"So, when you hear the myth, and we hear it often, organic can never feed the 9.2 billion co-inhabitants we’re going to have in 2050, forget it. I can tell you from the 100 commodities we buy, from the milk to the sugar to the cocoa, we’ve shown either increased yields or the same yields ever since they’ve switched. But when you look at a total life cycle, from total resources in, resources out, organic totally kills."
Visionary food entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg answers those questions with a resounding “yes”. As founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest organic yogurt company, Hirshberg has demonstrated that environmentally and socially responsible business can also be profitable.
Bioneers Series XI – Program 09-11
The Organic Revolution: From Hippie, to Hip, to Scale
00:00 Underwriting narration (00:22)
The following program is made possible in part by Organic Valley Family of Farms. Organic and family-owned since 1988. Learn more at organicvalley.coop. Also by Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. As well as by the generous support of listeners like you.
00:13 Welcome (00:05)
00:18 Teaser (00:23)
(Applause) So, when you hear the myth, and we hear it often, organic can never feed the 9.2 billion co-inhabitants we’re going to have in 2050, forget it. I can tell you from the 100 commodities we buy, from the milk to the sugar to the cocoa, we’ve shown either increased yields or the same yields ever since they’ve switched. But when you look at a total life cycle, from total resources in, resources out, organic totally kills.
00:41 Macy (00:09)
00:50 Bioneers Teaser (00:28)
We stand at the threshold of a historic opportunity in the human experiment: to re-imagine how to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations. It's a revolution from the heart of nature - and the human heart.
In this series - The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature - we celebrate social and scientific innovators with breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet - creating a future environment of hope.
01:18 Theme music fade out (00:08)
01:26 NARRATION 1 (1:38)
As you push your shopping cart through the produce aisle, you see two displays of apples — one with organic fruit and one with conventional.
The organic apples cost 20 cents a pound more than the others. You like the idea of organic. But is the price tag really worth it?
You want to save money - but when you DON’T buy organic, WHAT are you saving? Do you want to spend your money on an industrial food system that is severely damaging the planet, as well as people’s health? What do you do? Your choice means much more than comparing apples to apples.
There is a global food and public health crisis playing out in the produce section, the dairy section, in EVERY section and on every aisle of every grocery store. Attention food shoppers – choose carefully.
Despite powerful opposing interests, organic foods are on their way from marginal to mainstream. Still, after 40 years of progress, only about 2% of the global food system can be considered sustainable, fair and affordable. And the struggle for the integrity of the organic food certification label remains in full swing.
And even bigger questions remain: can organic food and fair food ever feed seven billion people? How can the entire food chain become sustainable, from seeds and land and animals to health and community food security? And does sustainability stack up to profitability in the organic food industry?
This is “The Organic Revolution: From Hippie, to Hip, to Scale.”
My name is Neil Harvey. I'll be your host. Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.
03:04 Music fade (00:12)
03:16 Hirshberg 1 plen (00:40)
When we started, it seemed to me that capitalism was really the source of all evils. I need to tell you, I went into this with a very anti-business approach. And, really, if you think about the history of agriculture, going all the way back to earliest civilizations, it’s always been about taking – taking soil, taking water, taking habitat, taking away farmers’ rights, taking away the rights of the yet-to-be-born, taking away the rights of consumers to safe and healthy food. And it was my partner’s and my recognition that we evolved following these myths down this cul-de-sac that led us to found Stonyfield with a very simple and basic question: Is it possible for business to be part of the solution and not part of the problem?
03:56 NARRATION 2 (00:23)
Visionary food entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg answers that question with a resounding “yes”. As founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest organic yogurt company, Hirshberg has demonstrated that environmentally and socially responsible business can also be profitable. But that’s sure not where his journey began…
04:19 Hirshberg 1 int (1:00)
I was a trustee of a small organic farming school where we would eat my partner’s delicious yogurt every board meeting, and that was from his, then, one cow, and we decided to start making and selling more yogurt as a means of supporting the rural education center, this little organic farming school. That was really the only goal. The goal was to produce enough milk and to maybe sell it in the four or five towns around Wilton, New Hampshire, and keep the school going. And the problem was, of course, or maybe it wasn’t such a problem, the opportunity was that the tail started wagging the dog, you know. People- or in this case, the cow, I guess. People started coming out of the woodwork saying, Samuel, your yogurt’s incredible.
And so, we built our herd up to seven cows at the start, and then, ultimately, 19 cows, and then realized that we could do more good by buying milk from local and area farmers, paying them premiums for quality and so forth and one thing led to another, and off it went.
