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Dirty Dairy: Why Consumers Need to Force Ben and Jerry’s to Go Organic

Author: Ronnie Cummins | Published: July 25, 2017 

The Vermont brand has been built on a bucolic image of cows grazing on endless pastures . . . Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and other Vermont companies have used this idyllic imagery to sell their products. Gone are the days, however, when most of Vermont’s cows were grazing in spectacularly scenic landscapes. Now a majority of Vermont’s cows are locked up in . . . ‘confined animal feeding operations’ or CAFOs . . . grazing on concrete with a diet rich in GMO corn and pesticides. – “Vermont’s GMO Addiction: Pesticides, Polluted Water and Climate Destruction,” Regeneration Vermont

The most important thing we can do today as conscious consumers, farmers and food workers is to regenerate public health, the environment and climate stability. We can do this most readily by moving away from industrial, GMO and factory-farm food toward an organic, pasture-based, soil-regenerative, humane, carbon-sequestering and climate-friendly agriculture system.

What’s standing in the way of this life-or-death transformation? Rampant greenwashing. The proliferation of $90 billion worth of fraudulently labeled or advertised “natural” and “socially responsible” food products in the U.S. confuses even the most well-intentioned of consumers and lures them away from purchasing genuine organic or grass-fed products.

Perhaps no company personifies greenwashing more than Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s.  Ben & Jerry’s history—a start-up launched by two affable hippies, from a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt., —is legendary. Despite selling out to Unilever in April 2000, the brand’s handlers have preserved its quirky, homespun image, and masterfully convinced consumers that Ben & Jerry’s has never strayed from its mission: “to make the world a better place.”

As the New York Times reports, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recently sent samples of Ben and Jerry’s top-selling ice cream brands to an independent testing lab for analysis. Ten out of 11 samples tested positive for Roundup (glyphosate and AMPA) herbicide contamination

So much for making the world a better place.

Compare the Ben & Jerry’s test results with the results of our testing of organic brands, brands that use organic milk from farms that are actually making the world a better place. Three out of four nationally distributed organic ice cream brands tested negative for Roundup contamination (only Whole Foods “365” brand was contaminated).

A history of stalling on organic

Twenty-four years ago, anti-GMO food activists, including the Pure Food Campaign (OCA’s predecessor), successfully pressured Ben & Jerry’s and a number of other leading dairies to prohibit the use of America’s first genetically engineered food product, Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Now marketed by drug giant Elanco (Eli Lilly), rBGH is linked to increased risk of human breast and colon cancer, a greater use of antibiotics in animal feed, and damage to cow’s health.

Several groups, including the OCA, subsequently asked Ben & Jerry’s to move beyond just prohibiting their dairy cows from being injected with rBGH. We asked them to go 100 percent organic, which would have required the company to ban its dairy suppliers from feeding their cows GMO corn and grain, and to use only organic ingredients in its flavors. But even before Ben & Jerry’s was bought out by Unilever, company founder Ben Cohen told Vermont Food activist Michael Colby “that Ben & Jerry’s was not going to transition to organic because it wouldn’t allow them to ‘maximize profits.’ “ 

Since 1994, Ben & Jerry’s, the $1.5-billion-per-year flagship brand of the second-largest multinational food corporation in the world, Unilever (annual sales $60 billion), has cashed in big time on its “rBGH-free” policy, advertising its brand, over and over again, as “all natural,” “GMO-free,” “fair trade,” “climate-just,” and “socially responsible.”

Despite repeated calls from consumer groups to stop advertising its ice-cream as “natural” or “all natural,” given that it is derived from cows raised almost exclusively on GMO corn forage (grown with Roundup Ready, neonic-, and BT-spliced seeds), laced with non-organic ingredients, sprayed heavily with Roundup and other pesticides, Ben & Jerry’s continues to greenwash and lie. The company recently (June 18, 2017) described its mission as:

To make, distribute and sell the finest quality and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.

