War in the European breadbasket reverberates in an unlikely place

Organic chickens could become too expensive to produce in the United States without Ukrainian crops to feed them.

Jhe war in Ukraine and its horrific violence will have ripple effects that will reach the most unlikely places.

The beleaguered country, known as Europe’s breadbasket for its fertile soil and bountiful harvests, is one of the world’s leaders in the production of organic oilseeds and grains, the kind eaten by American chickens.

Most of Ukraine’s agricultural products are exported to African and other European countries, and any shortage would certainly be felt more deeply there than in the United States, where 6% of chicken meat is organic – a small but growing market. Companies like Perdue Farms, based in Salisbury, Maryland, with annual sales of $8 billion, buy some of Ukraine’s organic oilseeds and grains to feed livestock that fetch high prices in the supermarkets. US imports of organic oilseeds from Ukraine reached 1.85 billion pounds last year, according to organic and non-GMO products data service Mercaris.

Already, just over a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine, executives at Perdue, America’s fourth-largest poultry producer and one of the country’s leading organic meat sellers world, were keeping a close eye on the battlefield to see if they could continue to source organic food ingredients from Ukraine and how that might affect prices.

“We continue to actively monitor the ongoing situation for any potential impact on agricultural markets and our farming partners,” Perdue spokeswoman Diana Souder said. “A prolonged closure of Ukrainian grain processing and export capacity has had and will continue to have an impact on world grain and oilseed prices as well as input prices for farmers.”

Another concern is transportation. One of the effects of war is the danger of travel, and farmers who fear being killed are less likely to get their grain to market. “It all comes down to access,” said Ryan Koory, vice president of economics at Mercaris. “Will they be able to ship to the United States? Access will be a big point of contention.

With problems such as drought and delays at ports, commodity prices were already rising before the war. Since the beginning of the conflict, they have skyrocketed. Some experts worry that without the right feed ingredients from Ukraine, organic chickens, which are more expensive to produce than other chickens, will become too expensive to raise in the United States. Chicken is generally cheaper than beef or pork, which means consumers, who already have labor under the highest inflation in 40 years, may not be willing to pay the high prices whose producers need to make a profit.

“Organic will see price spikes,” said Alison Grantham of Grow Well Consulting. “This could harm the overall size of the organic market. People already face so much inflation. It’s a choice whether you buy organic or non-organic chicken. We could see a decrease in organic poultry. I don’t know how much the consumer can bear.

A word of caution: sometimes organic doesn’t necessarily mean organic. The European Union has included Ukraine and Russia in a 2018 list of Eastern European countries suspected of committing biofraud. A 2017 case followed a 36 million pound shipment of soybeans from Ukraine that was transferred to Turkey before being shipped to California. At some point during the trip, the regular soybeans acquired the “USDA Organic” stamp. Since then, the US Department of Agriculture has received more funding to better control imported goods.