Once upon a time, our diets were dictated by seasons and by food availability. With globalization of agricultural markets and highly coordinated supply chains within the US, we have largely been immune to fluctuations in supply. Periodically, there are notices in food stores saying something like: produce prices are higher than usual, due to drought/floods/weather in California. But, in general, the globalization of agricultural markets eliminates widespread shortages (at least in the developed nations). This is true for organic markets as well, despite the popular notion that local/domestic products are superior to imported foods.
Federal regulations require that organic livestock eat organic feed: usually corn and/or soybeans, along with pasture. Domestic farmers have never (to my knowledge, that is ) produced enough organic feed. Plenty of media reports confirm this notion (two examples: WSJ, NPR).
Previous work, conducted with my colleague Lydia Oberholtzer, found that 58 percent of certified organic handlers were unable to locate enough organic feed in 2007. We ascertained that the bulk of organic feed was imported from China, but never had evidence to support this. Now that imports and exports of select organic products are tracked by the federal government, we can place a dollar amount on the value of imported organic soybeans: in 2012, $90 million worth of organic soybeans were imported into the US, and 43 percent were from China/Hong Kong. In 2013, $110 million of organic soybeans were imported, with the same share originating in China & Hong Kong.
Just as a point of reference, the dollar value (at farm level) of domestic organic soybean production in 2011 was about $49 million, according to the Organic Production Survey, Table 6.
A direct comparison of these numbers is not exactly fair. The US production is valued at the farm level. The imported soybeans are valued further along the supply chain, and thus the value includes the farm value and a markup (who knows how much, but it is likely sizable) by intermediaries. Plus the years are different (such is the problem of data….). Further, the data do not differentiate between organic soybeans used for feed and those used for food.
Caveats aside, the numbers are not so very different (ie, the 2012 import value divided by the 2011 farm value is 2). So it is reasonable to assume that imports are not filling a small gap in the organic soybean market, and could eventually be the dominant source of livestock feed as the organic market grows.