Farm groups urge food companies to think twice on GMO bans

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17, 2016 - Several leading U.S. farm groups are urging food companies to think twice about their sustainability goals, saying they may actually be causing more harm than good.

The groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, are responding specifically to Dannon's pledge to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its yogurt products, which they noted was just the latest such promise from prominent food manufacturers and retailers in recent years.

In a letter sent today to Mariano Lozano, head of Dannon's U.S. operations, the farm groups said  the company's strategy to eliminate GMOs (genetically modified organisms) "is the exact opposite of the sustainable agriculture that you claim to be seeking,” adding: “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."

Other groups signing on to the letter were the American Soybean Association, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. In a news release, the groups say they agree that biotechnology plays an important role in reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture, and challenged as disingenuous the assertion that sustainability is enhanced by stopping the use of GMO processes.

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"This is just marketing puffery, not any true innovation that improves the actual product offered to consumers," said Randy Mooney, chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation, and a dairy farmer from Rogersville, Missouri. "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."

During the last 20 years, advancements in agricultural technology have allowed farmers to use less pesticides and herbicides, fossil fuels, 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 Taking away this technology is akin to turning back the clock and using outdated 20th century technology to run a business, the farm groups said.

"Farming organizations are standing up for the technology that supports continuous improvement in farm sustainability. Farmers and ranchers have grown GMO crops over the past 20 years precisely because biotechnology helps farmers preserve resources for the future," said Nancy Kavazanjian, chairwoman of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and a corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. "When food companies are making sourcing decisions, farm groups encourage them to recognize that modern, conventional agriculture is sustainable."

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The groups pointed out that numerous studies have come out over the last 20 years proving the safety of GMO food and the environmental benefits of growing GM crops. Most recently, 109 Nobel laureates announced their support of GMO technology, citing 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."

U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance CEO Randy Krotz also adds, "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."

Dannon replies
Dannon called the letter “divisive and misinformed.”

In a statement, Dannon said that together with its dairy farmer partners, the company is beginning to implement the “Dannon Pledge” which was announced six months ago. That pledge committed Dannon to “evolve” three of its brands to be made with GMO ingredients, as well as non-GMO feed for the cows from which it sources its milk, between now and 2018. These three brands - Dannon, Danimals and Oikos - represent about half of the company's portfolio of  products.  Additionally, the Dannon Pledge commits the company to be transparent with shoppers about which products include GMO ingredients and which don't. Dannon said it is ahead of schedule and will label on-pack the presence of GMO ingredints by the end of this year.

Dannon said it believes the currently approved GMOs are safe and that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs.  “However,” the statement continued, “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 changes we will make will enable consumers to make everyday choices for themselves, their family and children consistent with their wish for more natural and sustainable eating options, choosing which agricultural and environmental model they favor.”

“We believe the changes in sustainable agricultural practices we are seeking can lead to a reduction of the usage (quantity and quality) of herbicides and pesticides.  Careful management of the use of pesticides and herbicides has a major role to play to achieve our goal.”

Mariano Lozano, CEO of the Dannon Company, said Dannon strongly believes that the “unparalleled range of choice” that Dannon's U.S. affiliates provide - from organic, to non-GMO ingredients, and to conventional dairy - “is a reason to celebrate rather than criticize.” He suggested consumers check out the Dannon Pledge, which can be accessed by clicking here.

(This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. to add statement from Dannon.) 



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