The New York-headquartered yogurt company faced criticism from a group including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association (ASA), American Sugarbeet Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation and the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The group sent an open letter to Dannon CEO, Mariano Lozano, on Monday.
“We are writing to express our deep concern and great dismay with your company’s attack on the livelihood and integrity of our farmers that is contained in the recently released ‘Dannon Pledge,’” group members said in the letter. “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 trade groups called the pledge “marketing flimflam” using “fear-based marketing” and buzzwords. Members said they support open communication about products, but were bothered by the approach taken in this effort.
“We respectfully request that you revise the Dannon pledge to recognize the sustainability, safety and environmental benefit of food biotechnology,” group members said. “We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with you further and to offer our assistance in developing truly meaningful measurements of agricultural sustainability.”
Dannon has not signaled a change in its previously announced plans to label products containing biotech ingredients and to have dairy producers only use non-GMO feed when generating the milk ingredients for three of the company’s yogurt brands, it said in a statement provided to us.
The yogurt company said it was surprised to receive the letter from the farmer and grower trade groups, and said it will continue to work with its dairy farmers.
“We are beginning to implement the Dannon Pledge, announced six months ago, which commits to evolve three of our brands to be made with non-GMO ingredients, as well as non-GMO feed for the cows from which we source our milk, between now and 2018,” the company said. The brands included in the project make up about half of the company’s portfolio.
Criticisms and response
Dannon said it does consider approved GMOs to be safe, but that it wanted to address the consumer demand for items that do not include GMO ingredients.
“For our entire portfolio, to help improve sustainable agricultural practices and protect biodiversity, we are working with our farmer partners to reach for better soil health, water quality and quantity, an increase in biodiversity, and decrease in carbon emission and energy use,” it said.
The company announced in April that it would be working with its farmers toward replacing current feed with GMO-free feed by 2018 for select company brands.
“A big component of the pledge is the development of that [feed] supply – today there is not enough non-GMO feed for cows that would support the demand for milk we have, so we are in the process of working with partners including farmers and their feed suppliers to further develop that,” said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for the Dannon Company, back then. Another goal of the project is to source the feed used from growers and producers in the US, he told us then.
“The feed supply is not one product, it’s many, so we recognize that there will be many relationships that help us fulfill this decision,” he said. “Some of the farmer partners we work with grow their own feed or some of their feed – they may grow the corn but not the sorghum or flax – there are lots of different paths to the solution.”
Transition to GMO free production
Neuwirth said Dannon had engaged with the farmers and dairy co-ops it works with to gauge their support prior to announcing the program.
The transition involves the conversion to non-GMO production for about 80,000 acres of feed crop farmland. Products also will be evaluated through the Non-GMO Project.
The farm and crop industry representatives, in the letter to Dannon, said that the movement away from the use of biotech crops is a step away from sustainability and environmental improvement. “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."
Feed crop production without biotech crops involves more insecticide and pesticide use, along with more water, fossil fuels and increased soil erosion, they added. “In short, the Dannon pledge is the exact opposite of the sustainable agriculture that you claim to be seeking."
“We doubt that you would discard years of productivity improvements by returning to 1990s computer technology to run your business, or revert to 20-year old transportation, processing or packaging tools,” wrote the farmers and growers. “Why then, when you repeatedly acknowledge the well-established science affirming the safety of agricultural biotechnology, would you require farmers to go back to old, inefficient and less effective cropping practices?”