Stonyfield-Gary Hirshberg fiasco grows over video with young girls spreading misinformation about farming and GMOs

Usually, a video with kids talking is cute, funny, perhaps poignant. However, scientists’ and farmers’ reactions to a promotional video posted by the yogurt maker and organic dairy company Stonyfield featuring children talking about GMOs have been anything but.

The video, accessible below, supposedly depicts children who are innocently trying to define 'What are GMOs?':

Several of these children have appeared in other Stonyfield videos, as part of an apparent series where, according to the company’s website, “we asked cool kids…” something about topics that appeal to Stonyfield’s message--organic foods and safe and healthful while foods grown conventionally pose hidden dangers, and those grown with genetically modified seeds are the most insidious of all.

The “cool kids” make these key points--staple of anti-GMO activists for years, and often found on Stonyfield's website:

  • "You take a gene from a fish and put it into a tomato.” This misconception refers to a tomato with a gene from a winter flounder that helps the fish survive freezing temperatures, this technique was developed in the 1990s to help tomatoes tolerate frost, but the product was never commercialized.
  • “I think it’s better if we get informed of it before we, like, eat it.” This refers to efforts by Stonyfield’s chairman and co-founder, Gary Hirshberg (learn more about him from this Genetic Literacy Project Profile), as part of the Just Label It campaign to require labeling of GMOs in food, ignoring other genetic modifications that are not transgenic, other techniques such as RNAi or CRISPR (which don’t require DNA from another species), and accepted techniques such as irradiation of site-directed mutagenesis.

The video also has emotional appeals, including statements from the kids like, “That sounds monstrous” and, “Are you kidding me?”

Reactions from scientists, science communicators and farmers? They are not amused.

Amanda Zaluckyi, whose family runs a farm in Michigan and posts on the popular Farmer's Daughter USA blog, wrote:

Even though Stonyfield doesn’t believe eating GMOs is harmful, they are more than willing to keep manipulating children to scare people. They are willing to lie to their customers to move their product. They know full well being non-GMO does not make their product better in any way, yet they are more than happy to act like it does if it sells. Does anyone actually feel comfortable buying from a company like that?

Filmmaker Natalie Newell, who directed the Science Moms short documentary that follows five moms (including me) as they discuss some of the most fraught issues in parenting today, was quoted as saying:

If you want to talk about GMOs, awesomeFind experts (and there’s no shortage of folks who can talk on genetic modification and biotechnology) to define the term. But do not use children. Don’t use children to perpetuate these myths and further demonize biotechnology, all in the name of selling your yogurt pouches.

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta volunteered to teach a science lesson at the schools attended by the child video stars:

What made this video paralyzingly egregious was that scientific ignorance was propagated by young women.
They should be extolling the beauty of medicine, the promise of technology, and how they can one day participate in sustainable food production. Instead, they are ecstatic about science-free industry talking points to sell a product.
We need to fix this.

I volunteer to travel to the schools where these girls attend, at my personal expense, and teach a day’s lessons about plant science. We’ll talk about plant domestication, how plants function, what they do for us, and how farming provides food. We’ll talk about environmental impacts, conventional and organic cropping systems, and also about biotechnology. I’ll bring plenty of seeds for kids to start their own gardens.

And Iowa farmer and writer Michelle Miller, who Tweets and blogs as “Farm Babe,” responded in an email interview on what children should learn about science, genetics and food:

Kids should understand that science should be celebrated! Just because we don't know what something is, that doesn't mean we should fear it. The word "GMO" sounds like some creepy mutation we shouldn't put in our bodies, I get that (Who came up with this acronym, seriously?). But once you actually dig in on the science it is really cool! It's important to talk to real farmers and scientists and farming and science and there are excellent high paying careers in agriculture and plant science. The sky's the limit with these in-demand jobs. Farmers are the experts in the fields, not a big city food marketing executive that's never even been inside a combine. Let's connect.

Stonyfield’s response

First, the company went to social media to accuse its accusers of being trolls, citing “fake names” that couldn’t be verified.

Later, after a few hundred complaints, the company issued a more serious, longer statement that also contained serious misconceptions about genetically modified food, including the carcinogenicity of glyphosate:

  1. We do not believe that eating GMOs has been proven harmful to your health. The majority of GMO crops used by farmers today require the use of toxic herbicides.
  2. The use of glyphosate, which has been categorized as a probable carcinogen by the IARC (International Agency for Cancer Research), has increased nearly 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996. (source: https://www.ewg.org/…/study-monsanto-s-glyphosate-most-heav…).
  3. We believe consumers have the right to choose whether or not to support the above practices, and that the only way this can happen is if food companies that use GMO ingredients or that feed their cows GMO feed declare this on their packaging.
  4. Since USDA Organic regulations forbid the use of GMOs, we will continue to rigorously avoid their use and we are proud to offer consumers this choice in the dairy aisle.”

