Suddenly We Like Organic Corn So Much We Have to Go to Romania to Get It

Demand is surging for organic foods—but American farmers are still growing almost exclusively GMO feed crops.

(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Apr 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The U.S. grows more soybeans and corn than any other country in the world. So why are we importing so much of them?

It’s one of the strange ironies of our Byzantine global food system: Even as the socially conscious consumers who are driving demand for more organic products show an increasing desire to eat locally as well, it turns out there’s just not enough organic grain being produced in the U.S. to go around. That means a rising portion of the feed used to produce things such as organic eggs and milk is coming from places as far-flung as Romania, India, and Ukraine.

Say what?

U.S. imports of corn from Romania totaled just over half a million dollars in 2013—and they skyrocketed to $11.6 million in 2014. Soybean imports from India more than doubled in 2014 to $73.8 million. Both figures come from a new analysis of U.S. trade data released this week by the Organic Trade Association and Pennsylvania State University.

So how did we get here? Even as demand for organic products in the U.S. continues to soar—growing by 11.3 percent in 2014, yet another year in a decades-long trend of double-digit growth—American farmers continue to grow the GMO seeds that have dominated corn and soy production since the 1990s. Organic certification takes time, so the supply side of the market can’t exactly turn on a dime—but farmers have also become reliant on genetically modified crops and the ease with which they can treat them with glyphosate to control weeds. A staggering 90 percent of U.S. corn and soy is bioengineered, leaving little domestic supply to feed certified-organic livestock or be processed into certified-organic foods.

Which is why we’re turning to countries where either economics or politics has managed to keep the biotech juggernaut at bay, and the crops have a far easier time meeting organic standards.

This would seem to be a giant missed opportunity for American farmers. After all, organic feed–grade soybeans grown in the U.S. now sell for around $25 per bushel, versus just $9 per bushel for conventional soybeans, according to the OTA. Organic yellow corn feed sells at more than triple the price of conventional feed corn: $14 per bushel versus $4.

“This important study is a ‘Help Wanted’ message for American farmers,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA, said in a statement. “It shows substantial missed opportunities for the U.S. farmer by not growing organic—whether to meet the demand outside the U.S. or to keep up with the robust domestic demand for organic.”

But it’s not easy for American farmers to up and switch to organic. A farm must be free of GMO crops and synthetic chemicals for three years before it can be certified organic under U.S. rules. For many farmers, “it’s not worth the headache or the cost,” Paul Bertels, vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, said in an interview with Bloomberg.

While the “crop systems” of GMO seed and potent chemical herbicides unleashed by Big Ag may have driven up yields in the past several decades, farmers are increasingly being squeezed by the costs imposed by giants such as Monsanto and Dow to plant their patented crops.

Lynn Clarkson, an organic grain dealer in Illinois, is more sanguine about the future for organic feed in the U.S. “With the markets at break-even prices for many farmers, we’re seeing more interest in organic land,” he tells Bloomberg. “I’m not predicting a tidal wave, but I’m seeing twice as much interest in this as I have in the past.”

Until then, bring on the organic Romanian feed corn.