Organic, Inc. – A Cheeto by Any Other Name

The book Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew by Samuel Fromartz is a timely companion piece to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. While they both touch on the commercial aspects of Big Organic (using Earthbound Farm and Cascadian as examples), Fromartz focuses much more on the overall organic picture, from its beginnings in Britain to the struggle between money and ideal that characterizes the current discussion. Fromartz, who has a background as a business reporter, a business reporter for the Wall Street Journal, provides thoughtful analysis of the current state of the organic industry, how it became one of the most rapidly growing retail segments, and what the future might hold, though his upbeat conclusion is not shared by this reader.Organics, Inc.

By way of introduction, Fromartz tells the story of Arthur Harvey, who is seventy-two and a small organic blueberry farmer from Maine. In October of 2002 he filed suit against Ann Veneman, the Secretary of Agriculture, charging that new federal organic rules, which had gone into effect days earlier, contravened the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. On January 26, 2005, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the 2002 rules did in fact contravene the Organic Foods Act; in June of that year, they gave the USDA twelve months to rewrite the rules so that they complied with the 1990 law, and stated that all products that were currently labeled as organic, but that were not organic based on the updated rules, would need to be re-labeled or removed from store shelves within two years of the ruling.

The impact of this ruling, and what it means for the organic industry, forms the backbone of Fromartz's book. Fromartz follows the growth of the organic movement and then examines individual companies and industries for such and such effect. He begins with a history of the origins of the modern organic movement, beginning with its roots in Britain in the 1920s as part of the backlash to industrialization. In the 1940s, J.I. Rodale, the creator of the magazines Organic Gardening and Prevention, began the popularization of organic foods in the United States. His magazines, along with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, created a base from which the modern organic movement could grow.

In the late 1960s, concerns about the degradation of the environment represented by Carson's book, oil spills along the California coast, and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire launched the modern organic movement. Organic fruits and vegetables remained a niche market, dismissed as unattractive, hole-filled, and purchased only by hippies. That is, until 1989, when the EPA banned the pesticide Alar, saying that, "long-term exposure to Alar poses unacceptable risks to public health." As Fromartz says, "(t)he entire episode created, as Newsweek put it, 'A Panic For Organic,' which was a mixed blessing for the industry, since stores soon faced shortages of organic food and fraudulent items appeared, leading Congress to pass national organic food regulations in 1990."

Fromartz then moves on to a discussion of organic methods versus conventional farming, focusing on strawberries. According to the Pesticides in Produce Report Card created by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental investigation group, strawberries are second on the list of produce most contaminated by pesticides, with pesticides being found on 90% of the strawberries tested. Fromartz interviews Jim Cochran, the owner of Swanton Berry Farm in California and considered a central figure in the creation of the California organic strawberry industry. Here, Fromartz finds that, while yields are typically lower for organic strawberries, the price they can command in the market more than makes up for the lower yield. In addition, the organic farmer does not have to buy expensive pesticides such as methyl bromide, which is essentially a nerve gas.

Fromartz devotes a chapter to farmers who sell directly to consumers. He spends time with Jim Crawford, a Pennsylvania organic farmer who sells produce at Washington, D.C. area farmer's markets, and discusses the benefits of selling directly to small-scale farmers who do not produce enough of any one product to be able to sell into grocery stores. Fromartz also discusses CSAs, which many farmers use to sell directly to consumers. It's clear from this chapter that there is a tension between organics as a movement and organics as an economic model. Farming is not a way to get rich, but the more you can sell, the greater your revenue. This basic reality has driven much of industrial agriculture towards consolidation, and it has become more of an issue in the organic world as well.

This tension is made plain by the chapter focusing on Earthbound Farm, which, with twenty-six thousand acres under cultivation around the world, is the largest organic produce company in the country. Fromartz talks with Drew and Myra Goodman, the owners of Earthbound Farm. Earthbound followed a classic path towards becoming a behemoth in its field--overproduce a product using economies of scale, drop the price, and drive other producers out of the market. As a result, if you go to your local organic grocery store (whether Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or a local company such as Puget Consumer Co-op), you will likely have one option for spring salad mix, and that option will be an Earthbound Farm product. However, the history of the Central Valley, which produces 90% of the nation's salad greens, is one where, as Fromartz puts it, "(o)ne crop would take over the formerly predominant one, and efficiencies and marketing savvy would be applied to make the new product highly profitable. That is, until too many farmers got into the game, leading to overproduction and falling prices and the desperate attempt by growers to avoid bankruptcy by finding the next hot item. There was no reason organic farmers would be able to avoid this fate." In this context, the growth of Earthbound Farm, or a company like it, is presented as inevitable.

Fromartz also looks at another big player in the organics industry, White Wave, manufacturers of Silk soy milk. Silk was the leading organic packaged-brand product in 2003, with $270 million in sales. In addition, sales were growing by one-third each year, even as overall milk sales were declining. Fromartz details the history of White Wave, from its beginnings as a health food restaurant through its sale to Dean Foods Company, the nation's second-largest dairy company. Once the company was sold to Dean Foods, it was no longer organic (non-organic soybeans being much cheaper to buy on the commodities market), making Silk into just another supermarket brand.

