National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story recently on how high organic soybean prices had led to a shortage of organic eggs in the U.S. Biofuels policies in the U.S. and E.U. may not make sense from an environmental or energy independence standpoint, but they have worked wonders at driving up incomes for grain farmers. In fact, things have been so good for farmers of conventional crops that the price differential for organic soybeans and corn hasn’t been great enough to encourage domestic supply to keep up with demand. According to NPR, the U.S. now imports half of the organic soybeans it uses and has even started importing organic corn.
Who is growing these organic crops to feed the demand for organic meat, milk and eggs in the U.S.? Farmers in India and China - who can afford to manually weed fields, because herbicides can’t be used on organic fields - are growing many of the organic soybeans that the U.S. imports crops. When informed of this fact by an NPR reporter a consumer at Whole Foods, who was confronted with empty shelves where organic egg should have been stocked, was surprised. In a moment of clarity she said, "Wow. They're importing organic feed from those countries? That's amazing. [It] seems to go against the grain of helping sustainability and the environment."
Free markets allow consumers to buy whatever products and services they can afford for whatever reason they want. A consumer could buy organic eggs because they like the fact that birds have access to the outdoors, aren’t housed in a cage, or that the hens are fed a diet produced without use of herbicides or pesticides. These are aspects of the organic production process that are certifiable. But, I don’t think a consumer should buy organic poultry meat or eggs because they think they are more sustainable than their conventional counterparts. The relative sustainability of organic versus conventional egg production is not easily determined, and I think a good case can be made that conventional egg production is more sustainable than is organic egg production in the U.S., given the current organic standards.
This discussion reminds me of the “Happy Cows in California” dairy product advertising campaign of a few years ago. I thought it was a little silly, because anyone who has ever been to California would know that dairy cows weren’t roaming in small groups in remarkably lush green fields. They were housed in a dry lot with a roof over it and were eating a carefully formulated ration of grains and forages, with much of the feed trucked into the state. If the advertising campaign was successful at all, it wasn’t because California dairy cows were any happier than were the cows in any other state. The success, if there was any, stemmed from how consumers felt about the images they saw and about what they were told.
Sales of organic meat and poultry products depend on how the consumer feels about the things they have been told and the images they have been shown about organic production. If they feel good enough to pay a high enough premium, then suppliers will be there to supply them. Economic, not environmental, sustainability will determine availability of organic products.