After more than a decade of dodging consumer, farmer, animal welfare, environmental and farmworker pleas to stop greenwashing and to equitably source its milk from cows grazing on organic pasture, Ben & Jerry’s continues to stall. Instead, Ben & Jerry’s sources its milk from St. Alban’s, a 400-farmer dairy co-op that is increasingly dominated by large factory farm-type dairy operations. To feed their cows, farmers routinely spray tons of pesticides, including Roundup, atrazine and metolachlor, on fields of GMO corn grown from neonic-coated and BT toxin seeds. They also apply tons of soil-killing, climate-disrupting nitrogen fertilizers that pollute Vermont’s streams, rivers and lakes.

Petitions and protests calling for Ben & Jerry’s to stop its suppliers from exploiting farmworkers, confining dairy cows and driving small dairy farmers into bankruptcy, have produced nothing more than vague promises of “respecting the Earth” and supporting rural economic justice.

Enough is enough. Vermont and national public interest organizations have lost our patience. It’s time for Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s to move beyond greenwashing to decisive action. It’s time for Ben & Jerry’s to announce it will immediately begin transitioning to 100-percent organic. Otherwise conscious consumers have no choice but to launch a national and, if necessary, international protest campaign and boycott.

Vermont activists demand major changes from Ben and Jerry’s

Regeneration Vermont, a broad-based coalition of consumers and farmers, has repeatedly asked Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever to sign a six-point pledge to go 100-percent organic over a three-year transition period. Here’s what the groups want Ben & Jerry’s to pledge:

1. A transition away from GMO crops and toxic pesticides/fertilizers and toward regenerative organic agricultural methods.
2. Fair wages for farmers, including premiums based on regeneration benchmarks and assistance in the transition toward regenerative methods.
3. Economic justice for farm workers, fair and livable wages, decent housing and social and cultural dignity.
4. Adoption of climate remediation techniques, beginning with an emphasis on healthy soils and cover-cropping for carbon sequestration and erosion control.
5. Humane treatment of farm animals, a phase-out of confinement dairies and a transition back to grassland grazing and grass-based feed for ruminants.
6. Cleaning up and protecting our watersheds, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and groundwater.

A trail of toxins

Recent reports published by Regeneration Vermont reveal that Ben & Jerry’s suppliers, and Vermont and U.S. (non-organic) dairy farmers in general, have gone backward, rather than forward over the past 15 years in terms of environmental sustainability, food safety, nutrition, greenhouse gas pollution, water pollution, animal welfare, farmworker justice, and preservation of family farms.

Chemical fertilizer use has also almost doubled in Vermont since GMOs began to dominate the market 15 years ago. 

So much for Monsanto’s claims that GMO crops would reduce the use of toxic pesticides and water- polluting and climate-destabilizing nitrogen fertilizers. Not to mention Ben & Jerry’s claim that it is “non-GMO” and “environmentally responsible.”

Among Regeneration Vermont’s finding are the following:

• An astounding 97 percent of Vermont’s field corn, the major component of a non-organic dairy cow’s diet, is now GMO (Roundup Ready, Bt-spliced, neonic seeds). This is the highest percentage of any state in the U.S.

• Herbicide use has increased over 100 percent-per-acre in Vermont since Monsanto’s GMO corn came on the market, with recent heavy use of atrazine, metholachlor, simazine, pendimethlin, glyphosate (Roundup), acetochlor, dicamba, and alachlor.

As Regeneration Vermont states in its report:

Regulators have determined that five of these eight most used herbicides [in Vermont] are possible or probable human carcinogens, the remaining three are suspected carcinogens. Seven of the eight are possible or probable endocrine disruptors (the other one is a suspected to be an endocrine disruptor). All eight have been determined by regulators and academics to cause birth or developmental defects and contaminate drinking water and public waters with dangerous chemicals that have long-term persistence. Atrazine, simazine, acetachlor, and alachlor have lost their registration in the EU, and are effectively banned.

