Who would have thought that a natural food supermarket could have been a financial refuge from the dot-com bust? But it had. Sales of organic food had shot up about 20 percent per year since 1990, reaching $11 billion by 2003 . . . Whole Foods managed to sidestep that fray by focusing on, well, people like me.
Organic food has become a juggernaut in an otherwise sluggish food industry, growing at 20 percent a year as products like organic ketchup and corn chips vie for shelf space with conventional comestibles. But what is organic food? Is it really better for you? Where did it come from, and why are so many of us buying it?
Business writer Samuel Fromartz set out to get the story behind this surprising success after he noticed that his own food choices were changing with the times. In Organic, Inc., Fromartz traces organic food back to its anti-industrial origins more than a century ago. Then he follows it forward again, casting a spotlight on the innovators who created an alternative way of producing food that took root and grew beyond their wildest expectations. In the process he captures how the industry came to risk betraying the very ideals that drove its success in a classically complex case of free-market triumph.
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About the Author
SAMUEL FROMARTZ is a business journalist whose work has appeared in Inc., Fortune Small Business, Business Week, the New York Times, and other publications. A recreational cook, he lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
1. Humus Worshippers
The Origins of Organic Food
The birthright of all living things is health. This law is true for soil, plant, animal and man: the health of these four is one connected chain. Any weakness or defect in the health of any earlier link in the chain is carried on to the next and succeeding links, until it reaches the last, namely, man.
—Sir Albert Howard, 1945
In 1998, Chensheng Lu, a researcher at the Department of Health at the University of Washington, began testing children in the Seattle area to see whether he could detect pesticide residues in their urine. He was looking for signs of organophosphates, a class of chemicals closely related to nerve agents developed during World War II, which subsequently came into widespread use as pesticides in a far less potent form, eventually accounting for half of all insecticide use in the United States. The chemicals inactivate enzymes crucial to the nervous and hormonal system, which, at high enough levels of exposure, can lead to symptoms as various as mild anxiety or respiratory paralysis. Long-term exposure increases the risk of neurobehavioral damage, cancer, and reproductive disorders.
Lu and his colleagues thought that children living near farms would have the highest levels of pesticide residues, since they were subject to drift from nearby fields. But the 110 two- to five-year-olds he studied in the Seattle metropolitan area turned out to have higher levels of pesticide metabolites (the markers produced when the body metabolizes the chemicals). This suggested that food residues or home pesticide use, not drift, were the primary path for exposure.
The study also had a curious anomaly: One child out of the hundreds they had studied had no signs of any pesticide metabolites.
“It was kind of surprising,” said Lu, who now directs the Pesticide Exposure and Risk Laboratory at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. When the researchers interviewed the parents, they learned the family ate organic food almost exclusively.
This provided the first hint of scientific evidence that an organic food diet reduced pesticide exposure in children. Another study looked at pesticide residue data from 94,000 food samples from 1994–1999 and found organic food had about two-thirds less residues than conventional food. This showed that organic consumers were getting what they paid for—lower pesticides in food—but the study looked only at what was in the overall food supply, not what people ate. By identifying metabolites in the urine—through a technique known as biomonitoring—the researchers had evidence of pesticides children had actually consumed.
Cynthia Curl, another scientist then at the University of Washington, followed up on Lu’s finding and published the results in March 2003. She showed that a group of children who ate mostly organic food had one-sixth the pesticide metabolites of those who ate nonorganic food, but the study could not identify the pesticides, or determine their risk, since many different ones produced the same markers. The study only concluded that eating organic food reduced the children’s risk of exposure to harmful pesticides from an “uncertain” level to a “negligible” one.
Lu, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, has since buttressed this conclusion. When a research team he led substituted organic foods for a conventional diet in children for five days, they could find no evidence of pesticide metabolites in their urine. When they reintroduced conventional foods, the metabolites returned. The paper concluded that an organic food diet provided “a protective mechanism” against pesticide exposure in a manner that “is dramatic and immediate.”
Although the potential risks incurred by pesticide exposures over a lifetime are unknown, people who choose to eat organic for this reason have, in effect, decided to opt out of an ongoing social experiment into whether pesticides are safe. Given the number of pesticides that were once freely used but have since been removed from the market for health reasons, this is not a wild or unreasonable choice. For children the reasoning seems even clearer.
Chemicals are up to ten times more toxic in the developing bodies of infants and children than in adults, according to a 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a nonpartisan, government-funded research body. At ages one to five, children also eat three to four times more food per pound of body weight than adults, and their diet is far more concentrated (infants consume seventeen times more apple juice than the U.S. average, for example). So not only are children subject to a higher dose of pesticides, but the chemicals also have a greater impact on their bodies. That conclusion, reached in the NAS study, led to an overhaul of U.S. pesticide laws in 1996, charging the EPA to consider the impact of pesticides on children, a reevaluation process that is still going on.
