By Debbi Snook, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/7/17
While organic farming groups are moving an arm’s length from President Donald Trump’s views, from immigration to an agriculture secretary nominee, Jim Riddle is leaning in to the new administration with a corn-huskers’ handshake.
Riddle, a 60-year-old who grew up on an Iowa farm and now raises berries in Minnesota, says there’s an unclaimed common ground between organics and conservatives.
His own perspective is certified organic. For 20 years he was an organic inspector, one of those folks who show up at least once a year to determine if certified farms really do merit the federally approved organic label by avoiding harmful pesticides and genetically modified seeds, among many other strictures.
After co-founding a farmers market, he served five years on the National Organic Standards Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since then he has been appointed chair of Minnesota’s organic advisory board. This weekend he comes to Dayton as a keynote speaker at the 38th annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. He’ll talk 3:45 p.m. Friday at the Dayton Convention Center. More information online.
Politics were heavy in the air when we talked to him by phone two weeks ago.
“In part, I want to talk about how organic values are conservative values,” he said. “At its core, organic farming is pro-life. From the ground up, it’s about keeping things alive – the seeds, the soil health, pollinators and wildlife. It embraces all species at all levels of farming.”And I also want to say that organic farming is really free-market farming. It’s farming the land in response to consumer demand. The demand for organic products is skyrocketing by double-digits each year. But because organic crop rotations are more complex methods, there typically aren’t government subsidies. That matches really well with the conservative agenda.
“The organic community went to the government and said it wanted standards that protect the word organic, and it worked really well. We’re really a model for self-regulation with clear, strong, transparent standards and protection of the word organic.”
Riddle believes organic food corresponds to the perceived conservative values of heightened personal responsibility.
“We are what we eat,” he said. “If it’s junk, you have lots of health problems. If you eat clean and live a smart life, your health improves and you’re less of a cost to society.”
Still, Riddle would like to see some changes, especially in what he calls loopholes to the organic trade laws.
In 2014, he said, Minnesota was one of the biggest producers of organic soybeans, selling more than $7.5 million a year. That same year, he said, India sold $75 million in organic soybeans to the United States. India got permission to sell here in a “magical, not transparent,” process during the George Bush administration, Riddle said. “India wanted access to the U.S. organic market, and it was granted as part of a nuclear arms agreement.”
While India has its own certifying groups to grant the use of USDA Organic labels, Riddle says the there’s no U.S. oversight on how they are being certified. In fact, Indocert.org, the site for a national certification body in India, says that because of forged certificates, buyers should double-check with Indocert first.
“Maybe it’s all totally authentic,” said Riddle, “and good for India if that’s true. But we don’t know. There’s no transparency, no U.S. audits, no reviews.”
Right now, he said, we import 70 percent of the organic soybeans we use, and 40-50 percent of organic corn. Many of those grains are coming not only from India, but also from Turkey, Romania and the Ukraine. Those three, he said, are inspected by a Turkish agency which lost its accreditation to sell in the European Union and Canada two years ago. The USDA tried, but failed, to suspend the Turkish agency’s accreditation. From Riddle’s point of view, this means we are letting in questionable imports.
“Even if they are authentic, we are rewarding farmers in foreign lands rather than supporting organic farmers in America who are protecting water quality, preventing soil erosion, enhancing biodiversity, and growing good clean food. We need to do everything we can to preserve organics here. And, hello, if anything can grow here organically, it’s corn and beans.”
But who will grow it? Riddle admits that while organic food sales have spiked, the number of U.S. organic farmers has not increased. He himself turned from annual to perennial crops after some severe storms.
So, beyond blueberries, who will grow our vegetables? Riddle says produce is still a good, quick-turnover crop for beginning farmers, although he encourages diversification for biodiversity and future profit.
Organic farmers still face “a huge barrier” economically in the required three-year transition period from conventional farming methods to organic certification.
“There’s no safety net to help conventional and beginning farmers convert to organic,” he said. “While a country like Denmark is behind that transition 100 percent.
“As a result, we become more dependent on imports. The farther we get away from our own gardens, community supported agriculture programs, farmers markets, there’s a larger danger of not being authentic.
“There are container ships arriving here with 450,000 tons of “organic” grain at a time. It’s really difficult to think about traceability on that grain.”
Riddle, along with major players in the organic community, also worries about the rise in hydroponically grown products being labeled as organic.
“It’s right in the law that the term organic means it enhances the health of the soil. If there’s no soil, how can you apply the term? It’s misleading to the consumer. It’s fine if they want to label the products as pesticide-free, but hydroponic growers shouldn’t be cashing in on the organic market.”
Riddle worries about the current immigration crackdown, fearing that people will forget the contributions to agriculture made by Hispanics, Somalians, and, in his neck of the woods, the Hmong of Laos.
He’s hoping Ohio will create its own organic advisory board, to help bolster the movement. He may find ways to shake hands with the new administration, but he wants them to feel an organic grip.
“This whole movement toward organic food and farming happened outside the political sphere,” he said. “And it’s not going to go away.”