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If you've shopped for organic eggs lately, you may have discovered they're hard to find. There's a nationwide shortage, partly because of increasing demand but also because of problems with supply. It's a symptom of some broader problems that affect production of organic eggs and meat.
NPR's Dan Charles explains.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Elissa Rubin came to the grocery store the other morning looking for something simple, a dozen eggs. But at this store, a Whole Foods Market in Washington, D.C., the shelves underneath the big sign that says eggs are completely empty.
ELISSA RUBIN: It is a little unusual, especially when you look around and there are 95 varieties of cereal to choose from.
CHARLES: Rubin usually buys organic eggs, although they cost a dollar or two more.
What would be your guess as to why organic eggs cost more?
RUBIN: I would assume because the chickens are raised on smaller farms, in better conditions that cost the farmers more to produce. Is that not the right answer?
CHARLES: Not quite, Elissa. Let's go to a chicken house.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)
CHARLES: This one near Hershey, Pennsylvania, is a free-range operation; the chickens are running around on the floor. Paul Sauder, president of Sauder Eggs, says the house was built so it could produce organic eggs.
PAUL SAUDER: There's doors on the outside of the building.
CHARLES: So the chickens could go outside, as the organic rules require. That's easy. The hard part about going organic is these chickens would need organic feed: ground-up corn and soybeans grown without pesticides or manufactured fertilizer. And that is really expensive.
SAUDER: You go from $400 a ton to over $800 a ton for organic feed. And that's when you really get into some pricey eggs.
CHARLES: That cost eats into his profits. So that's the answer to my question: Organic eggs have to cost more because the chickens get high-priced feed.
At the time I visited this chicken house last summer, organic feed prices were hitting an all-time high. David Bruce, director of Eggs, Meat, and Produce for the company Organic Valley, says some egg producers decided to shut down for a while.
DAVID BRUCE: Take some of their birds out of production, divert them into cage-free because that market was strong, and take them off of the expensive organic feed.
CHARLES: Organic egg production fell but demand kept growing. This is why organic eggs are now so hard to find.
Production is ramping up again, David Bruce says. But a basic problem remains: American farmers are not growing enough organic crops to feed organic animals, especially soybeans. Soybean meal is the main source of protein in chicken feed.
LYNN CLARKSON: We continue to be frustrated finding enough domestic production to meet domestic demand.
CHARLES: That's Lynn Clarkson, a grain trader in Illinois who buys and sells organic soybeans. Clarkson says it's odd because farmers can make a lot of money right now growing organic soybeans. They can sell those beans for twice what they'd get for conventional beans.
CLARKSON: This should be almost a no-brainer - should be but it's not.
CHARLES: Farmers say switching to organic production runs into a bunch of obstacles. Allen Williams, a farmer near Cerro Gordo, Illinois, who does grow organic crops, says it goes against part of farming culture.
ALLEN WILLIAMS: In this area, a good farmer is one who keeps his farms very well-maintained, and that means weed-free. And organic definitely isn't weed-free.
CHARLES: Then there are the practical reasons. Growing organically can mean more work, clearing weeds by hand. And U.S. farmers are doing well already. They've been earning record profits growing conventional crops. They're really good at it. There's no compelling reason to switch. It's led to the following situation: The U.S., a soybean superpower ships conventional soybeans all over the world, to feed animals in places like China. Meanwhile, in China, farmers are growing organic soybeans and sending them here.
The U.S. now gets more than half of its organic soybeans from abroad. The biggest suppliers are China and India. And the stream of organic imports is growing. Last year, for the first time, the U.S. imported significant amounts of organic corn, too, also for animal feed.
All this was news to Elissa Rubin, back in the egg and dairy aisle of Whole Foods.
RUBIN: Wow. They're importing organic feed from those countries? That's amazing. Seems to kind of go against the grain of...
RUBIN: ...helping sustainability and the environment.
CHARLES: In fact, a lot of people in the organic food industry are not happy about the situation. Some of them don't trust the imports. Even though Chinese and Indian farms have to get the same organic certification as American farms, the skeptics think some foreign suppliers may be cheating, selling soybeans that weren't really grown organically.
Lynn Clarkson, the grain trader, says you do have to be on your guard.
CLARKSON: But last year, when the USADA's National Organic Program enforcement folks were looking into this, most of the people that were ejected from the organic world for fraud happened to be good, old faithful Americans, a few happened to be Chinese. No matter where you are, you need to know your chain of supplies.
CHARLES: And that supply chain, reaching all the way back to certified organic soybean fields in China and India, has become the key to putting organic eggs and chicken meat on American Grocery shelves.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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