Farm groups challenge food company’s non-GM pledge

Yogurt maker Dannon is misleading the public by suggesting non-GM crops are more sustainable than GM crops, say opponents

Farmers and food companies have dropped the gloves in the de-bate over genetically modified food.

A number of food companies have recently announced they are introducing non-GM product lines. That is making growers antsy because many rely on biotechnology to keep weeds and insects at bay.

The line in the sand for farm groups was when the Dannon Company announced it was converting its Dannon, Danimals and Oikos brands of yogurt to all non-GM ingredients by 2018.

The Dannon Pledge includes switching the diet for the dairy cows that provide the company with its milk to non-GM crops.

“This was a tipping point,” said Randy Mooney, chair of the U.S. National Milk Producers Federation.

Chris Galen, vice-president of communications with the federation, said Dannon’s announcement was a tipping point because the company is telling farmers what kind of feed to use.

“This is entirely different and a more far-reaching step than just a focus on biotech ingredients in the yogurt itself,” he said in an email.

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What dairy farmers find particularly galling is that scientific research shows the GM traits in the corn, soybeans and alfalfa fed to cattle are not present in the meat or milk. So there will be no difference in the yogurt made before or after the Dannon Pledge.

“When something is out there that is outrageously wrong, all of us are going to have to speak up and attack it,” Mooney told reporters during a conference call.

“If this isn’t addressed, we’re going to see a radical change in how food and feed is produced in this country.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, American Sugarbeet Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance published a tersely worded letter they sent to Dannon.

“In our view your pledge amounts to marketing flimflam, pure and simple,” stated the letter.

“It appears to be an attempt to gain lost sales from your competitors by using fear-based marketing and trendy buzzwords, not through any actual improvement in your products.”

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Dannon shot back with a news release responding to the letter.

“We were surprised to receive a divisive and misinformed letter about our efforts to continue to grow America’s enjoyment of dairy products, including yogurt,” stated the company.

“We believe there is growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients and food in the U.S. and we want to use the strong relationships we have with our farmer partners to provide products that address this consumer demand.”

The dispute illustrates the growing divide between the farm community and its food company customers surrounding the GM food issue.

Food companies increasingly want to source non-GM ingredients and to provide labels telling their customers whether products are GM or not.

Meanwhile, farmers continue to embrace the technology. More than 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in North America in 2015 were GM varieties.

And farmers have been fighting vigorously against the introduction of mandatory GM labelling laws.

Randy Krotz, chief executive officer of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, a group that speaks on behalf of about 100 farm organizations, does not accept that food companies are responding to consumer preference.

He believes anti-biotechnology activists are behind decisions like Dannon’s.

“There is a lot of pressure being applied by organizations targeting (food companies) that don’t necessarily represent broad consumer feelings or opinions,” he said during the conference call.

Michael Neuwirth, spokesperson for Dannon, said Krotz is mistaken. The decision to switch half of its product line to GM-free ingredients came from the company’s daily interaction with its customers and from market research data on shopper preferences.

“That’s our business is understanding what people want and that’s the reason we have a wide range of products,” he said.

Neuwirth said customers want choice and they want to know what they are consuming, which is why the company is now labelling whether its products are GM or not.

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“We are a food company trying to serve the needs of our shoppers and from that perspective, we believe we are responding to market preferences,” he said.

Farm groups say Dannon is misleading the public by suggesting non-GM crops are more sustainable than GM crops.

“Though touted with great fanfare as a corporate commitment to sustainability and environmental improvement, in reality the Dannon Pledge amounts to a major step backward in truly sustainable food production,” the groups stated in the letter to Dannon.

They contend that a shift away from GM crop production will increase pesticide, water and fossil fuel use and lead to more soil erosion.

They also allege that Dannon is anti-biotechnology.

Neuwirth said Dannon was stunned by the accusations contained in the letter it received, especially the idea that the company is not supportive of science.