The threat of #DirtyDairy and factory farms

Millions of health-minded Americans, especially parents of young children, now understand that cheap, non-organic, genetically engineered, industrial and factory farm food is hazardous. Not only does chemical- and energy-intensive factory farming destroy the environment, destabilize the climate, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply, but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated and inferior in nutritional terms, in this case in comparison to 100% grass-fed and organic milk and dairy.

America’s green-minded consumers understand that industrial agriculture poses a terminal threat to the environment and climate stability. A highly conscious and passionate segment of the population is beginning to understand that converting to non-chemical, non-genetically engineered, energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering organic/regenerative farming practices, and drastically reducing food miles by re-localizing the food chain, are essential preconditions for stabilizing our out-of-control climate and preparing our families and communities for future energy and resource shortages.

A critical mass of the global grassroots—consumers, farmers, activists—now realize that unless we act quickly, global warming and climate chaos will soon severely disrupt industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation, leading to massive crop failures, food shortages, famine, war, and pestilence. Even more alarming, accelerating levels of greenhouse gases will soon push global warming to a tipping point that will melt the polar icecaps and possibly unleash a cataclysmic discharge of climate-destabilizing methane, now sequestered in the fragile arctic tundra.

Thanks to this growing consumer awareness—and four decades of hard work—the organic community has built up a $50-billion “certified organic” and $5-billion 100% grass-fed food and products sector that prohibits the use of genetic engineering and pesticides. The rapidly expanding organic products sector now constitutes more than 5 percent of total retail grocery sales (and 15 percent of fruits and vegetables), with an annual growth rate of 10-15 percent.  Even taking into account a sluggish economy, the organic market, if we eliminate greenwashing and labeling fraud, could conceivably reach a “tipping point” of 20 percent of grocery sales in 2020.

The myth of “natural” remains a threat

As impressive as this $55 billion Organic and Grass-fed Alternative is, it remains overshadowed by an additional $90 billion in annual spending by consumers on products, such as B&J’s, fraudulently marketed as “natural,” “gmo-free,” “free range,” or “sustainable.”

Consumer surveys indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that “natural” products are “almost organic,” yet at the same time, much cheaper; the majority believes that “all natural” actually means that it is better than organics. Ben & Jerry’s is not the only brand greenwashing its products and impeding the growth of organic, 100% grass-fed and regenerative foods. But it is certainly among the most shameless.

In fact, all these “natural,” “all-natural” and “sustainable” products are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a third-party certifier. Most “natural” or conventional products—whether produce, dairy or canned or frozen goods—are produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive.  

Perhaps fraudulently labeled “natural” foods such as Ben & Jerry’s wouldn’t matter so much if we were living in normal times, with a relatively healthy population, environment and climate. Conventional products sold as “natural” or “nearly organic” would be just one more example of chicanery or unethical business practices.

But we are not living in normal times.

Demanding that fake natural brands and producers, such as Ben & Jerry’s, make the transition to organic is a matter of life or death. We’re tired of pleading and politely asking Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever and other greenwashers to please change their ways. It’s time to step up the pressure. Please join the growing boycott of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream by signing this petition and by volunteering to join a local campaign team in your local community.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.

How Factory Farming Contributes to Global Warming

A growing number of organic consumers, natural health advocates and climate hawks are taking a more comprehensive look at the fundamental causes of global warming. And its led them to this sobering conclusion: our modern energy-, chemical- and genetically modified organism (GMO)-intensive industrial food and farming systems are the major cause of man-made global warming.

How did they reach this conclusion? First, by taking a more inclusive look at the scientific data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—not just carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane and nitrous oxide. Next, by doing a full accounting of the fossil fuel consumption and emissions of the entire industrial food and farming cycle, including inputs, equipment, production, processing, distribution, heating, cooling and waste. And finally, by factoring in the indirect impacts of contemporary agriculture, which include deforestation and wetlands destruction.

When you add it all up, the picture is clear—contemporary agriculture is burning up our planet. And factory farms or, in industry lingo, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), play a key role in this impending disaster.

