Unrefined tales of organic food


Book Review

Organic, Inc.

Natural Foods and How They Grew

Samuel Fromartz; Harcourt: 294 pp., $25



By Brett Levy

Times Staff Writer


IN the structured world of chemistry, "organic" simply means a compound containing a carbon atom. In the messy world of food, the organic industry regularly struggles with what the movement should mean.


Samuel Fromartz captures this colorful food fight in "Organic, Inc." by taking the reader through the now multibillion-dollar industry's history. Rather than focus on hippies and food co-ops, Fromartz begins by following the forgotten progenitors of this movement: the growers.


Gaining steam as early as the 1930s, a few farmers shunned chemical pesticides in an effort to return to basics and harvest only what the land could naturally sustain. Later, other growers joined in the practice out of a disgust with the heavy use of pesticides and concern that these chemicals could be unhealthy for people and animals alike.


Additional small farmers joined the movement when they realized that organic food could be sold at a premium. Some of them even became true believers.


But for the most part, agriculture in America, especially on the mega farms of California, means bigger is better. This forced many organic farmers to expand rapidly and behave more like large, conventional food companies.


Nothing illustrates this better than organic bagged salad, which was introduced by California farmers and Berkeley-area chefs trying to provide a tastier alternative to ubiquitous iceberg lettuce. But as demand for bagged salad grew nationally, smaller farmers were swallowed up or forced out of business by the big players, both organic and non-organic.


Fromartz, a freelance business journalist, provides equally interesting stories about the origins of modern organic strawberries and breakfast cereals. Whereas the bagged salad scenario has a kind of accidental quality in which the little guy is run over, there is no happenstance in Fromartz's telling of conventional-food behemoth Dean Foods taking over the nation's largest organic soy- and cow-milk companies.


As bigger and bigger companies jumped into the movement, spurred on by federal organic criteria that standardized patchwork rules passed by states, other growers have had to fight to keep the industry true to its original goals. The purists won some major battles -- such as limiting the use of certain chemicals in processing organic food -- but it is unclear whether they will be able to hold out against industry players.


The history of organic food is colorful, but these policy debates make this book important. Fromartz makes it clear just how precarious this movement has been, as regulators and advocates for the mainstream agricultural industry fight for exceptions in organic rules and small farmers are endangered by shrinking profit margins.


Fromartz avoids descending into the bleak tones often found in recent books on the food industry, such as "Diet for a Dead Planet," in which Christopher D. Cook describes in gory detail how mad cow disease made its way to the U.S. and how millions of gallons of animal waste is dumped into this nation's rivers and lakes.


Despite the perils facing the industry, the tone of "Organic, Inc." is much more upbeat and optimistic. After all, organic has infiltrated the nation's largest grocery chains, and farmers' markets continue to thrive. Organic, for better and worse, has gone mainstream.


Brett Levy, a systems analyst at The Times, regularly writes about health and nutrition at www.dadtalk.net.