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The Virginia Quarterly Review
Sunday, July 16th, 2006
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Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew

by Samuel Fromartz

Beyond Organic

A review by Richard C. Collins

No wonder there now is a fledgling food reform movement calling itself Beyond Organic. After reading Organic, Inc. one begins to understand why some would feel a need to go "Beyond Organic." The current requirements for labeling a good as organic would, theoretically, permit frozen Twinkies at your Whole Foods outlet. This is not what organic food advocates originally had in mind. They had a notion that "organic" would lead to a sustainable relationship between soil, food, farming, eating, and human health. Fromartz shows how "organic" foods and the legal use of the organic label has evolved to diminish its meaning. As Fromartz points out, the definition of the organic label was a proxy for the issues that divided the food industries.

This book also demonstrates how the skills and perspective of journalists can produce in-depth accounts of social, political and economic phenomena that go beyond mere reportage, or "he said/she said" accounts of controversial issues. Fromartz, a business journalist, effectively integrates interviews with key actors in the corporate, government, and organic farming sector, along with savvy analysis of the economic, regulatory, and consumer dynamics that are in play. He also personalizes the book with accounts of his own quest for healthy food while shopping, testing organic food for attractiveness and taste, while maintaining a certain distance as an "objective" surveyor of a remarkable story.

The organic food market has burgeoned from a negligible, marginal operation of a few farmers, environmentalists, and health advocates, to an $11 billion dollar business dominated by large corporations who grow, package, process, and distribute foods which are certified as being free of at least the worse kinds of pesticides. In this story, one gains a fuller appreciation of the ability of the American consumer to exercise power through its purchases of commodities, but even more, the power of the "government-food industry complex" to deflect serious challenges to the dominant farming, distribution, processing, and marketing of Food Inc. (to use Fromartz's term), which has lowered the production cost of "organic" foods while still charging a premium for them, threatened the economic viability of small organic operators, and hijacking the word "organic" to their corporate goals.

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