05:19 NARRATION 3 (00:55)
Today Hirshberg presides as CE-Yo of a $360 million dollar global company, now part of France’s Groupe Danone.
He has planted himself in every strategic space, from greening U.S. agricultural policy to growing organic businesses in Europe, to educating the public about organic enterprise with his book, Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World. Business Week magazine named him one of the most promising social entrepreneurs of 2009.
Hirshberg is the rare business leader who walks his talk. Since the 1970s, he has been an outspoken advocate whose words and actions helped grow the early organic food movement.
He also blends relationships, such as Stonyfield’s close partnership with Organic Valley, the nation’s largest farmer-owned organic dairy cooperative.
Organic Valley is an underwriter of Bioneers radio.
Gary Hirshberg spoke at a recent Bioneers conference.
06:14 Hirshberg 2 plen (03:37)
At Stonyfield, we now support 1,750 organic family farmers at Organic Valley. This is a deep, long-standing relationship for us. This last year, we actually bought our one-billionth pound of milk from Organic Valley. Our milk purchase- yeah, that was a big number. (applause) We’re good with that. (applause) Our milk purchases alone this year will support over 180,000 acres of organic farmland. What that means just milk alone, over nine million pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer will not be needed. Over 425,000 drug treatments to animals are not going to be needed. We’ll avoid over 185,000 pounds of insecticides and herbicides not needed.
(applause) And we focus- It’s a start. And that’s kind of the point of my talk. And I’ll come to that.
We’re focused on the farmers’ profitability. More than anything, we want to show that unlike the traditional model of abusing farmers who are, let’s face it, in our society, family farmers are basically an endangered species. And, so, unlike following the typical pattern, we are completely focused on our farmers’ productivity and profitability, not just the dairy farmers, but with the dairy farmers, for example, we fund transitions. When farmers need to convert, as you know, it’s an expensive cut-over. So we fund them through that transition. We provide technical assistance on the farm for manure management, for veterinary assistance. We fund local feed mills so that they can get their feed and grain milled locally and milled efficiently.
Organic Valley farmers, through us, receive 60 to 100 percent more money per hundredweight than do conventional farmers. And they earn at the bottom line nearly twice as much as conventional farmers. By the way, organic – you may well know this – but organic animals live longer. They live nearly twice as long, so it’s a benefit all the way around.
We also buy about $30 million pounds of non-dairy ingredients. Obviously, in the yogurt business, there’s sugar and there’s fruits and cocoa and so forth. And we’ve created grower scorecards and tool kits to try to educate and motivate our ingredient growers to try to help them understand about sustainability issues and practices. We’ve developed a greenhouse gas emissions tool kit, fair labor practice tool kit so they can actually… In order to qualify as a Stonyfield supplier, you actually have to go through this tool kit, go through this survey, and we validate that your workers on the farms are actually being paid fairly.
Our banana source is a cooperative of small family farms in Talamanca in coastal Costa Rica. By paying them a premium price for their produce, we keep over a hundred families not only out of poverty but actually earning fair wages, giving value to an agro-eco farming system that is the exact opposite of the banana republics that most of us know we’ve created in these countries. (applause)
So, when you hear the myth, and we hear it often, organic can never feed the 9.2 billion co-inhabitants we’re going to have in 2050, forget it. I can tell you from the 100 commodities we buy, from the milk to the sugar to the cocoa, we’ve shown either increased yields or the same yields ever since they’ve switched. But when you look at a total life cycle, a cradle-to-cradle point of view from total resources in, resources out, organic totally kills. It absolutely blows it away. We’ve gotten a 50 percent reduction in the cost premium of organic over conventional just because of improving the profitability of these farmers, we’ve been able to basically profit-share with our consumers and, of course, with the planet.
09:51 NARRATION 4 (00:09)
Gary Hirshberg says he can see, hear and feel the organic difference when he visits Stonyfield’s farming partners around the world.
10:00 Hirshberg 3 int (04:23)
When I go down to Brazil to our 35,000 acres of organic sugar, where the topsoil underlying these fields is now as black as the soil underlying the forests, it literally has almost the same carbon content. I’m talking about 97 percent of the carbon content of the forests. I see freshwater, where everything’s alive. Massive amounts of biodiversity. You see eagles and hawks flying, and you see cougars and big, scary cats walking through these fields because the entire food chain is healthy. The fields are alive with the sound of animals, of wildlife.