The science behind global warming is complex. Without question, coal plants, tar sands and natural gas fracking have contributed heavily to GHG pollution, the major cause of global warming. We must unite to shut down these industries. Similarly, consumer overconsumption of fossil fuels represents another big piece of the climate-crisis equation. We absolutely must rethink, retrofit and/or redesign our gas-guzzling cars and our energy-inefficient buildings, if we want to reduce fossil fuel use by 90 percent over the next few decades.

KEEP READING ON ECOWATCH

Factory Farm Meat: Why Vegetarians, Ranchers and Conscious Omnivores Need to Unite

For the first time since the advent of industrial agriculture, the federal government is considering advising Americans to eat “less red and processed meat.”

That advice is the outcome of studies conducted by an independent panel of “experts” which was asked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for recommended changes to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

The February 19 “eat less red and processed meat” pronouncement by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was reported widely in mainstream media. It set off a heated debate about whether or not consumers should eat meat, a debate that included the standard name-calling by factory farm front groups, including the Farm Bureau, denouncing consumers and environmentalists (and their alleged pawns on the DGAC) for being “anti-meat” and “anti-farmer.”

Unfortunately in its recommendations, the DGAC didn’t really come out and tell us the whole truth, which would go something like this: “Americans should eat less, or rather no red and processed meat from filthy, inhumane factory farms or feedlots, where the animals are cruelly crammed together and routinely fed a diet of herbicide-drenched, genetically engineered grains, supplemented by a witch’s brew of antibiotics, artificial hormones, steroids, blood, manure and slaughterhouse waste, contributing to a deadly public health epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, antibiotic resistance, hormone disruption and food allergies.”

If the DGAC had really told us the truth about America’s red meat horror show (95 percent of our red meat comes from these Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs), we’d be having a conversation about how we can get rid of factory farms, instead of a rather abstract debate on the ethics of eating meat.

With a real debate we could conceivably start to change the self-destructive purchasing and eating habits (the average American carnivore consumes nine ounces or more of toxic CAFO meat and animal products daily) of most Americans. Instead we are having a slightly more high-volume replay of the same old debate, whereby vegetarians and vegans, constituting approximately 5 percent of the population, tell the other 95 percent, who are omnivores, to stop eating meat. Nothing much ever comes of that particular debate, which leaves thousands of hard-working, conscientious ranchers, and millions of health-, environment- and humane-minded omnivores, out of the conversation.

I say thousands of “hard-working, conscientious,” ranchers are being left out of the conversation because I know lots of them.

North American cattle ranchers, for the most part, have no love for Cargill, Tyson, Monsanto, JBS, Smithfield, Elanco (animal drugs) or McDonald’s. Most of these ranchers practice traditional animal husbandry, conscientiously taking care of their animals from birth. They graze their cattle free-range on grass, as nature intended, before they’re forced to sell these heretofore-healthy animals at rock-bottom prices to the monopolistic meat cartel.

Before these hapless creatures are dragged away to hell, to be fattened up on GMO grains and drugged up in America’s CAFOs, their meat is high in beneficial Omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acids (LA), and low in “bad” fats.

Unfortunately by the time their abused and contaminated carcasses arrive, all neatly packaged, at your local supermarket, restaurant or school cafeteria, the meat is low in Omega 3 and good “fats,” and routinely tainted by harmful bacteria, not to mention pesticide, steroid and antibiotic residues. What was once a healthy food has now become a literal poison that clogs up your veins, makes you fat, and heightens your risk of heart attack or cancer.

I mention millions of “health-, environment-, and humane-minded” consumers being left out of the “meat versus no meat” conversation because, as director of the two million-strong, Organic Consumers Association, I talk and exchange emails with conscious consumers every day.

No organic consumer, vegetarian or omnivore I’ve ever encountered consciously supports the cruelty of intensive confinement for farm animals. Nor do they support feeding herbivores genetically engineered, herbicide-drenched grains, mixed with slaughterhouse waste. No one supports dosing factory farmed animals with antibiotics and hormones that then end up in your kid’s hamburger at school (unless it’s organic or 100-percent grass-fed.)

