MIDDLEBURY — Gary Hirshberg, an icon in the world of organic foods, shed light on food and agriculture issues that hit close to home for Addison County residents in two appearances at Middlebury College this week.
The president and — in his words — “CE-Yo” of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm gave a positive forecast for the future of organically certified milk and also offered a nuanced take on how genetically engineered crops fit into the food landscape.
Following Monday’s screening of the film “Food, Inc.,” Hirshberg weighed in on the organic dairy industry, which, he said, has picked up again in the wake of the recent economic downturn.
Hirshberg said his milk comes from the Organic Valley dairy cooperative — which buys from a number of Addison County dairy farmers — and while the cooperative and his own operations were forced to cut back production over the past few years in response to a struggling economy, he has once again upped his yogurt output and demand for milk.
In fact, he said, “we’re predicting a shortage of organic milk.”
The shortage, he said, will come from the fact that increased demand for organic milk is outpacing the number of dairy farmers who can make the switch to organic, since it is a three-year transition process.
“We’re never going to reduce the price to our farmers,” he said.
In Hirshberg’s Tuesday talk, titled “Why organic is a better national policy than genetic modification,” the organic yogurt producer spoke to the debate surrounding genetically engineered (GE) crops, which, he said, pose problems from a freedom of choice perspective.
“I’m not anti-technology,” he said, citing his position as a large-scale organic producer who is constantly seeking new technology to enhance production.
But currently, he said, genetic engineering exists only for the advantage of large companies, which develop and hold patents on the seeds.
If GE seeds are found in the crop of a farmer who did not purchase the seeds from the company, that farmer not only becomes ineligible to certify his or her crops as organic, the farmer can also be taken to court for patent violation.
And while intellectual property lawsuits are intended to protect the rights of the technology developer, Hirshberg said litigation becomes controversial when farmers who don’t purchase the GE seeds find that they have been blown into their fields accidentally. In fact, he said, his company will begin widespread GE testing in the coming years because of the ongoing danger of this.
“We need freedom and diversity of choice,” said Hirshberg.
As an example, he pointed to Roundup Ready seeds sold by the giant agribusiness company Monsanto. The seeds allow farmers to spray Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup on fields filled with the herbicide-resistant GE crops — weeds die and the crops grow.
The problem, said Hirshberg, is that Monsanto is the sole producer of both seed and herbicide, and prohibits farmers from saving seeds from year to year. Thus, he said, Monsanto is guaranteed a consistent profit year after year, and farmers cannot control escalating production costs by saving their seeds.
Roundup, added Hirshberg, is only a short-term solution. He cited the Roundup-resistant weeds that are beginning to grow in some agricultural areas of the country.
While Hirshberg spoke at length about the health benefits of organic, and about the advantages of limiting produce grown with potentially harmful chemicals, he said that his is not an argument to exclude conventional growers — all he wants, he said, is to keep access to non-GE, organically farmed produce for those who want it.
Hirshberg’s hope for access to organic food extends to government subsidy reform for products like corn and soybeans. The topic of agricultural subsidies came up as a subject both in Tuesday’s talk and in the question-and-answer session that followed Monday’s screening.
“Food, Inc.” cites those subsidies as the main reasons for the presence of corn products in many processed foods found on supermarket shelves today, as well as the proliferation of corn as feed for livestock.
Paul Stone, founder of Orwell’s Stonewood Farm and former state Secretary of Agriculture, stood up on Monday evening to speak about his experiences with subsidies. He said the subsidies originally made sense, but the large companies that are reaping profits by growing heavily subsidized crops means that the system no longer works.
“As a corn farmer forced out of the business (by low prices), food subsidies had a good reason,” he said. “But I am the last supporter of these big corporations.”
And Hirshberg said subsidies to conventional growers of produce means that that fruits and vegetables can be sold at an artificially low price, resulting in an a large price disparity between conventional and organic on the supermarket shelves.
“We’re arguing just to level the playing field,” said Hirshberg.
In Monday’s talk, Hirshberg also spoke to the corporatization of small, socially conscious companies like Tom’s of Maine (bought by Colgate), Kashi (bought by Kellogg’s) and his own Stonyfield Farm (bought by Groupe Danone).
He said that ownership by a corporation with which a consumer may disagree is no reason to boycott those smaller companies. In fact, it’s all the more reason to buy their products.
“We’ve got to match this kind of power with power on the other side,” he said. “To show companies that we want these products.”
During both talks, Hirshberg was open about the fact that he represents a large company owned by an even larger conglomerate. And in “Food, Inc.,” he describes his struggle to create change as a sustainable foods advocate, and his ultimate realization that in order to spread his message and effect widespread change, he would have to grow bigger, to the point where Stonyfield Farm was visible right alongside those corporate interests that he was denouncing.
To Hirshberg, bringing Stonyfield Farm yogurt to Wal-Mart isn’t just a move that will help the giant retailer to polish its much-reviled image — it’s a sign that the company is listening to consumers who are demanding more sustainable, healthy food choices. And each purchase of Stonyfield Farm yogurt is another vote for healthy, sustainable food that Wal-Mart sees.
Hirshberg said that the long and short of it is that consumers must make informed decisions.
“I don’t believe it’s all about organic,” he said. “When I’m asked what’s more important, organic or local, I say ‘yes.’”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]