As one of the stalwart leaders of the environmental and good food movement, Barry Flamm, PhD has an urgent message: “The enormous effects of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and farm-source pollution require the organic community to join forces with other organizations dealing with environmental programs to provide special expertise in how organic can and must be a part of solving the complex problems.”

Dr. Flamm was instrumental in developing the National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) procedures and monitoring the US Forest Service’s actions as the first Environmental Coordinator. Dr. Flamm taught environmental policy at the University of Montana along with lecturing on and authoring conservation topics. He is a natural resource, environmental, and organic farming consultant specializing in biodiversity conservation on the global scene. Alongside a lifelong history of environmental advocacy, Flamm also served on the NOSB as board chair and operated the first certified organic sweet cherry orchard in the state of Montana.

Dr. Flamm’s opinion piece is included as part of our essay series in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act. 

Dr. Barry Flamm, Former Cornucopia Board Secretary

Organic matters more than ever! The simple truth is the sustainable future is absolutely vital for the survival of all living things and our planet. So why is the “organic way” more sustainable? As an organic advocate and environmental steward, I would like to humbly share my views on this matter.

Introduction: We can all witness that our nation and world are experiencing unprecedented times of dealing with crises, losses, unemployment and uncertainties. The dire consequences of and responses to this pandemic certainly revealed the unpreparedness of our medical systems and society, the poor leadership of our government, and so on. So many lives lost – tragically mind blowing! This pandemic is a clear wakeup call for future threats and epidemics. As we also witness our soil, water, air, biodiversity and planet’s critical atmosphere quality declining globally, I wonder if we are prepared to handle terrible environmental, ecological, and humanitarian crises. Do we have any solutions? How do we prepare for the healthy, sustainable and resilient future?

Facts: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations’ special report of 2018 stated that if we do not take actions immediately to reduce CO2 emissions, the Earth will be irreversibly changed and become unfit for life. This enormous challenge is the result of using fossil fuels, the release of carbon stored in soils, the destruction of forest and grasslands, and the large loss of biodiversity. Fortunately, countries around the world took the early warnings of the Earth Summit of Rio De Janeiro (1992) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1994) and came together in Paris to hammer out the urgent mitigation actions needed to combat the climate change (2016). The US initially took a lead in this effort during the President Barack Obama administration in 2016. President Donald Trump took the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, undermining the global climate control cooperation. As one of the major contributors to global warming, the US should not run away; instead it must be a part of the solution. On a bright note, the President-elect Joe Biden promised that one of his first actions would be to rejoin the Paris Agreement.

Problems: Some of the major organic principles include the mandate to protect and improve soils, to protect biodiversity, and to produce crops that are healthy without the use of toxic chemicals. Agrichemicals are largely produced from materials that are major contributors to global warming, particularly, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of highly toxic pesticides and insecticides that threaten, distress, and destroy many living organisms on the planet. Toxic chemicals do not just impact human health; they affect our planet’s health. Clearly, humankind has complex and daunting challenges, which require strong actions, education, investments and collaborations to find solutions. As the US is one of the major contributors of global greenhouse emissions, we should contribute to fixing the problems.

Policy and Solutions: The law and regulations of the USDA Organic Certification standardized organic production, after years of many different certifiers trying to validate organic products under different standards. Certified organic products now appear on most grocery store shelves. Yet, only approximately 1% of all US crops are organic. For the sake of human health and our planet, I believe that all crops should be grown without the use of poisons and fossil fuels. Is that possible, especially when the population on this planet is increasing at an alarming speed? Why not? If everyone, including businesses and industries, works together against these daunting challenges  to reduce toxic chemical use and reduce carbon footprints, we can make differences. We need more programs educating the general public and young generation on the impact of pesticides on soil, water, and air ecosystems. Common sense tells us that better education can enhance one’s decision making capacity.

Organics contributes to environmental health and biodiversity protection; especially when chemical poison-based farms are converted to organic standards. But organic farming has a negative impact when forests and grasslands are converted to organic production. The NOSB had partly dealt with this problem by recommending that “a site supporting a native ecosystem cannot be certified for organic production… for a period of 10 years from the date of conversion.”

Large farms will initially have challenges to meet the biodiversity needs. This can be partly dealt with by breaking large fields into smaller units, separated by suitable vegetation inside and outside that farm. Using more biological controls for weeds and insects and improving the soil quality are essential.

It is important that a concerted effort to be made to recapture carbon dioxide (CO2). Soil rich in organic matter will increase overall biodiversity, reduce the use of energy and toxic chemicals, and sequester carbon. This requires efforts from farmers and consumers with strong support from government and non-governmental organizations.

President elect Joe Biden has suggested that the US policy will be to eliminate energy sources from fossil fuels. Organic farming can get ahead of the time table and show leadership by beginning now to convert to sustainable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, further preparing and training more green-collar workers. The investment in green jobs is probably one of the best investments for the future. Farms are particularly suited to on-site energy production.

Processing could also stop practice using plastic packaging that is a pollution problem; its production also requires energy derived from fossil fuels. Recycled, biodegradable, and eco-friendly packaging should be encouraged.

Policies could increase organic production. Hospitals, schools, and government policies could have strong impacts to improve our health and increase organic farming by requiring the use of more organic and healthy products.

Collaboration: The enormous effects of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and farm-source pollution requires the organic community to join forces with other organizations dealing with environmental programs to provide special expertise in how organic can and must be a part of solving the complex problems. Cornucopia has been a strong supporter of organic integrity, providing policy advice and research to improve and protect organic standards and practices. The Wild Farm Alliance has been especially important in strengthening the recognition of the importance of biodiversity for successful organic farming and needed ecosystem health. Beyond Pesticides is a watch dog providing valuable information on dangerous chemicals used in farming, golf courses, family lawns, and so on. There are many other groups, like the Montana Organic Association (MOA), Vilicus Farm, and Terrapin Farm in my state, working to improve organic production and processing.

Conclusion: Organic matters are more important than ever. Climate change is the most serious problem that modern civilization has faced; a sustainable future is impossible if we don’t tackle this obstacle! I urge the organic community to get involved in the important decisions that are being made on climate change matters. Educate, Invest and Collaborate! Remember, if we work together, we can do it!