do with all such spam comments that come my way.

    I was just slow with this one, because I was out of town today.

    Comment by Barbara — May 5, 2006 #

  3. Barbara,

    Since you mention “35 synthetic chemicals allowed in USDA Certified Organic foods” above, how about linking to your previous articles from October 2005, “Those Darn Chemicals” — to enlighten folks who are new to your blog, and because embedding links to other articles you’ve written makes you look sooo clever! 🙂 (At least I think you’re clever!)


    Comment by judy wyatt — May 6, 2006 #

  4. Judy, that was a great idea! I was rushed yesterday, and so didn’t get around to it, but today, I added links not only to my articles, but also to the OCA website, the OTA website, and added a sentence with links mentioning Horizon Organics practice of using factory farm methods to produce “organic” milk.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

    Comment by Barbara — May 6, 2006 #

  5. I have to check all of this out more carefully becuase I happend to despise Horizon and refuse to use them because of what I read about them in a gourmet issue last year. I have quit a few friends who eat organic too and they had no idea. I am very excited to look into these books. (like I have time to read)

    Comment by Gabriella True — May 9, 2006 #

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