Agriculture groups are fighting back against a campaign launched by yogurt company Dannon to promote non-GMO yogurt to consumers.
In a letter sent Monday to Dannon’s chief executive officer, agricultural groups are asking the company to revise its pledge and recognize biotechnology as sustainable.
Dannon, based in White Plains, New York, launched in July what it calls the “Dannon Pledge” that includes labeling products with GMOs and offering GMO-free products. Beyond marketing products as GMO-free, Dannon has opted in 2017 to ensure that dairy producers supplying milk to its operations for some flagship brands only feed their cows non-GMO feed.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, American Sugarbeet Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, called the campaign “marketing flimflam” in a letter to Dannon CEO Mariano Lozano.
“Under the guise of providing consumers more choices, 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 said in the letter.
“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. Indeed, the reason the vast majority of American farmers grow crops improved with biotechnology is precisely because these crops are more sustainable than the ones they used to grow.
“We doubt that informed consumers want to see an increase in insecticide applications that will be needed to fulfill your pledge.”
The concern is many farmers will respond to such sustainability efforts by going away from more environmentally friendly GMO crop technologies, in favor of conventional crops that require more pesticides.
The farm groups argue if more farmers reverse course, gains will be lost in reducing soil erosion and using fewer pesticides.
“We also doubt that consumers are clamoring for the increases in water and fossil fuel use, as well as increased soil erosion that would be brought on by more frequent trips across the fields with cultivation equipment to grow the crops to meet your pledge,” the groups write in the letter.
“Nor do we think consumers who care deeply about how their food is grown want to bring more land into cultivation to make up for the loss in crop yields. In short, the Dannon pledge is the exact opposite of the sustainable agriculture that you claim to be seeking.”
The groups say 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.
“Such disingenuous tactics and marketing puffery are certainly not becoming a company as well-known and respected as Dannon. Neither farmers nor consumers should be used as pawns in food marketing wars.”
Dannon issued a response to the letter Monday afternoon, disputing the groups’ accusations.
“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. Making yogurt begins with the wholesome milk that our farmers sell to us. Unlike any other large dairy processors, we have built direct and transparent relationships with our independent American dairy farmer partners,” Dannon said in a statement.
“Additionally, the Dannon Pledge commits to be transparent with American shoppers about which products include GMO ingredients and which don’t.”
Dannon is one of several food manufacturers and retailers that has taken steps to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its products as part of improving sustainability.
A number of companies joined the GMO-labeling fray last spring. ConAgra, Kellogg’s, Mars, General Mills and Campbell’s pledged to label products that contain GMOs.
Nancy Kavazanjian, chairwoman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, said food companies already are well aware of the importance biotechnology plays on the 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.”
In a news release Monday, the groups said studies show GMOs are both safe and have environmental benefits.
Earlier this year, 109 Nobel laureates announced their support of GMO technology.
The laureates pointed to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study that found “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE (genetically engineered) crops.”
In its response to the groups’ letter, Dannon stated it agreed that GMOs are safe.
“Regarding GMO crops, we believe the currently approved GMOs are safe,” the company stated. “Furthermore, we believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs. However, 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.”
NCGA President Wesley Spurlock said the groups support consumer rights to know what’s in their food. However, he said food companies such as Dannon are misleading consumers.
“Farming organizations believe in open and honest communication with consumers, and allowing people to make informed choices in the market,” Spurlock said. “But we cannot sit by while certain food companies spread misinformation under the guise of a marketing campaign.”
Dannon launched the non-GMO pledge in July, promising in a news release to “provide unparalleled choice to consumers.”
CEO Mariano Lozano said the reason for the campaign is shoppers are “our main ingredient.”
“Transparency is the key word for this shift,” he said in a news release. “To show to our consumers that in order to make a real choice, we need clear labels, today we are making a bold change and candidly discussing how transparency from brands is essential for shoppers to make real choices.”
Beginning in July, the company offered new yogurts with non-GMO ingredients.
“Additionally, starting now and expected to be completed within several months, all Dannon products in the U.S. that have GMO ingredients will be clearly labeled as such, independent of actions taken (or not) by the federal government,” the company said in the July 2016 release.
By the end of 2018, the company said, it plans to use milk only from cows fed non-GMO feed.
“This will involve the conversion of an estimated 80,000 acres of farmland to produce non-GMO crops in order to provide non-GMO feed for the milk used to make Dannon, Oikos and Danimals brand products,” the company said.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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