When I go to Central Valley organic dairy farms and I walk across the road to a conventional farm, you can stop and listen. There’s no life on the conventional farm. There are no birds. There’s no bees. There’s no pollinators. Why? Because they’re not fools. There’s no food there for them because the poisons are working. So, they fly over to the organic guy and it’s literally the difference between being in a sterile gigantic laboratory and being in nature.
When you visit the sugar operation in Brazil, you notice something right away, which is when they harvest the sugar cane, and they crunch up all the leafy matter needed for photosynthesis to make sugar, the topsoil underlying those fields is never for one second exposed to the erosive effects of rain or wind. You literally are walking around on two to three feet of duff. In fact, the trucks that they use to collect the sugar cane use tires that are low psi, low pounds per square inch. Those trucks are huge dump trucks. They can drive right over your foot. By the way, they’re powered by ethanol, sugar ethanol made right there. But they don’t compact the soils. And so what happens is you reach down and you grab a clump of the stuff that’s underlying there and it’s teaming with life. There’s rodents, there’s snakes, there’s all kinds of things. You don’t want to grab too many of these clumps ‘cause many of those snakes’ll do you in. But, the point is anybody who’s taken a walk in the forest would recognize what goes on on an organic farm. All we’re doing is mimicking nature’s complexity. We’re getting the humans out of the way, and allowing those biocycles, those cycles of circles of life, the ever-renewing return to the soil, you know. We’re all compost, eventually. That’s all we’re doing.
But when you apply chemicals to these fields or drugs to these animals, you’re not only impacting the very land that you’re standing on in a very noticeable way – smells and sounds and so forth – but most of this stuff is over applied. Some of these synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics are effective in parts per billion, but we’re applying them in parts per million, so, inevitably, they flow into the groundwater, into the rivers, into the streams and Atrazene, herbicide in conventional corn, we now know it’s an endocrine disrupter. I mean, the science is in it. It changes the sex of amphibians, particularly frogs. And, by the way, it continues. It makes its way out to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf of Mexico, known for the oil spill, a much more devastating and significant story is the hypoxia there. It’s, I think, 8,000 square miles. It’s bigger than New Jersey, and it’s literally a cesspool for the runoff of American chemicals. And, by the way, our topsoil because we don’t stop the erosion.
So, it’s not just what you see on those fields, it’s what you see in the sort of larger scope of things. We can titrate waters on any farm in Iowa and whether they’re organic or not, and you can find organophosphates in the water because this stuff is ambient, it’s out there. And, of course, the net result is we see farm workers are, you know, cancer rates with farm workers are far greater than they are with the average populace.
So, you know, you can see it. You can taste it. You can smell it. And you certainly can see the footprint of conventional is enormous and quite long-lived. There’s DDT in every one of our bodies, even though it was banned in this country, what, 60 years ago. It’s still here because it’s a highly persistent toxin. It’s also being allowed in other parts of the world, so it’s in the biosphere. And until we think in these systemic ways, we won’t be able to fully appreciate organics.
14:23 NARRATION 5 LEAD TO MID-BREAK (00:22)
Yet as Gary Hirshberg knows all too well, Stonyfield is an “overnight success” that took 30 years. Predictably, the first days were the hardest days…
That story when we return.
This is The Organic Revolution: From Hippie, to Hip, to Scale. I'm Neil Harvey. You are listening to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
14:45 MID BREAK
14:45 Underwriter #2 mention #1 (00:13)
Bioneers radio is made possible in part by John Masters Organics. Feel good about looking good. Learn more at johnmasters.com
14:58 NARRATION 6 (01:06)
You can download this and other programs on the radio pages at www.bioneers.org.
In the beginning, even Stonyfield was not a fully organic farm. At the time, going organic was simply not viable economically.
Stonyfield’s three-decade trajectory illuminates the challenges still facing the organic movement today.
In the mid 1990s an unexpected turn of events triggered a breakthrough. A bitter battle exploded when Monsanto Corporation introduced its highly controversial genetically engineered bovine growth hormone into dairy herds. The act raised grave public concern about the safety of milk and dairy products -- and suddenly boosted the organic dairy market. In other words, the growth hormone grew the organic dairy business.
Hirshberg responded to the opportunity with a bold strategy to convert Stonyfield Farm to 100% organic. The company started with one product, the whole milk quart, and used the premium sales price to subsidize the conversion of farmland and the rest of its product line.
16:04 Hirshberg 7 int (01:18)
The most expensive part of organics for a farmer is when they convert from conventional to organic, which is a three-year transition in the case of the fields, or one-year transition in the case of the cows. And, of course, I couldn’t pass on the cost of a hundred percent to the consumer. I would have been selling small cups of yogurt for two dollars apiece. That would have been, you know, DOA – dead on arrival.
