Barry Flamm's Frontier 

The organic pioneer may never run out of things to do

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Flamm taught environmental policy at the University of Montana in 2003. He says he had students who argued passionately, to his surprise, that if one can't have food that's both local and organic, it's better to eat local food. Flamm's experience taught him otherwise.

"I lean toward organic," he says. "I know a lot of the local food is heavily sprayed. The cherries—I wouldn't eat a cherry that didn't come from an organic orchard...If I don't know it's organic, I won't touch it. Because I know what's in it. I wouldn't touch a non-organic apple for the life of me. I might as well take a bottle of poison and get it over with quickly rather than die slowly. It's what you learn in the business."

There are now a few orchards around Flathead Lake that grow cherries organically, including the one Flamm started in 1992.

As a member of the volunteer National Organic Standards Board, Flamm has influence over the list of substances that may or may not be used in organic crop and livestock production. The list has been debated since 1997, when the USDA issued a draft of the proposed rules for implementing organic standards. The public comment period drew more than 275,000 comments, thought to be the most ever received in federal rulemaking. In 1998, the agency reversed its position on three key things it initially wanted to allow in organic food production: irradiation, genetically modified organisms and sewage sludge, millions of tons of which are applied to conventional farm fields in the U.S. every year.



A movement, not an industry

The final National Organic Program rule was published in the federal register in 2000. The industry was worth about $2.5 billion then. It's worth around $30 billion now. The tolerance of GMOs in organic food production continues to be contentious. Agricultural biotech giant Monsanto's genetically engineered traits are planted on more than 80 percent of U.S. corn acreage, and in more than 90 percent of soybean, cotton and sugar beet acreage. Genetically engineered material tends to find its way into organic farmers' fields, threatening the integrity of the organic label. Fences don't stop crosspollination.

click to enlarge Flamm’s entering his last year on the National Organic Standards Board. When he’s through, wilderness awaits. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Flamm’s entering his last year on the National Organic Standards Board. When he’s through, wilderness awaits.

"Some things you can put back into the bottle and you can clean up and start over again," Flamm says. "This isn't one of them. I hope there's still a chance to rectify what's happening, but it's terrifying to me."

Flamm says the NOSB is debating whether to come out against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's decision earlier in the year to allow unrestricted planting of Monsanto's new genetically modified alfalfa. Alfalfa, the most widely grown perennial forage crop, is especially prone to GMO contamination. Organic meat and dairy producers fear it's only a matter of time before they find GMO material in their alfalfa fields.

Flamm wants to denounce Vilsack's decision, which reflects his position as perhaps the board's most independent and progressive member. Other members represent large companies, such as Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farm. "I think I am the most independent just by my nature," he says. "But also, I don't owe allegiance to anybody right now. Just the organic movement—that's my allegiance."

He calls it a movement, or a community—not an industry. "I grew up in Ohio and industry meant smokestacks belching smoke," he says.

In his view, the board should represent farmers, consumers of organic food and everyone who benefits from fewer chemicals applied to the land.

"The whole organic system is based on consumer trust," says Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman, who serves alongside Flamm on the NOSB. "We have to meticulously ensure that consumers have increasing trust in the decisions that are made by the board, especially as the industry grows and as more and bigger players become engaged in organic. It can't be seen as just a sales tactic that is used to capture a market. It has to really be seen increasingly as an incredibly rigorous process that is subject to full transparency and oversight and involvement by the public. That requires more people like Barry who appreciate that, understand that and believe that organic will eventually become the mainstream in food production—because people believe in it, and understand its value, not only for their own health but for the health of the environment and those who work the farms."

Flamm's five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board ends in January 2013, perhaps marking the end of his work in agriculture. But other frontiers await him.

"I love wildlands and wilderness," he says. "Nothing gives me more pleasure than just being in the wild, without hearing another voice, without seeing any structures...I think when I leave the board I'll probably try to get active again in wilderness issues in the state, because the state is an incredible place for a wilderness lover."

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