No one in their right mind, or at least no one who has ever experienced a factory farm first-hand or even read a book or watched a video about what’s going on, supports CAFOs. That’s why corporate agribusiness is working overtime to pass state “Ag Gag” laws making it a crime to take photos of CAFOs. That’s why the beef cartel and Big Food spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep you in the dark about CAFOs, about whether or not your food contains genetically engineered ingredients, and about the country-of-origin of your food.

If CAFO meat and animal products had to be labeled (a proposition I support wholeheartedly), the entire factory farm industry would collapse. If CAFO meat had to be labeled, not only in grocery stores but also in restaurants,

McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and the rest would immediately be on the phone, contacting ranchers directly to buy their grass-fed, healthy, free- range beef.

Before we go any further, let’s identify the real culprits in this CAFO horror show.

Four multi-billion dollar transnational companies—Tyson JBS, Cargill and Smithfield—produce about 85 percent of the factory farm meat in the U.S., making it difficult for ranchers to sell their livestock to anyone but the Big Four. And of course these same Big Four companies, along with their front groups such as the North American Meat Institute, are lobbying the government to ditch the 2015 dietary guidelines to “eat less red and processed meat” recommendation because they understand what that recommendation will do to their bottom lines.

But what the Big Four fear even more is the thought of consumers waking up to the horrors of factory farms, and the filthy, contaminated meat that comes out of these animal prisons.

Fortunately, demand for healthier, sustainably raised grass-fed beef is growing rapidly. Here in Minneapolis-St. Paul where I spend a good part of the year, there are now over 100 restaurants that offer grass-fed beef on their menus. Local co-ops and natural food grocery stores are barely able to keep up with the increasing consumer demand.

But unfortunately 95 percent of beef today still comes from factory farms and feedlots. Meanwhile most of the 100-percent grass-fed meat sold at restaurants such as Chipotle or Carl’s Jr. (a popular chain on the West Coast) is imported from Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay and Argentina, rather than produced here in the US. Why? It’s not because consumers don’t want healthier, more humanely raised 100-percent grass fed beef. It’s because Cargill and Big Food have monopolized the market by brainwashing the public into believing that cheap CAFO meat is OK, while controlling nearly all of the meat processing plants in the country.

The time has come to shift the American diet away from unhealthy, inhumane, GMO factory farmed food. But as Kendra Kimbirauskas of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP) pointed out at her TEDx talk in New York City recently, we, conscious consumers and farmers, “need to get on common ground” and stop “in-fighting over whether to eat ethical meat, go meat-free, or advocate for bigger cages…” As Kimbirauskas emphasizes, we need to enlist environmentalists in our anti-CAFO campaigning as well.

“As long as animals are in factory farms, they are polluting our environment”… And, Kimbirauskas added, “Those most impacted by the problem (farmers and rural people adjacent to CAFOs) need to be most visible in the fight to change It.”

Meat (along with eggs and dairy products) from factory farms is literally killing people with diet-related diseases. Factory farms are a disaster, not only for the animals, but also for the communities where manure and chemical fertilizers and pesticides pollute the air, the soil, streams, lakes, rivers and drinking water.

Factory farms and the GMO farms that supply them with animal feed are a disaster for the climate as well, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases, including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. The grasslands that support grass-fed beef, on the other hand, if grazed properly, sequester CO2 from the air and put it in the soil, while drastically reducing or eliminating altogether methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

It’s time to stop fighting among ourselves about whether or not to eat meat. Americans need to boycott all factory farmed meat and animal products. Period.

Beyond boycotting CAFO products, if consumers care about their health and the health of the planet, we need to reduce our consumption of sustainable grass-fed animal products to approximately three or four ounces a day (not nine ounces a day, the current average).

We are what we eat. We must get rid of factory farms and put the Earth’s billions of confined farm animals back outside on the land, grazing and foraging, where they belong.

***

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico-based affiliate, Via Organica.