Ag groups fear domino effect from Dannon pledge

Ray Mueller

Washington, DC — The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and other farm organizations don't expect to be able to persuade the Dannon company to back away from its pledge to use only ingredients without any genetically modified organism sourcing to make three of its flagship yogurt brands. But they want to prevent “a domino effect” involving other processors in the dairy and food sectors.

For that purpose, representatives of the NMPF and the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and an ecological engineering professor from the University of Arkansas shared their viewpoints during a media teleconference on Thursday, Oct. 27.

"Tipping point"

The announcement by Dannon, whose corporate owner is based in France, is “a tipping point” that cannot be ignored by agriculture's dairy and cropping sectors, according to NMPF board chairman Randy Mooney, who operates a 200-cow dairy farm near Rogersville, MO. He declared that any widespread emulation of Dannon's pledge by other entities would lead to “a radical change in how food is produced in this country.”

“We cannot sit back and let this happen,” Mooney stated. He said it would wipe out 20 or more years of technological changes he views as being beneficial to agriculture and warned that higher prices for food would follow, making it difficult or impossible for lower income consumers to buy food.

Mooney described Dannon's pledge as “marketing to make money” as opposed to “a social responsibility” to feed hungry people. “How far can this go before it becomes detrimental?” he asked. Mooney suggested that organic products are a readily available choice for consumers who want foods without any GMO inputs in the production channel.

Argument on "sustainability"

In its pledge to bring its Dannon, Oikos, and Danimals yogurt brands to the market without any GMO sourcing, including the feeds provided to dairy cows, the Dannon company explained that its intent is to improve sustainable practices in agriculture. Other stated reasons are to use less ingredients but more natural ones in its yogurts and to increase the transparency of those products to consumers.

Mooney predicted that Dannon would not achieve its stated goal, promised that the NMPF would not to intervene with the dairy producers would supply milk to the company and warned of a food price rise if Dannon succeeded. He said NMPF would try to use its influence, which includes a membership that accounts for 70 percent of the milk production in the United States, to keep other dairy processors from following in Dannon's tracks.

What's sustainable?

A significant portion of the dispute between Dannon and the farm organizations centers on what “sustainable” means. The farm groups believe that abandoning biotechnology techniques that have largely been introduced during the past 25 years would reduce rather than improve “sustainability” in agriculture.

If sustainability can be correlated to the use and protection of natural resources, then biotechnology, as expressed in GMOs, can be considered a great success, according to Marty Matlock, a professor of ecological engineering at the University of Arkansas. He joined the teleconference from Paris, France.

Matlock cited the “Field to Market National Report,” which is available online under that title, as his evidence. It lists changes incurred in the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, rice and cotton from 1980 through 2011.

Statistical report

During that time, the nation's corn production increased by 101 percent, and per-acre yields were up by 64 percent. To achieve that, per-bushel land use decreased by 30 percent, and there were per bushel reductions of 67 percent on soil erosion, 53 percent on water used for irrigation, 44 percent on use of energy and 36 percent on greenhouse gas emissions, Matlock said. In per-acre calculations, soil erosion was down by 43 percent, irrigated water use by 28 percent and energy use by 6 percent, while GHG emissions were up by 8 percent.

For soybeans from 1980 through 2011, production was up by 96 percent and yields per acre increased by 55 percent, the report noted. Reductions per bushel were 35 percent for land use, 66 percent for soil erosion, 42 percent for irrigated water use, 48 percent for energy use and 49 percent for GHG emissions. The per-acre numbers were reductions of 41 percent on soil erosion, 9 percent on irrigated water and 17 percent on energy use, while GHG emissions were up by 8 percent.

Matlock described conservation tillage and the use of precision agriculture techniques involving farming equipment as contributors to sustainability. He applauded those changes as being producer driven and pointed out that they are supported by many environmental organizations.

Farming practices

Mooney and USFRA chairwoman Nancy Kavazanjian chimed in on those statements, noting how no-till is a long-standing practice on their farms. Kavazanjian and her husband Charles Hammer grow corn, soybeans and wheat on their farms near Beaver Dam.

Kavazanjian stated that the use of GMOs and other biotechnology changes enable cutbacks on crop production inputs; better weed and insect control; and a reduction of soil losses. While welcoming “all production methods,” she stressed that farmers should not be restricted on the production tools they choose to use.

Sustainability is important to all parties in the food chain, Kavazanjian remarked. She described farming practices as “a journey, not a destination.”

Accurate information

Dannon and other companies should share accurate data with consumers, Mooney advised. With non-GMO yogurt, there would be no difference in the product — only differences in price and on what's on the label, he argued.

USFRA chief executive officer Randy Krotz, who owns part of his family farm in north central Kansas, also called for providing “accurate information” to consumers on farming practices. “They have a right to know but that information must be accurate.”

Krotz called for acceptance of what science indicates about the use of biotechnology rather than what he considers “the demonizing” of certain farming practices or the stoking of consumer fears which are not backed by scientific research. He said about 1.5 million farmers in the United employ biotechnological advances in their production practices on nearly 200 million acres.

There are “fairly vocal consumers” who are not convinced on that point and whose beliefs have not been changed by the efforts of the farm groups and the scientific findings that they cite, Krotz observed. He believes that the organizations which are opposed to GMOs do not represent a broad segment of consumers.

“We regret that we have to do this,” Krotz said of the formal reaction to Dannon's intentions to introduce its GMO-free yogurts by 2018. For its part, he reported that the USFRA, which encompasses more than 100 farm organizations, will boost its presence in the social media — as indicated by its new video “Farm On: Sustainable Food Products.”