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Stonyfield Chairman Gary Hirshberg Talks GMOs with FlourSackMama.com

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He’s been an ag educator, a husband and parent, even a small dairy farmer.  Now the Chairman of the world’s most popular organic yogurt brand, Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg, encourages business innovation and consumer awareness through the Just Label It campaign and other forums. Hirshberg graciously took the time to answer questions from FlourSackMama.com about genetically modified organisms in our food.  Here’s our conversation:

Flour Sack Mama Q:  While Just Label It and other organizations do much to educate the public, many people are still unaware or confused about genetically modified foods.  What is the most critical message that consumers need to know today about GMOs?
Gary Hirshberg A:  5 Key Points Are:(a) Lack of Independent Testing:
Our government’s approval that these crops are “substantially equivalent” to their conventional counterparts has been based on almost exclusively on studies conducted or funded by the chemical companies who own these patented crops.  Our federal government does no independent testing, and the approvals of these crops are made completely based on the patent holders’ data.  In short, we don’t now know, nor will we know for some time in the future, what are their long term health or safety impacts.

(b) However, Questions of Safety are Irrelevant to the Labeling Argument:
While safety is an important concern that requires independent analysis, it’s actually not the reason that GE crops should be labeled, because –

        * When the FDA determines that labeling is required for additives like food colorings, dyes or various byproducts, it is not because they have found they are unsafe.  The FDA’s most important food statute, the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, establishes that the consumer has a right to know when something is added to food that changes it in ways a consumer would likely not recognize, and thus labeling is required.
       * Virtually all of the food and ingredient labeling we see on food products today has no relation to food safety.
        * If an ingredient poses a food safety hazard, we don’t label its presence; we take it out of food.
      * For example, the FDA did not require labeling of irradiated foods because they were hazardous. Rather they found that the process of irradiation caused concern to consumers. So they decided that they should be labeled.  Of course in the case of irradiation, the developers of the technology not only did not fight labeling, they were proud of the potential benefits and wanted people to know.  It is striking that is not the case with GE technology.  The same determination was made with Orange Juice from Concentrate, Country of Origin, Wild vs. Farmed, and many other mandatory components of food labels.  Simply put, the FDA found that these processes were relevant and therefore material to the consumer.
        So, we are not arguing that GMOs should be labeled because they are a proven health risk, but rather because they add bacterial genes, proteins, and gene fragments never before seen in foods. While scientists debate the long-term impacts of these crops, consumers have the right to know whether we are eating them or not.
(c) Unfulfilled Promises by the Patent Holders:
Unfortunately, many of the promises made by the Patent Holders in seeking approval of these crops, have not come to pass:
     * One of the very first genetically engineered crops allowed into the commercial market for human consumption was corn and it came with an assurance regarding the insecticide built into its DNA. Chemical companies said the insecticide would not survive more than a few seconds in the human GI tract, and that it would be broken down in saliva.  However, a study published two years ago revealed that the insecticide was detected in the umbilical-cord blood of pregnant women.
     * Several National Academy of Sciences studies have affirmed that genetically engineered crops have the potential to introduce new toxins or allergens into our food and environment. Yet unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for neurological health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and limited assessment of the potential to trigger new food allergies.
      * Because GMOs are not labeled in the U.S., they might be causing acute or chronic effects, but scientists would have a very hard time recognizing the linkages between GE food intake and unexplained problems.  Studying GE food-human health linkages without labeling is like searching for a needle in a haystack with gloves on.
(d) GE Crops have resulted in substantial increases in herbicide use.
   * While we don’t know about long term health or environmental impacts of the crops themselves, your readers should understand that the primary genes that have been introduced into GE crops enable increased insecticide or herbicide resistance.  Despite assurances to Congress and regulators over the last two decades that crops engineered to be herbicide resistant would lead to less chemical usage, a peer-reviewed paper published last summer by Washington State University professor Dr. Charles Benbrook showed that the three major GE crops in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, and cotton – have increased overall herbicide use by more than 527 million pounds between 1996 – 2011, compared to what it likely would have been in the absence of GE crops.
   * In 1996, the year GE crops were introduced, about 14 million pounds of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides, were sprayed on the three major GE crops, corn, cotton, and soybeans, accounting for about 4% of total pesticide use on these crops.  In 2012, nearly 300 million pounds were sprayed, a remarkable three-quarters of total pesticide use on these three crops.*Such a grossly excessive level of reliance on a single pesticide is profoundly unsustainable, and is why glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading across America’s farmland too fast to accurately track, placing farmers in a costly jam.
* The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that glyphosate is now a common component of the air and rain in the Midwest during spring and summer, with levels rising in many aquatic ecosystems.

    * At least 23 species of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate.  Called “superweeds,” they are emerging at an alarming rate, and are present in 50-75 million acres where GE soy, corn, and cotton crops grow in 26 states.  Several chemical companies are responding by designing GE seeds that tolerate multiple herbicides.  To combat weeds that have developed resistance to Roundup (glyphosate), Dow is seeking approval of GE crops that are resistant to an older, high-risk phenoxy herbicide known as 2,4-D. Other companies are working fast to gain approvals for another, even more dangerous phenoxy herbicide, dicamba. Many university weed scientists are speaking out against the dangerous notion that the best way to combat resistant weeds is to spray more herbicides on them – especially herbicides with a proven, negative environmental and human health track record.
(e) We are not trying to stop GMO crops; we are only seeking to provide consumers with the right to know if they are in our foods.
        * It is worth noting that 64 other nations around the world including all of the EU, Russia and China have required labeling when approving these crops.
Flour Sack Mama Q:  You’ve notably said that people vote at the store checkout line, and you make a strong case for restoring jobs and hope through business.    Why the increased emphasis on being involved at the policy level?  Is President Obama finally listening to the various groups you seem to be advocating for such as health-conscious families and small farmers?  Does national GMO labeling have a chance?
Gary Hirshberg A:  While 26 states are debating labeling legislation (and two have passed it), ultimately this cannot be solved on a state-by-state basis, so we must have a national solution as is the case in 64 other nations (accounting for half the world’s population).  Yes, the White House is starting to hear from citizens, senators and congresspeople.  1.3 million people have now signed our petition demanding labeling.  The best thing your readers can do is to (a) go to justlabelit.org and sign the petition and (b) drop a note to your Senator and Congressperson telling them that this is important.

Flour Sack Mama Q:  The audience at Flour Sack Mama includes some folks who still don’t buy the entire organic and sustainable argument.  They include good people who’ve known conventional farming in America’s heartland and they’ve only heard promises of better yields through GMO technology.  What can you say to convince them that the non-GMO movement isn’t just about protecting big organic profits, but is really about something more authentic that touches all our lives?
Gary Hirshberg A:
* 17 years after the commercial introduction of GMO’s, there is no independently confirmed evidence that they provide higher yields or any benefit to consumers or farmers. But there is ample evidence that they result in the higher use of chemical inputs, notably herbicides.
       * If my focus was on trying to protect organic profits, then I would be far better off not demanding labeling because when GE ingredients are labeled, they may put a halo on many non-GE, but also non-organic, products. In other words, they may compete, at lower prices, with organic products. We already saw this with rBST-free milk which many consumers think means it is organic. So, if anything, this campaign probably is threatening organic profits.  But the point is that we all deserve the right to know, period.
(FlourSackMama.com disclosure:  As part of the Stonyfield YoGetters ambassador program, our household receives free samples of Stonyfield products and other modest rewards from time to time.  As a journalist and blogger, my opinions are always my own.)

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