Marketing and Comms
Dannon's Non-GMO Commitment Garners 'Unfounded Accusations' from Farm Groups

Earlier this year, yogurt giant Dannon announced new sustainable agriculture and non-GMO commitments. Now, farm organizations have decided that food companies 'jumping on the anti-GMO bandwagon' cannot go unchallenged.

Six U.S. ag groups have launched a new campaign arguing that GMOs are safe and that not using them would mean losing 20 years of beneficial progress. The groups say food companies have been making misleading sustainability claims related to avoiding GMO ingredients in products and GMO feed for dairy cattle.

Randy Mooney, a Missouri dairy farmer and chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), said that Dannon’s announcement “was the tipping point” that lead to the “Straight Talk” campaign’s launch. Joining the NMPF in the campaign are the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, American Sugarbeet Growers Association, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA).

The groups also sent a letter to Mariano Lozano, the head of Dannon’s U.S. operations, calling the company’s strategy to eliminate GMOs “the exact opposite of the sustainable agriculture that [Dannon claims] to be seeking. [The Dannon] pledge would force farmers to abandon safe, sustainable farming practices that have enhanced farm productivity over the last 120 years.”

“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,” Dannon responded in a press release. The company called the accusations unfounded and reiterated that it has built direct, transparent relationships with its independent American dairy farmer partners, as well as its commitments under the Dannon Pledge. Dannon plans to “evolve” three of its brands – Dannon, Danimals and Oikosto be made with non-GMO ingredients, as well as use non-GMO feed for the cows from which it sources its milk, by 2018. The three brands represent about half of Dannon’s portfolio of products. Additionally, on-pack labels will disclose the presence of GMO ingredients in all of Dannon’s products by the end of 2016.

“We believe strongly that the unparalleled range of choice that Danone’s U.S. affiliates provide, from organic, to non-GMO ingredients, and to conventional dairy is a reason to celebrate rather than criticize,” Lozano said.

The yogurt giant has maintained that it agrees that currently approved GMOs are safe, but says it is trying to meet the growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients.

“We believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs,” the press release states. “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.”

But Mooney calls Dannon’s pledge “marketing puffery.” “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,” he said on a press call announcing the campaign.

“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,” added Wesley Spurlock, the President of the National Corn Growers Association.

According to data from the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, technology has doubled production using far less land, water and energy while greatly reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. The groups participating in the campaign insist that GMOs are therefore a vital element in creating sustainable outcomes. They also cited that over 100 Nobel Laureates have publicly voiced their support of GMOs as safe.

“We need every tool in the tool chest to help us be sustainable,” said Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin farmer and chairman of USFRA. “When food companies are making sourcing decisions, farm groups encourage them to recognize that modern, conventional agriculture is sustainable.”

Dannon stated that it is working with its farmer partners to reach for better soil health, water quality and quantity, an increase in biodiversity, and decrease in carbon emission and energy use. Further, the company stressed that “careful management of the use of pesticides and herbicides has a major role to play to achieve [its] goal,” and that the changes in agricultural practices that Dannon is seeking can lead to reductions in herbicide and pesticide use.

Earlier this year, an in-depth investigation by the National Academies concluded that genetically-engineered (GE) crops are indeed likely safe for human consumption, and have generally helped farmers protect yields from insects and weeds, but have not improved the potential yields of maize, cotton, or soybean in the United States as some proponents claim. No cause-and-effect relationship was found between GE crops and environmental problems, including biodiversity, although it was found that glyphosate has caused a widespread and extensive problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

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