So, we subsidized and I would say about five years into it, around 1999, the organic products were finally starting to contribute profitability. We set a goal of trying to be around ten to maximum 15 percent premium to conventional, but I have to admit at times we just couldn’t get there. You know, our organic sugar, for example, when we started cost 100 percent more than our conventional sugar. Our organic vanilla cost 125 percent more. The organic strawberries and blueberries, when we could find them, would cost sometimes 200 percent more. So this was the struggle. And my struggle is the same as everybody in the organic foods business. We all had to get through that very difficult period, burned a lot of cash, and so on. But, at the same time, as I say, by about 1999, we were making pretty good money, and that’s what gave us the confidence that we could go to the hundred percent.
17:22 NARRATION 7 (00:59)
The 1990s was also the pivotal decade when producers and consumers finally reached consensus on standards for organic foods. The National Organic Standards Board, a farmer and consumer group, had just criss-crossed the United States developing grassroots support for tough, clear organic standards.
The Board recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture excluded sewage sludge being spread on fields and the irradiation of fresh produce. It also recommended against genetic engineering at the very moment giant global agribusiness corporations were pushing these unproven and potentially dangerous technologies as the next big thing.
Under intense pressure from deep-pocketed agribusiness interests, the USDA counter-proposed organic standards that would allow all three.
The battle to legally define organic raged until the legislative mandate finally became law in 2001.
18:21 Hirshberg 2 int (01:17)
The reason it took 12 years to get the standards from concept to law was that every single tenet, every single characteristic or factor that- standard that defined organic was a battle. So, they wanted to allow sludge applications from sewage treatment plants. Isn’t it organic? It’s natural, right? I mean, we were really, literally, in the trenches, duking it out. How long should sprays not be allowed on fields before it becomes organic? How much time does it take to process non-organic feed through a cow’s rumen? Every single one of these required study groups, battles, and so forth. And the pioneers who were, you know, on the lines here really deserve all of our gratitude, because it was just absolutely brutally difficult work, partly because the science didn’t exist, to be fair, and so they were literally sort of setting stakes in the ground, but also because the special interests were absolutely lined up against this.
There was an abject fear on the part of major food companies that this was going to become a new threat. And the main reason that they were threatened was that, you know, they looked at the high costs of organic and thought if organic becomes a big fad, they’re never going to be able to do it and still meet their profit margins.
19:38 NARRATION 8 (01:28)
Those very special interests – juggernauts such as Monsanto, Dow and Dupont – had a lot at stake. They were advancing the next version of the so-called Green Revolution, which originally sold farmers the package deal of hybrid seeds that would grow only with massive doses of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Now they were promoting the Next Green Gene Revolution of specially designed genetically engineered seeds known as GE seeds that could tolerate large quantities of toxic chemicals to kill bugs and pathogens. The sales department loved this ingenious business model, but as you might expect, it’s not compatible with organic farming.
Apart from massive chemical use, perhaps the single biggest fear in the organic community has been that inevitably GE seeds or pollen drift and contaminate organic crops. The science has borne out this concern. So much for organic standards or peaceful coexistence. Technology is legislation, and in this case it’s legislation by involuntary contamination.
In 2006 a coalition of non-profits and farmers wanting to retain the freedom of choice to plant non-GE alfalfa filed a lawsuit against Monsanto. In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled to allow GE alfalfa, which has dire implications not only for Stonyfield Farm but the entire organic meat and dairy industries.
21:06 Hirshberg 5 int (00:22)
The GE alfalfa fight is a real serious one, as all the GE battles are, but in this case it goes to the heart of what it means to be organic in the case of dairy. All animals are eating alfalfa, and once, as we’ve seen with soy and as we’ve seen with corn, once GE alfalfa would be approved, then it’s certain that there will be contamination.
21:28 Hirshberg 4 int (01:11)
The good news is that the organic standard really does have teeth. If you see the USDA organic symbol on a product, you can rely on it, whereas, by the way, you cannot rely on anything if it says natural. And the reason for that is that it’s not just a set of regs with very clear stipulations and penalties, but there’s now an enforcement investment. There wasn’t, unfortunately, under the Bush administration. Enforcement was laughable. But now under Secretary Vilsack, in the Obama administration, the enforcement staffs have been boosted. They’re out in the fields. And what that means, just to be really pragmatic about it is that if you’re a farmer who says that you’re doing organic and you’re found out not to, you can go to jail. This is not a light sentence. This is a big, big deal. If you’re a processor who says that you’re organic and you’re found not to, the fines are enormous. They can be in the seven or eight figures. There’s real teeth.
