Farm War Over Sustainability

Groups Push Back on Food Claims About GMOs, Farm Practices

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Food companies are latching on to the sustainability movement and also trying to avoid labeling products as containing GMOs. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and other farm groups are pushing back on claims that declare GMOs are unsustainable. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Farm groups defending biotechnology are making it clear they have drawn a line in the sand against companies that convert product lines to non-GMO crops in the name of "sustainability."

Spearheaded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance -- a group funded by farm trade associations and industry partners -- ag organizations on Thursday announced a "straight talk" campaign to engage food companies about biotechnology and practices that should define sustainable agriculture. Farm groups also made it clear they intend to publicly call out food companies that criticize food produced with genetically modified organisms.

Farm groups have been trying for years to reverse the conversation and angst about biotechnology from at least some consumers. Yet food companies have increasingly opted to tap into that consumer ignorance on GMOs -- and avoid a future federal GMO disclosure law -- by reformulating products and promoting the brand as non-GMO. General Mills did so with Cheerios, as Hershey's has done with its candy by switching from sugar beets to cane sugar.

But the straw that broke the dairy cow's back was a decision by Dannon to commit to sourcing only non-GMO feed for dairy cattle producing milk for three specific yogurt product lines. Dannon took the idea this summer and rolled it into a sustainability pledge for consumers.

"This was a tipping point in our opinion," said Missouri dairy farmer Randy Mooney, chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation.

The risk, Mooney said, goes way beyond a single yogurt company reformulating its products. When one company in an industry such as dairy is successful with a marketing trend, then it creates a chain reaction in the industry. Mooney said that could lead to sweeping demand from dairy processors to source their milk from cows eating only non-GMO feed.

"There is nothing different in the milk from non-GMO feed to regular feed. There's no difference," Mooney said. "But what we have seen in the dairy industry over the past several years is if one marketer does it, another marketer thinks it has got to do it and another marketer thinks they have got to do it." Mooney fears this will create a domino effect through the entrie food supply. " So this is a tipping point."

The farm organizations find themselves criticizing a food-industry push to increase profits by marketing non-GMO products. Further, those companies such as Dannon are offering premiums to farmers willing to grow non-GMO crops or sell milk from cows fed diets of non-GMO feed.

Dannon has acknowledged the safety of GMOs, but Mooney said the company continues to imply in a sustainability pledge that GMOs are undesirable. Mooney also said the push by companies such as Dannon will only drive up prices for consumers.

"When you look at the product that Dannon is putting on the shelf, there's absolutely zero difference in the product that they claim to put on the shelf and the product they are putting out today," Mooney said. "There are only two differences: One is the writing on the carton and the other is the price."

Marty Matlock, a professor of ecological engineering at the University of Arkansas, stressed that multiple industry groups across the food supply chain have embraced biotechnology as a tool for sustainable agricultural improvement. Matlock cited industry statistics on reduction of soil erosion across the industry and reduced carbon footprint per acre for soybean production. Such industry statistics can be found in reports from groups such as Field to Market. "We don't say we are sustainable," he said. "We say we are becoming more sustainable using better processes and practices and using every tool in our toolbox."

Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin farmer who chairs the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, said modern breeding technology has allowed farmers to better deal with pests and weeds. These practices lead to farmers using fewer inputs per acre, she said. Kavazanjian said farm groups recognize sustainability is getting greater emphasis in the food supply chain. With that in mind, food companies and export customers need to understand how farmers use biotechnology to implement sustainable practices, she said.

"It has definitely cut our soil loss," Kavazanjian said. "We have been no-till for over 30 years. I'm very proud that we have fields that have not seen a plow in over 30 years and we are producing really top-quality yields."

Matlock also pointed out that he and Kavazanjian were speaking on Thursday's press call from France trying to help stop a major push in at least parts of Europe to ban GMO feed for livestock. "So this is an ongoing larger dialogue beyond dairy and beyond just Dannon," Matlock said.

Randy Krotz, chief executive officer for the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, said the alliance wants to have better conversations with food companies and thus is rolling out its "straight talk" campaign. The alliance was initially formed six years ago specifically to change the dynamics of the conversation among consumers about modern farming practices and biotechnology.

At the same time, ag groups need to challenge food companies that misinform consumers about specific farm practices and what those practices mean for the environment.

"Just to reiterate, this outreach is a long-term focus for us and we really do want to have a partnership with companies, but we need to be clear that if misinformation is put out there, we will correct it," Krotz said.

Krotz also rejected the premise that food companies are converting to non-GMO products because of consumer demand. He said companies are being pressured by anti-GMO groups -- not by broad consumer opinion -- to make the switch. "We believe that major food companies in this country have great interest on where agriculture is coming from on these topics," he said.

Matlock, Kavazanjian, Krotz and Mooney also stressed the value that biotechnology brings by allowing farmers to implement no-till production. They stated biotechnology has allowed no-till production to sweep across the landscape, though no-till is used on roughly one-third of commodity acreage. Still, Matlock refuted that the groups' emphasis is on the benefits of specific practices or telling farmers how to farm.

"The approach we're taking in all of our sustainability initiatives is to ensure that our indicators are outcomes driven, not practice driven," Matlock said. "The outcomes are reducing soil erosion, reducing energy use, increasing yield, reducing water use, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing habitat and biodiversity, increasing water quality. Those are the environmental outcomes. We have social and economic outcomes as well."

Several CEOs from the dairy industry reached out to Dannon's executives in recent months to try to visit about the company's direction, but Dannon's leaders were un-swayed, the farm leaders said.

Dannon, for its part, issued a statement Thursday touting its relationship with its farmer suppliers after two days of meetings this week in Kentucky. A long-time farmer working with Dannon praised the company in the news release for its work on animal welfare and the company's vision on sustainability. Dannon's CEO also stated that changing farming practices can allow the company and its farmers to reduce herbicide and pesticide use while improving soil health and water quality.

"We believe it is possible to combine non-GMO crops and sustainable agriculture building on farmers' expertise and practices, always being mindful about state-of-the-art agronomic science," said Mariano Lozano, CEO of Dannon.

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Chris Clayton