Testimony of Gary Hirshberg Before the Senate Committee on Agriculture
Testimony of Gary Hirshberg
Before the Senate Committee on Agriculture
On Agriculture Biotechnology:
A Look at Federal Regulation and Stakeholder Perspectives
October 20, 2015
Thank you Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow for the opportunity to testify today.
My name is Gary Hirshberg and I am the co-founder, chairman and former 30-year CEO of Stonyfield Farm. I also serve or have served as a director and advisor for numerous conventional and organic food and beverage companies now owned by firms such as Coca-Cola, Hormel and General Mills.
Today, however, I am appearing as Chairman of Just Label It, a coalition of more than 700 businesses and organizations dedicated to a mandatory disclosure system for products containing genetically modified organisms or GMOs.
I have seen first-hand a remarkable and encouraging shift in consumer interest in food in the last 20 years. Consumers – especially millennials – are demanding transparency as never before. Consumer interest in food and farming is a trend that should be welcomed because our food choices have an enormous impact on our health and on the health of our environment.
Growth in demand for sustainably grown food is also good for agriculture because two decades of double-digit annual growth in these categories is creating billions of dollars of new revenue, creating millions of jobs, and creating new opportunities for farmers, especially younger farmers. When I started Stonyfield, most consumers had no idea what “organic” meant. Now, annual organic sales are nearing $40 billion, and most of the nation’s largest food manufacturers are actively engaged in the category.
Our position is simple: Consumers have the right to know what is in their food and how it is grown – the same right held by citizens in 64 nations. Recent polling and consumer data tell us that nine out of ten Americans – regardless of age, income, race or party affiliation – want the right to know whether the food they eat and purchase for their families contains GMOs.1 Consumers give many reasons for wanting these disclosures, but chief among them is the extent to which GMO crops have increased the use of herbicides linked to serious health problems.
Let me be very clear: we strongly support a national GMO disclosure system that provides factual information. We do not support a warning or a disclosure system that renders a judgment on GMOs and are certainly not seeking a ban on GMO crops. Rather, we support a value-neutral disclosure that respects the right of consumers to make their own choices.
Actual experience shows that food prices have not increased in the 64 countries that have adopted GMO labels, nor do consumers in these countries view GMO disclosures as warnings. At the same time that GMO disclosures have been adopted around the globe, GMO crop acreage has steadily increased – from 27 million acres in 1997, when the first GMO label was introduced, to 448 million acres in 2014.2
The world’s second largest producer of GMO crops – Brazil – implemented mandatory GMO labeling3 in 2003, yet less than 1% of food sales in Brazil are organic4 and Brazilians have accepted GMO foods in the marketplace.5 Claims that a mandatory disclosure would disrupt GMO expansion were disproved by actual marketplace experience.
I know from my own experience that food companies change our labels all the time to highlight new innovations and that food companies and farmers already segregate GMO and conventional ingredients to serve our markets at home and abroad. I also know from experience that a value-neutral disclosure will not cause sudden shifts in consumer behavior. A recent five- year study of consumer data confirmed that American consumers will not view a GMO disclosure as a warning.6
The Just Label It coalition and I welcome the opportunity to work with the Committee and with farmers, food manufacturers, and other stakeholders to craft a disclosure that is national, that is mandatory, that works for consumers, and that works for the food industry. You should not have to live in Vermont to know what’s in your food and how it’s grown. The Des Moines Register, in a 2014 editorial7 entitled “It’s Time for Congress to Require GMO Labeling” put it simply –
“Congress should set a nationwide standard of disclosure and then let the individual consumers decide whether the presence of GMOs in a product is something that concerns them. But keeping consumers in the dark is never the right thing to do.”
In the absence of such a system, we urge the Senate to reject efforts to block state GMO disclosures or limit the Administration’s authority to develop a national solution. Such efforts contradict Congress’ longstanding view that states should be able to require simple factual disclosures on food labels and that the FDA and USDA should have the authority to require disclosures that help consumers make informed decisions.
Farmers should of course have choices. And so too should consumers. The fastest creators of new on-farm and factory jobs are the companies and brands that are most transparently responsive to consumer desires. The 21st century consumer demands food that is, above all, transparent, and Congress as well as the food industry should honor and support, and most certainly not block, this fundamental right.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I look forward to your questions.
1. The Mellman Group, for Just Label It, at http://4bgr3aepis44c9bxt1ulxsyq.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp- content/uploads/2015/06/2015JLISurvey.pdf
2. James, Clive. 2014. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2014. ISAAA Brief No. 49. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.
3. Library of Congress. 2015. Restrictions on Genetically Modified Organisms: Brazil. <http://www.loc.gov/law/help/restrictions-on-gmos/brazil.php>.
4. Bruha, Patrick. 2015. Organic Food Market In Brazil. The Brazil Business. <http://thebrazilbusiness.com/article/organic-food-market-in-brazil>. 13 May 2015.
5. González, et al. 2009. Consumer Acceptance of Second-Generation GM Foods: The Case of Biofortified Cassava in the North-east of Brazil. Journal of Agricultural Economics. Vol. 60, Issue 3, pp. 604-624.
6. Reidel, John C. 2015. New Study: Consumers Don’t View GMO Labels as Negative ‘Warnings.’ University Commons. <http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/?Page=news&storyID=21203&category=uvmhome>.
7. The Des Moines Register Editorial Board. It’s Time for Congress to Require GMO Labeling. 25 July 2014.
Biographical Sketch for Gary Hirshberg
Gary Hirshberg is Co-Founder and Chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer, and Managing Director of Stonyfield Europe, with organic brands in Ireland and France. Gary serves on a number of corporate boards, including Applegate, Glenisk, Late July, Orgain, Peak Organic Brewing, Sweetgreen Cafés, UNreal chocolates, and Danone Communities Fund. In 2011, President Obama appointed Gary to serve on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. He is a founding Partner and Chairman of the Board of “Just Label It,” the national campaign to label genetically engineered foods. He has authored two books, received twelve honorary doctorates and numerous citations including a 2015 Champion for Children Award from Mount Sinai Hospital’s Children’s Environmental Health Center, and a 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award by the US EPA, and was named one of “America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs” by Business Week.