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Stonyfield Farm CEO: Big isn't necessarily bad in the world of organics

BRATTLEBORO—Gary Hirshberg disputes arguments within the organic food movement that only small organic is good organic.

Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest organic yogurt company, outlined his views on the organic industry to Slow Living Summit participants last week.

He said now is the time to shift from big agribusiness to sustainable farming practices.

“We’re at a very poignant moment. We not only need to expedite our evolution, but address our M.O. within the progressive movement itself,” said Hirshberg.

At the same time, he said, progressives need to fight the tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Forgetting farms

Hirshberg said that he has spent 60 percent of his life working within the organic industry. He grew up outside Manchester, N.H., which he called a bountiful agricultural place that he watched deconstruct into suburbia.

According to Hershberg, the U.S. has lost 1 million family farms since 1960, and the agricultural way of life has disappeared within one generation.

The demise of farms and communities are two equally disturbing trends, he said. Since the early 1970s, the society has “evolved on a flawed path,” and as a result, lost its relationship to nature.

Numerous flawed assumptions that have become myths entwined like burdock in a sheep’s wool, he said, such as the assumption that waste is an acceptable byproduct of production, and that the main way to deal with it is to ship it “away.”

He gave a personal example.

A few years ago, Stonyfield decided to build an anaerobic digester to process the biological waste from its yogurt production process. Before this decision, however, Hirshberg said, the company considered an aerobic digester that would have composted one truckload of sludge weekly.

The sludge would have been trucked to Vermont, he said.

At the same time Ben & Jerry’s, in Vermont, was sending its production waste to New Hampshire.

That is why businesses need to create waste-free production systems, Hirshberg said.

The myths of growth

Another damaging myth, Hirshberg said, is that the earth is infinitely resilient and can deal with whatever humans throw at it.

The truth, he said, is that the earth has been subsidizing our economy through society’s exploitation of its natural resources.

“Externalities,” a term that economists use to describe side effects or consequences of commercial activity that is not reflected in the cost of goods and services involved, blinds the public to the flaws in the current economy, he said.

Under this definition, the direct outcomes of the current industrialized food system — such as obesity, climate change, and diabetes — do not exist, because their cost is not part of the price we pay for food at the grocery store.

He said people need to understand that inexpensive food is not cheap and that one’s neighbors — or the environment itself — are paying these costs somehow.

Then there is the myth that water as a completely renewable resource.

Hirshberg called water “the oil of the 21st century,” adding that most of the water loss in this country happens through unsustainable agricultural irrigation practices.

But, the most serious issue facing industrial agriculture, said Hirshberg, is toxification.

For 70 years, he said, U.S. farmers have been on a spree, using unproven chemicals in the agricultural process.

He also took aim at genetically modified organisms (GMOs), saying that despite 30 years of progress in the organic food industry, policymakers have “drunk the Kool-Aid,” believing GMO use must be deregulated in order to feed the world.

Yet large agricultural companies, such as Monsanto, fund research to get the results they want, he said.

They also have bought politicians and won power through Supreme Court decisions, such as the Citizens United case that upholds the rights of corporations to spend unlimited sums on money on political campaigns.

Hirshberg spoke of the conflict of interest that exists when a company such as Monsanto sells herbicides while making seeds for farmers.

“These genies don’t go back in the bottle,” said Hirshberg, adding 90 percent of all corn and soy grown in the United States comes from GMO seeds. Over time, he said, data shows that farmers end up needing to use more herbicides on GMO crops.

An alternative

Organic food practices, however, offer a different, healthier reality, said Hirshberg.

Stonyfield Farm buys an average of 50 million pounds of organic milk from Vermont, which equates to $14 million into the state’s economy.

Hirshberg said the farmers working with Stonyfield also earn 70 to 80 percent more for their milk than conventional farmers. Also, organic milk cows live twice as long on average as conventional milk cows.

Yet Stonyfield earns a better net margin than its larger, non-organic competitors.

Hirshberg said it’s possible to create an economic system where everyone gives and everyone wins. But, he cautioned, one of the issues the organic industry is up against now is the issue of scale.

For lower-income families, organic food costs too much and remains in the realm of the elite. This is why, he said, he sells to Walmart.

Hirshberg feels one of the ways to get everyone eating organic food is to increase the industry’s size to increase efficiencies.

Communities must also help fund farmers making the transition from conventional to organic. The shift can take as long as three years, and they can’t always sell their products during the transition.

Hirshberg also supports eliminating the “broken” federal subsidy system that many conventional farms benefit from. He also believes the country needs a national labeling law, because consumers should have the right to know if their food contains GMOs.

Politics

Americans, he said, have been spoiled into believing “that cheap food is a good thing.” However, most of what people call food isn’t food, he said — it’s a mix of bad ingredients and empty fillers that lead to health conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

The higher cost of organic products should not be an excuse for not providing people with nutritious and affordable food, he said.

But to make organic more affordable, Hirshberg believes, food produced by big agribusinesses must first be priced for what their products really cost — to eliminate the externalities.

Federal subsidies are ingrained with the cost of food, he said. For example, coal and oil companies receive government financial assistance, and therefore people do not pay the real price for these energy sources.

Removing the agricultural subsidies would level the playing field for organic food, because organic would cease to cost more compared to conventionally farmed food.

But whether or not subsidies are abolished, the scale of organic industry needs to grow, because with an increase in scale comes efficiencies, Hirshberg said.

For example, when Stonyfield picks up milk, having seven farms on one milk route saves the company more time and energy than going to just one farm.

Hirshberg estimates that if organic reached 4 percent of the total U.S. food sales, organic companies would see a 10 percent increase in efficiencies.

Hirshberg said that when considering the future of the organic food industry, people should look at the context of the American food industry as a whole.

“We have data on our side,” he said. “What we need now is the political clout.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #104 (Wednesday, June 8, 2011).

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