When large non-organic companies such as Dean Foods Company, General Mills, and others began buying organic businesses and entering the organic market, it engendered a backlash. People like Eugene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farms and Small Planet Foods, who sold his company to General Mills, are on one end. On the other are small-scale agrarians who believe it is time to move "beyond organic" because the label has become so compromised that it no longer has meaning. Fromartz states that, "(t)hese conflicts tended to play out in the arena of regulations, in defining organic production practices and in the very meaning of 'organic' food." Here, Fromartz bring the book full-circle by providing background to the creation of the 1990 Organic Foods act, the mechanisms that were put into place to ensure that all players in the organic field--farmers, retailers, processors, consumer and environmental interests, a scientist, and a certifier--would have input into what the term "organic" means, and how the inevitable conflicts with the USDA played out. Arthur Harvey is re-introduced, and the events leading up to his landmark court case are more fully explained.

The book finishes by talking about why consumers buy organic goods, and what organic may look like in ten or twenty years. Fromartz talks about why people buy organic products, and what the typical purchaser of organics looks like. He also discusses the increasing presence of large corporations such as General Mills in the organic market, and what that means for the future of organics. He ends by saying that, "...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 the core of a mission, rather than a wholesale solution to all the ills of conventional agriculture. [...] It's not a revolution, but it'll do."

I enjoyed this book, and felt that Fromartz did a good job of providing background to the modern organics movement, though I don't agree with his sunny conclusion. He talked to people on both sides of what I think of as the "growth versus soul" divide, and provided details on the growth of the marketplace and what that means for the environment and consumers.

While I agree that using fewer fertilizers, whether in the United States or in other countries, is definitely a good thing (and in that respect the colossal growth of the organic industry has been a boon to the environment), I don't really agree that "it'll do." Organic is important, certainly, but seasonality, sustainable farming practices, and local production are also important. I don't really want to buy the hypothetical organic Twinkie, and I don't think that a world where such a thing is available is something to strive for. There's been discussion of organic high-fructose corn syrup; even 7-Up is going "all natural". The problem is not just the overuse of pesticides on farmland; the problem is also agricultural monocultures leading to increasingly fragile ecosystems, too many empty calories fueling an epidemic of obesity, small-scale farmers driven to consolidation or bankruptcy, and a government that is actively abetting all of the above. An organic Cheeto is still a Cheeto; for my part, I will continue to buy locally first, organically second.

6 Responsesto “Organic, Inc. – A Cheeto by Any Other Name”

  1. Holly says:

    Great review. I agree with your criticism of his good cheer. It is more of the same in terms of the worldview that is convinced that the market will take care of everything. The market takes care of itself, it does not take care of people, or ecosystems, and it is sure not taking care of the future. I find the bastardization of "organic" a tragedy. I believe that we will find that big-ag can make organic farming ecologically destructive without trying too hard. And we are really running out of land to destroy.

  2. Hello Everyone:

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  3. Sam Fromartz says:

    I really appreciated your review of my book and only have one quibble - I'm a business reporter by background but have not worked for the Wall Street Journal.

    I also understand your misgivings about big organic, but it's too soon to write organics off. I think what will happen, and is already happening, is a further refinement of labels and understandings. Organic becomes a kind of baseline that all must meet, but other labels may exceed it - whether we're talking about food miles (local), humane animal treatment, farmworker labor standards, or even scale. We're in the very early process of that type of refinement. There is no need, I think, to throw out the good in organics because of misgivings about its growth, but to add to it, so that consumers who care about these additional values can get them. Wal-Mart's entry into the market will only accelerate this process.

    Again, thanks for the review!

    Sam

  4. Butter Bitch says:

    Thanks for your feedback! I have no idea where I got Wall Street Journal--I went back and looked at my copy of the book, thinking that it was referenced on the bookflap, but nothing. I've corrected the post.

    In terms of the future of organics, I do believe that organic will become a baseline of sorts, with other labels going "beyond organic." What I worry about is that, as other, more stringent, labels proliferate, the people who have kept the organics label "honest" (for lack of a better term) will migrate to the more stringent labels, leaving organic to be defined in a way that best suits the Wal-Marts and Proctor & Gambles of the world. I also am concerned that multiple new labels will lead to consumer confusion and abandonment of what I believe to be a really important discussion about where and how we get our food.

    The ongoing discussion is really helpful in figuring out what I believe and how I act on those beliefs. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

  5. Butter's review of Sam Fromartz' (2006) Organic, INC. was excellent - and the Ethicurean format doubles usefulness with feedback from the author. Keep up the good work.
    **
    The future of organic dairying looks brighter to me since May 25, 2007 when Horizon announced support for the NOSB's recommendation that cows graze at least 120 days annually, get at least 30% dry matter intake from grazing - and urged the industry to exceed these standards. COMMENT?

    Cheers - Bruce Scholten

  6. Butter Bitch says:

    Thanks for the info, Bruce. I missed Horizon's support for the NOSB's recommendation. Their site, however (http://www.horizonorganic.com/ourfarms/Animal_Welfare.html) still says that they offer "...access to the outdoors". They rather pointedly do NOT say that their animals graze. Do you know if Horizon is actually implementing the recommendations?