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Research results pointed Ben & Jerry's down non-GMO path

By Hank Schultz, 01-Feb-2013

Related topics: Dairy-based ingredients, Food safety and labeling, Sweeteners (intense, bulk, polyols), Natural sweeteners, The GM debate, Prop 37, Manufacturers

For Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream company, taking the step to remove GMO ingredients from its supply chain was simply a matter of paying attention.  Not necessarily to the news, to political pressure, or even to consumer attitudes. It meant paying attention to the research.

“We are watching the research that is starting to come in.  What we are seeing in the more recent research using data from the USDA is that non GM agriculture in the end produces a greater yield and is more cost effective for farmers and creates a more resilient Earth,” Rob Michalak, global director of social mission for Ben & Jerry’s, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“A study by Charles Benbrook, a professor at Washington State University, explored the impact of GE crops in the US.  Initially you might see herbicide use come down with GE seeds, but then it goes back up and it goes up in an extreme way,” he said.

“So over time we actually are using more herbicide using GM seeds and the GM seeds are more expensive.  So we are not seeing the promise that the GM seeds were supposed to deliver,” Michalak said.

“There was another study, called the Marsden Farm Study, that showed is that good, sustainable conventional agriculture outperformed GM seeds,” he said.

The company has announced that it will transition to all non GMO ingredients by the end of 2013. A number of the company’s products are already GMO free. “Ben & Jerry’s is proud to stand with the growing consumer movement for transparency and the right to know what’s in our food supply by supporting mandatory GMO labeling legislation,” says a statement on the company’s website.

Between organic and GMO

Ben & Jerry’s has been sensitive to ingredient issues from the start, Michalak noted.  For example, the company has never used milk from cows treated with rBGH, and came out against the use of the hormone even before FDA took action to approve it.

Michalak said the company can use its national influence to play a similar role in the GMO debate.

“One of the roles that we can play that is an important role in this is in the middle, in between organic and GMO,” Michalak said.

“One the one side you’ve got organic which is non GMO by definition. There in the middle is the non-GMO conventional agricultural universe, but it is decreasing in the US. We feel that it is really important that we create a demand for conventional non GMO ingredients and conventional non GMO agriculture,he said.

Cleansing Ben & Jerry’s supply chain is a complicated undertaking because of the company’s long product list. But the biggest risk for GMO inclusion comes not from the ice cream itself, but from the add ons.

“Some of our products right now we are non GM already. Throughout 2013 we will be converting to all non GM ingredients. We have many skus and its very complicated. The biggest risk for us is in corn syrup; we also have some soy lecithin.  Where we use those ingredients is in the swirls,” Michalak said.

“By the end of 2013 we are fairly confident we can get through all of our ingredients,” he said.

Non GMO Project verifcation issues

While Ben & Jerry’s supports GMO labeling, the company has not pursued verification through the Non GMO Project, which Michalak said would require the entire supply chain, including the feed, to be free of GMO ingredients.  That’s a big stumbling block, he said, because as matters stand non GMO feed is either too expensive or simply unavailable.

“Part of the challenge to go with the Non GMO Project verification is that  a lot of our family farmers will still be purchasing conventional cow feed.  To satisfy the criteria they would have to convert to non GM feed.  Right now feed is a very expensive part of a family farmer’s business,” Michalak said.

“Most of the (proposed labeling) legislation we have seen exempts feed.  A lot of the legislators in the various states have looked at that, and have allowed for certain waivers that are reasonable.

“In the end what we want to do is to start a demand for more non GM corn in the supply chain, that includes feed for cows, or non GM soy, or corn syrup."