He said the company relies on science to ensure the safety and quality of its products and he rejects suggestions that the company is anti-biotechnology. It will continue to offer GM food products in addition to its non-GM lines.

The Dannon Pledge is designed to provide food products that are sustainable, natural and transparent, he said.

Neuwirth thinks farm groups misunderstood that the non-GM initiative falls under the natural plank of that pledge, not the sustainability component.

“We believe sustainable agriculture can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs,” he said.

Part of Dannon’s sustainability pledge is to provide a fixed margin of profit to its farmer partners who provide the company with its milk.

Krotz said farm groups don’t want to get in the way of farmers earning premiums, but they can’t abide when food companies portray GM crop production as un-sustainable or unnatural.

He hopes they are not put in the position where they have to publicly challenge another food company for its actions.

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“We’d really rather not have to do this again but certainly we will,” said Krotz.

  • richard

    Its marketing 101 suicide to declare that everyone but you is wrong.

  • James Rasmussen

    Interesting to see check-off dollars being used to fight producers the check-offs are supposed to support. I thought check-offs were a big umbrella focused on common goods. USFRA should keep their nose out of this.

    • richard

      Yeah, really good point…. talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  • Glyphosate used on GM crops causes fatty liver.
    http://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-015-0056-1

    • Susan Clinton

      Good point! Glyphosate also interferes with the gut’s microbiome which is how it kills pests. No wonder most of the population have digestive issues.

  • Janet

    These farmers are only protecting their bottom line. They are wrong to want GM products in any food. The Farmers should be applauding Dannon and helping to make sure their own products are all non-GM.

  • Cowgirl7

    Consummer is King in our economic society. Farmers need to accept that like everyone else. Switching to non-GMO or organic farming practices will create short term pain, but long term gain!

    • richard

      you nailed it girlfriend!

      • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here, Cowgirl!

        A thought occurred to me after I posted your comment, and that thought is: what about the thousands of knowledgeable consumers (farmers) who choose to purchase products created using GM technology for use in their farming operations?

        Are they not also a “king,” albeit in a slightly different part of the “food chain?”

        I’d be curious to hear your, Richard’s, or anyone’s, thoughts on this.

        Respectfully,
        Paul – WP web editor

        • richard

          Respectfully Paul…. you deserve a lot of credit for maintaining a certain level of decorum here….. which is sorely lacking on other agri-food threads…. No producer should be condemned for what they believe are best practices….. Neither should consumers be doubted when they speak resoundingly…..What is extremely clear is that the reach of GM world has far exceeded its grasp….. it is an immature marketing vision that never really accounted for the acumen of smart feeders…..those who have discovered the power of quality food and are able and willing to pay for it……Hippocrates said it all two thousand years ago….”let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food”…. Never has this been more relevant than today….

        • Harold

          Cowgirl is incorrect to say that the consumer is king of our economic society. If the farmers collectively produce only for their own family, the consumer will die. Consumers and farmers collectively create the economic society, or consumers become farmer’s themselves. Farmers have created from out of their own individual energy’s every choice that a consumer
          can enjoy and it’s power. The consumers ability to choose is owing to the farmer who created it. Any interference in the consumer’s choice owing to any farmer, is an entity corrupt.
          The farmer is always the “king of his castle”. what then if no-one buys his product? He is still “king” though in lack of the consumer dollar, Like any business lacking public trust, they are headed to bankruptcy, yet they are still “king” of their own decisions.The government on the other hand, is a “king” unlike a farmer, and a consumer, as it’s decisions are binding upon all, and regardless of opposing thought. Government decisions are further backed by a punitive force, including fines, police. jail, and the military. This is why corporations routinely bypass the merit’s of gaining public trust through legitimate choice, and are quick to become buddies with government and their force, to guide the hand of the consumer, and the farmer, and therefore effectively eliminating their powers of choice. All in the protection of the corporate bottom line, the consumer and farmer are not buddy to government, when the corporate has taken the public’s rightful place.