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by John Dicker & r & & r & Organic Inc. by Samuel Fromartz & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen Wal-Mart's charisma-challenged CEO touts his interest in organic food, you know the stuff is no longer the domain of back-to-the-land hippies. What's not clear is what "the stuff" actually is. Does an organic dairy give a cow chemical medication or maintain purity by having the animal suffer through an illness? Does supporting organic really mean helping the small farmer, or just a few large conglomerates beyond the pale of mainstream agribusiness?


These questions may not keep most grocery shoppers up at night, but business journalist Samuel Fromartz probes them in Organic, Inc. Fromartz got interested in the subject organically enough -- he loved cooking and food and its presentation and ecology, so he soon fell in love with Whole Foods; he also loves knowing from whence his ingredients come. Some of the best parts of Organic, Inc. serve the farmers' market ideal: to put a human face on the otherwise anonymous food supply line.


Fromartz combines a series of profiles of farmers and industry icons to form a diverse portrait of an industry that's still very much in its childhood. From Harvard-educated soybean farmers struggling to sustain a profit, to the salad empire of Earthbound Farm, to struggling strawberry growers in California, Organic, Inc. is about an industry caught between the idealism of its founders and profit motives of both modest and imperial players.


Produce companies like Earthbound Farm, soy processors like White Wave and retailers like Whole Foods are no longer niche operators; they are pushing into the mainstream fast. While they still only account for little more than 2 percent of domestic food sales, organics are one of the fastest-growing segments of that market, expanding by 20 percent since 1990.


Aside from a punishingly dull chapter on pesticides, Fromartz does a fine job navigating the line between the idealism of the early "movement" farmers and their contemporaries, many of whom are merely trying to stay afloat in an ever-fragmenting marketplace. And some of the marketing data, when culled down to digestible form, does much to eradicate the noxious stereotype that only yuppies care about organic food.


What unites the best of both strains of the organic movement is the worthiness of tackling the following question, asked by White Wave's soy guru Steve Demos: How do you create a health food Americans actually want to eat? In a time of rapidly bulging waistlines, it's more than a mere marketing quandary.

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