Farm groups riled by Dannon pledge against GMOs

Jan Shepel

Subhead: Non-GMO doesn’t equate to sustainable, they say

Six U.S. farm groups, angry about a major food company’s pledge to produce yogurt from GMO-free milk responded on Monday (Oct. 17) with their own statement that “sustainability goals” cannot be met “without the use of modern agricultural practices, despite any misleading assertions to the contrary.”

The letter from the farm groups came in response to Dannon’s pledge to eliminate genetically modified crops (GMO) to feed the dairy cows that supply milk for its yogurt products. Dannon is one of several prominent food manufacturers and retailers that in recent years have taken steps to eliminate genetically-modified ingredients from their supply chain, claiming that such a move improves the “sustainability” of its products.

The farm groups – including the National Milk Producers Federation, American Farm Bureau, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, American Sugarbeet Growers Association and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance -- called it another in a line of “deceptive food company marketing claims.” Collectively, the farm organizations represent hundreds of thousands of farmers and food producers across the United States.

In their letter to Mariano Lozano, head of Dannon’s U.S. operations, the farm groups said that his company’s strategy to eliminate GMOs “is the exact opposite of the sustainable agriculture that you claim to be seeking.  Your pledge would force farmers to abandon safe, sustainable farming practices that have enhanced farm productivity over the last 20 years while greatly reducing the carbon footprint of American agriculture.”

The groups maintain that biotechnology plays an important role in reducing the “environmental footprint of agriculture,” and challenged as “disingenuous” the assertion that sustainability is enhanced by forcing farmers to give up the use of GMO crops.

Earlier this year Dannon, the nation’s largest yogurt maker, announced it was making a “sweeping commitment” to sustainable agriculture. In that announcement Lozano said the sustainable practices he asked of his dairy farmers would “lead to better soil health, better water management, an increase in biodiversity and a decrease in carbon emissions.”

The company further stated that it pledged to use fewer and “more natural” ingredients that are “not synthetic” and non-GMO for its flagship products -- Dannon, Oikos and Danimals brands, which account for half of the company’s sales volume. Dannon also said it was committing to a pledge that starting in 2017 it will work with its “farmer partners to ensure that the cows that supply Dannon milk for the flagship products will be fed non-GMO feed.” That’s a first for a non-organic brand.

The company said it would phase-in the GMO ban over three years, adding that its ambition was to evolve its remaining brands over time to become GMO-free.

Dannon, the U.S. branch of Paris-based Danone, was one of several major food processors – Campbells Soup, General Mills, Kelloggs and Mars – in promising GMO-free products in the near future.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, in the year 2000, half of U.S. soybean acres were planted with genetically modified seed; that same year 25 percent of corn acres were planted using seed developed with biotechnology. This year 92 percent of corn acres were planted with genetically modified seed varieties and 94 percent of soybeans acres were biotech varieties.

The groups say that this march of biotech products has allowed farmers to use fewer pesticides and herbicides, less fossil fuel and water, and prevent the loss of soil to erosion. “Taking away this technology is akin to turning back the clock and using outdated 20th century technology to run a business,” they told Dannon in their letter.

“Farming organizations are standing up for the technology that supports continuous improvement in farm sustainability,” said Wisconsin farmer Nancy Kavazanjian, chairwoman of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA.) She and her husband grow corn, soybeans and wheat on their Beaver Dam farm.

“Farmers and ranchers have grown GMO crops over the past 20 years precisely because biotechnology helps farmers preserve resources for the future,” she said. “When food companies are making sourcing decisions, farm groups encourage them to recognize that modern, conventional agriculture is sustainable.”

U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance CEO Randy Krotz also added, “When food companies directly mislead consumers, as has been done in this example with Dannon, individual farmers as well as farm organizations will continue to assertively defend our critical technologies.”

Dairy farmer Randy Mooney, from Rogersville, MO who is chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation called Dannon’s move “marketing puffery” adding that it isn’t any kind of true innovation that improves the product offered to consumers. “What’s worse is that removing GMOs from the equation is harmful to the environment – the opposite of what these companies claim to be attempting to achieve,” he added.

The farm groups cited studies that have come out over the last 20 years “proving the safety of GMO food and the environmental benefits of growing GM crops.”

They said that most recently, 109 Nobel laureates announced their support of GMO technology, and mentioned a study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine saying, “the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops.”

“Despite overwhelming evidence supporting the safety of GMO crops and their benefits to the environment, marketers of some major food brands, such as Dannon, have aligned themselves against biotechnology,” said Wesley Spurlock, President of the National Corn Growers Association. “Farming organizations believe in open and honest communication with consumers, and allowing people to make informed choices in the market.  But we cannot sit by while certain food companies spread misinformation under the guise of a marketing campaign.”

For more information on sustainability in agriculture visit a website created by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.