In fact, in Britain, there are two guys who claimed that they had a line of what they call crisps – we would call them potato chips – as organic. They got busted and they’re in jail for two years, and our laws are tougher than the laws in Europe, actually.
22:39 NARRATION 9 (00:18)
Though still small in the big picture, since the 70’s organic food has come all the way from hippie to hip to mainstream. Hirshberg has found economic and environmental success at Stonyfield Farm, but he admits that organic producers still have a long way to go.
22:57 Hirshberg 3 plen (01:27)
One half of one percent of US agriculture land is organic right now. That’s what we’re talking about, okay? There is no money in the federal budget for organic transition, the most expensive step that farmers have to take. As far as the research piece of the pie, 1.5 percent of the over 2.5 billion annual federal subsidies investments in research goes to organics or sustainable. Okay? $8.5 billion per year goes to subsidize conventional crops, the very same practices that are making us sick, warming the planet, creating hypoxias, etc. The federal government has not conducted a single survey of pesticide use since 2001, even though we now know we’re putting out about four pounds of pesticide for every American man, woman and child right now. And, again, there’s no mystery. I don’t think I need to... The special interests rule our country. The five largest agricultural interests in Washington have spent 28 billion dollars in lobbying since Barak Obama took office, 28 billion dollars. Monsanto has spent 15 of that 28. So, again, scale does not have to be at the expense of the farmer or the Earth, but it does require that we, to get to scale, we urgently re-examine our behaviors, our beliefs, our priorities to take our effectiveness to the next level.
24:24 NARRATION 10 (00:05)
Gary Hirshberg says getting to scale is tougher than it sounds.
24:29 Hirshberg 3a int (00:31)
And you’re talking about on the one hand a good size industry, $26 billion dollars, but we’re four percent of total US food, so we don’t really have the fire power. What you get is this sort of virtual circle. We need more consumers to build more economic power to lobby for more of a share of the federal research dollar and pie, to also advocate that we need to be at the table when these permits, when these applications are being reviewed, but, in turn, we need all of that so that we can get more consumers.
25:00 NARRATION 11 (00:36)
Hirshberg believes in organic that’s accessible to everyone – including financially. The keys to that dream lie mostly in the realms of changing public policy so that organic gets a chunk of government incentives that now go to agribusiness - plus building markets and infrastructure. Organic is already starting to arrive as a competitive choice at Wal-Mart and in school lunches. In fact, organics have penetrated the mainstream far more in other countries. And it keeps growing. Gary Hirshberg says now it will take all of us to realize an organic future.
25:36 Hirshberg 6 plen (00:33)
The bottom line here may be best expressed by Gandhi, and maybe you know this quote. He said that anyone who thinks they’re too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito. (laughter) This is what we need to do. We need to buzz. We need to champion and celebrate all of our amazing progress to date, but what we really need to do now- is get started in a big way to retaking this planet for us and for future generations for us and for all species, thank you so much for listening. (applause)
26:09 NARRATION 12 (00:05)
Gary Hirshberg. “The Organic Revolution: From Hippie, to Hip, to Scale”
26:14 Bioneers - Program Close/Credits (2:00)
The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature is a production of Collective Heritage Institute.
Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
Written by Catherine Stifter and Kenny Ausubel
Senior Producer: Neil Harvey
Managing Producer: Stephanie Welch
Production Management: Aaron Leventman and Chuck Castleberry
Station Relations by Creative PR
Distribution is by WFMT Radio Network
Original Recordings provided by Focus Audio Visual.
Interview Engineer: Jeff Wessman.
Our theme music is taken from the album "Journey Between" by
Baka Beyond and used by permission of Hannibal Records, a Rykodisc label.
Additional music was made available by Earth Work Music.
For more music information, please visit Bioneers.org
The opinions expressed in The Bioneers Revolution from the Heart of Nature radio series are those of the presenters and are not necessarily those of Collective Heritage Institute, the underwriters, or this radio station.
My name is Neil Harvey. Thank you for listening. I invite you to join the Bioneers in inspiring a shift to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations. This is program number 09-11
28:09 Closing underwriting narration (00:13)
Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature is made possible in part by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative producing local food with the future in mind since 1988. Learn more at organicvalley.com.
Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature is made possible in part by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative producing local food with the future in mind since 1988. Learn more at organicvalley.com.