The foundation of Stonyfield's justification of its video is IARC. The only regulatory or official advisory organization in the world to link glyphosate to cancer, IARC, the WHO’s cancer research arm, has come under intense criticism for, at best, being wrong, and at worst, corrupted by conflicts of interest with anti-GMO activists. No other reputable organization has fingered glyphosate as carcinogenic. Bernhard Url, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority (which did not find glyphosate carcinogenic), commented recently in Nature on the brouhaha:

That the agencies reached different conclusions is not surprising: each considered different bodies of scientific evidence and methodologies. Other independent assessments — by the European Chemicals Agency and regulatory bodies in the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia — agreed with EFSA. So did an expert body on pesticide residues convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Url also pointed to organizations (like Gary Hirshberg's Just Label It and others) that continue to encourage doubt about glyphosate in particular and genetic engineering in general:

Why the frenzy? Agencies that find low risk of regulated products are often accused of undue industry influence. We at EFSA believe that some campaigners are unwilling to accept any evidence that certain regulated substances are safe, and will tout weak scientific studies showing the opposite. The same groups applauded EFSA for reviews on other pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, that it deemed dangerous.

It seems to us that some campaigners contest the science of safety assessments in pursuit of greater political arguments. These arguments deserve airing — but they belong with policymakers.

Stonyfield's history of spreading misinformation

As for Stonyfield and Hirshberg, they have been at the front line of this dissemination of misinformation about food and agriculture for years.

In another video produced by Hirshberg and other organic industry members in 2015, children performed a fake elementary school performance about Old MacDonald vs New MacDonald--a critique of conventional farming. Hirshberg described the video as “playful” and” turns the spotlight on the true costs of conventional farming and the harm it does to environmental health.” Watch the video below:

Plant geneticist Steve Savage described it as corrupt play for financial gain, because “It is a malicious distortion that demonizes the work of the small minority of citizens who still farm. It is designed to make consumers believe they must buy organic food to be safe and responsible. This is hate speech for profit! The indoctrination of the child actors only makes it more despicable.”

Hirshberg also has been involved in politics, attempting to disseminate his pro-organic, anti-GMO message, at least to Democratic candidates. A number of emails distributed by WikiLeaks showed that, during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, Hirshberg acted as a “bundler”, handling donations of $600,000 to Hillary Clinton’s efforts, and advocating that her campaign strongly support labeling of so-called GMO food. Hirshberg was hoping to be an an unofficial advisor to Clinton on farm policy if she had been elected president.

What the children’s video and Stonyfield defense ignore is the role of genetics in farming. As “Farm Babe” Michelle Miller explained:

GMOs allow us as farmers to have a number of benefits. They may eliminate our need to spray insecticides, (which helps beneficial insects like bees) they may give us the ability to use safer herbicides, or make it easier and more cost effective to do no-till farming which is better for soil health and the environment. GMOs can also be fortified with more nutrients or be saved from diseases... The list goes on. There's a reason why 95% of farmers are choosing to grow them. If we can produce more with less resources and reduce our chemical pesticide sprays, while being better stewards of the land, this is a win-win for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Stonyfield's censorship

Meanwhile, Stonyfield has consistently been deleting Facebook and other social media comments that challenge their marketing decisions to exploit young children to spread scientifically incorrect information about farming and GMOs. Michelle Jones is a farmer and mother who saw her  thoughtful comments removed within minutes after she posted them: 

 

Stonyfield purged its site of hundreds of mostly thoughtful pushback on its misinformation crusade. A Facebook page, Banned by Stonyfield, was even formed to capture what the large organic company has tried to suppress.

This group is created to capture how many people Stonyfield has blocked from their facebook page for posting feedback on their recent ads and the subsequent follow-up post. Currently their chairman is claiming they are under a coordinated attack by fake accounts. This kind of outright lying isn't ok, and we have the ability to bring to light their deceptive practices by posting OUR voices. Once this group is large enough, I'll change the settings to public and work to have this shared across different Facebook pages to counter Stonyfields message. Please write a comment with your name, a few word blurb about you and why you commented on the page. We are real people, we really don't like the message that Stonyfield company is putting forth. We won’t be #SilencedByStonyfield.

University of Florida horticulturalist Kevin Folta was one of those banned, for posting this:

As Folta has written, Stonyfield, like many organic companies, have turned their marketing from extolling the virtues of their own products to vilifying competitors, using misinformation as their battle tool. They've transformed themselves into crude ideologues, no better than than the science deniers that make up growing portions of the political right and left. Here are excerpts from a letter sent to Stonyfield by Ag Daily:

We are real people, with real names, real jobs and real concerns. We are the more than 400 social media users — scientists, farmers, educators, students, mothers and fathers — who you tried to silence when we responded to your recent marketing video. You have deleted thousands of comments, and your chairman and former CEO has called us “trolls” with “fake accounts.” ...

Instead of focusing on the merits of your yogurt, you chose to exploit parents’ concerns about the safety of the food they give to their families. You used children as props to spread your message. We question your ethics and deride your efforts to disparage and divide large segments of the agricultural community. ...

Fear-based food messages are negatively impacting the buying and eating habits of consumers, especially among the poorest demographics. It demonizes safe and beneficial technology — technology that allows farmers to grow more food on less land, using fewer resources and reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector. Marketing messages like yours work to take choices away from farmers and make consumers feel like they don’t have safe choices at the grocery stores.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield.

 

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