October 28, 2016

A Line in the Sand Over GMOs

 |  By: Dairy Talk

A press conference Oct. 27 by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the US. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) marked an unprecedented call to action to defend agricultural biotechnology and sustainability.

The tipping point for Randy Mooney, a Missouri dairy farmer who milks 200 cows and who serves as NMPF chairman, came when Dannon announced last spring its decision to go GMO-free on half of its yogurts. Dairy industry officials had met privately with Dannon over the summer, hoping the French company would reconsider. The Frenchies refused.

Dannon sees the GMO-free niche as a competitive advantage because it can deliver a GMO-free label where competitors cannot. Dannon works with a number of dairy farmers who supply milk directly to them. Other yogurt makers typically work with supply co-ops who commingle milk from farms using a variety of practices.

Dannon offers its farmers contracts on a cost-plus basis, who open their books a time or two each year to show their actual cost of production. Dannon then offers to cover these costs plus a profit margin. It works out well for both parties: Dannon knows what its product cost will be; farmers are guaranteed a margin over costs.  

The GMO-free announcement is just an extension of this model. Even though feed costs might rise because more herbicide, insecticide and fertilizer might be needed, those costs will be covered plus a margin. Dannon may have to charge more in the grocery aisle for its yogurt, but it is betting the GMO-free label will help the company regain lost market share and profits.

Dannon has acknowledged GMOs do not impair food safety. But in a press release also issued Oct. 27, the company claimed non-GMOs crops can be grown as sustainably as biotech crops. “We believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs,” says Mariano Lozano, CEO of the Dannon Company. The press release goes on to suggest the use of non-GMO crops can lead to an actual reduction in the usage, in both quantity and quality, of herbicides and pesticides.

Those claims infuriate Mooney. “Dannon should be standing on the side of science and telling the truth, not trying to make up for lost market share,” he says.

A bit more calmly, Wisconsin crop farmer and USFRA chairwoman Nancy Kavazanjian, puts it this way: “We need every tool in the tool chest to be sustainable…to accomplish what is being demanded of us from consumers.”

NMPF and USFRA have now pledged to meet with any food company who has questions about GMOs and their contribution to long-term sustainability. But they also will not hesitate to publicly call out  companies who misrepresent science and facts.

The problem is that companies, whether private or public, are driven by profits. Some might take a bit longer view than the quarterly financial statement, but in the end, it’s about profit. Science and facts just become marketing puffery.