“If you can reduce some risk from some usage or pathway, you actually reduce your overall risk,” Lu said. “And it just so happens, for kids, the majority of exposure comes from dietary intake. So the benefit can be quite overwhelming.”
The curious thing about this conclusion was that the people who were buying organic food—largely women, who make most household purchasing decisions, and especially mothers—already assumed it was true. It was common sense. If you ate food from organic farms that shunned toxic pesticides, less residue would end up in your body. You might not know what substance you were avoiding, or what the actual risk was, but that didn’t really matter. Why consume pesticides at all if they added no nutritional value and might be detrimental to health? And why not support a farmer who had figured out how to produce food without them? This wasn’t a giant leap of faith but a conclusion consumers could easily reach, even if it required them to pay more for food.
amily: 'Times New Roman'" Food scares have simply reinforced this conclusion, since they feed on consumer unease with the conventional food system. This became apparent in 1989, when CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a report about Alar, a pesticide that the government kept on the market even though it was a probable human carcinogen. Sprayed on apples, the pesticide was converted into a potential carcinogen when apples were heat-processed into juice and applesauce, products largely consumed by children. In the spotlight, the EPA banned the substance, saying that “long-term exposure to Alar poses unacceptable risks to public health.” The entire episode created, as Newsweek put it, “A Panic For Organic,” which was a mixed blessing for the young industry, since stores soon faced shortages of organic food and fraudulent items appeared, leading Congress to pass national organic food regulations in 1990.
More recent scares, surrounding meat, have had a similar effect, notably in Europe. Mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) arose in 1986, it is believed, from animal by-products that were once routinely fed to livestock. By the mid-nineties, the British government acknowledged that people who had eaten the meat of infected animals were dying from a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which began with depression or anxiety and progressed to a crippling of the brain and death. More than 150 people died and cattle herds across Europe had to be destroyed. In late 2003, the first case of mad cow appeared in the United States, several years after cattle feed rules were revamped. No human deaths were attributed to the disease, nor did meat sales suffer, but organic meat sales jumped 78 percent. While the risk of tainted meat may be infinitesimally small, that didn’t really address the main fear. Why had the conventional food industry taken these risks, anyway, when the natural diet of cattle was grass, not other animals?
Yet while a third of American women and a quarter of all men believe that pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics in food production pose a “high risk” to health, the growth of the organic food industry cannot be entirely attributed to food scares, which make headlines and then fade away. Nor can its rise be explained by fears about pesticides, although they, too, play a central role. Buying and consuming organic food has come to be viewed not only as a means of avoiding harm but as a benefit in itself, a personal way of aligning nutrition, health, and social and environmental well-being. A mother might buy organic apple juice for her child because she views it as healthier; a twenty-something single making a meal with friends might choose organic lettuce mix because she thinks it’s better for the environment; a couple planning to celebrate a special occasion with a fancy dinner at a restaurant might seek a chef who relies upon organic food grown by small farmers and harvested at its peak. Where food comes from, who grows and processes it, and what happens to people and the environment along the way can bestow attributes that make it extra appealing. “Consumers don’t just taste food, they experience it, and knowing a product came from a food system that treats farmers well may well enhance its flavor,” researchers at Tufts University in Boston write.
While critics often portray organic farming as a pre-industrial anachronism practiced by aging hippies, romantics, Luddites, and quacks who are incapable of feeding the world, this characterization never seems to get very far with consumers because it misses the central premise. Organic food exists because, like any industry, it fulfills a need, in this case arising from lapses in the perceived quality and safety of conventional food production, and from the desire for an alternative predicated upon personal and environmental health. This demand has not been manufactured (nor could it be—total U.S. sales of organic food in 2003 amounted to only a third of the $29 billion that conventional food firms shelled out for advertising that year). Demand has arisen because an alternative to the status quo implicitly made sense.
Copyright © 2006 by Samuel Fromartz
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Table of Contents
1. Humus Worshippers
The Origins of Organic Food 1
2. The Organic Method
Strawberries in Two Versions 32
3. A Local Initiative
From Farm to Market 69
4. A Spring Mix
Growing Organic Salad 108
5. Mythic Manufacturing
Health, Spirituality, and Breakfast 145
The Meaning of Organic
7. Consuming Organic
Why We Buy 237
What People are Saying About This
Sam Fromartz has the ability to transform an important subject into an interesting one, as he does with this vivid, vital book, Organic, Inc. No, it's not a new wave or diet book. It's a book that will alter the way we think about what we eat and the business forces that shape what we eat.