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Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founder on Knowing Your GMOs: Changing a Label Costs “Essentially Nothing”

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Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, discusses the company’s campaign for a successful genetically modified food labeling measure in its home state of Vermont, as well as one in Oregon — where it renamed one of its ice cream flavors as “Food Fight Fudge Brownie” — that ultimately failed to pass on Tuesday. “We are really proud of the ingredients we use,” Greenfield says. “It is just so hard to imagine that other food companies wouldn’t want to tell consumers what is in their food.” Ben & Jerry’s plans to complete its transition to all non-GMO ingredients by the end of the year. “That transition to all non-GMO ingredients is not going to raise the cost of a pint at all to a consumer. So it can be done.” We are also joined by one of the leading advocates of an initiative that passed in Hawaii to suspend the cultivation of GMO crops. “We are beyond labeling,” says Dr. Lorrin Pang. “For us, it is really more of an environmental health issue.”

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StoryNov 06, 2014Maui v. Monsanto: Hawaii County Voters Defy Agri-Giant’s Spending to OK Landmark Ban on GMO Crops
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Jerry Greenfield, I’d like to bring you into this discussion. You’re the co-founder with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Can you talk about your fight in Vermont, how you got involved with this? Now, this is a moratorium on crops in Maui. You were fighting in Vermont for labeling. That’s what failed in Oregon and Colorado on Tuesday, the attempt to get GMOs labeled. What happened to you guys at the beginning?

JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, the fight for mandatory GMO labeling has been going on for a few years in several different states around the country, and there’s actually activity still going on in 20-some-odd states. In Vermont, we went the legislative route. So, Ben & Jerry’s was actively involved in that, but there’s a great coalition here in Vermont of nonprofit groups, the Vermont Right to Know, that was incredibly active. And it was essentially citizens getting in touch with legislators. The [inaudible] Vermont said it was the most phone calls and contact they got about any issue. People are really passionate about the right to know what’s in their food. And that’s what the issue is here, is simply about the consumers’ right to know. It’s about transparency and being honest, so people have the right to choose what sort of foods they want to buy and eat themselves and feed their families.

AMY GOODMAN: At the beginning, you lost. I mean, Monsanto—explain the argument against labeling that the companies use. I mean, you weren’t even saying anything should be banned, that just that people should know.

JERRY GREENFIELD: [inaudible] great or GMOs are horrible, that you should like GMOs or not like GMOs. It’s simply about being able to know. And what the giant food industry companies—Monsanto, some of the chemical companies—say is that it’s going to add a huge cost to your food bills, which is simply not true. They spend millions of dollars trying to convince people that it’s going to make your food more expensive, whereas, in truth, changing a label on a food package costs essentially nothing. A company like Ben & Jerry’s changes its containers all the time, whether it’s for new ingredients, new marketing claims, whatever. It’s something you simply do in the normal cost of business, and there’s no increased cost at all. There’s no saying that any companies need to change their ingredients or do anything differently. It’s simply about being honest and telling consumers what’s in your food.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jerry Greenfield, is Ben & Jerry’s opposed to GMOs, per se?

JERRY GREENFIELD: No, Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t really take a position on that. We always say we’re not scientists. You know, there really haven’t been independent studies. But our issue is simply about transparency, having a consumer have the right to know. You know, it’s funny [inaudible]. We are really proud of the ingredients we use, and we’re thrilled to tell people about it. And it’s just so hard to imagine that other food companies wouldn’t want to be talking about what’s in their products.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about this issue of cost, Jerry, that the companies raise? And they say, you know, “We’re going to be put out of business if we have to label products.” What’s happened with Ben & Jerry’s in that way? I mean, your battle began, wanting to label rBGH, right, recombinant bovine growth hormone, in the milk that was used?

JERRY GREENFIELD: Yeah, that was about 20 years ago. Well, you know, so, first of all, that argument that it’s going to cost more money is simply made up. All of these food companies do business in countries around the world where there’s labeling. There is currently labeling in 64 countries. All these giant multinational food companies do business there, and they are doing just fine. Consumers Union, which puts out consumers reports, did a study for this last election in Oregon and discovered that adding labeling would cost about $3 a year to consumers’ bills. So that’s essentially nothing. And Ben & Jerry’s is right now finishing up its transition to become all non-GMO ingredients. So, we’ll be done with that by the [inaudible] year. And that transition to all non-GMO ingredients is not going to raise the cost of a pint at all to a consumer. So, it can be done. You know, certainly there is work involved. And for Ben & Jerry’s to make this conversion, you need to work with your suppliers, and, you know, you need to actually put some time and energy into it, but it doesn’t need to cost more to the consumer.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Pang, I’d like to as Dr. Pang, why do you think that the measure passed in Maui, but less aggressive measures, simply labeling efforts, failed in Colorado and Oregon?

DR. LORRIN PANG: Because on Maui we deal with—we think it’s experimental GM farming. And we feel that this experimental nature is more aggressive or threatening to us. We are beyond—for us, we are beyond labeling. When they do this genetic modifications farming, open-air farming here, we know, because I’m party to the class-action suit, that their use of pesticides, the amount and the types of use, is enormous. I’ve never seen such combinations used before. They cannot contain it. It’s going off into the water. It’s drifting into the schools, into our environment or into our oceans. And we don’t have the right—we don’t see it. We don’t know when it’s coming. And people get sick. Plus, if they ever were to grow GM food here—now they grow GM seed corn. That’s not even food. We’re supposed to feed ourselves, and we’re growing something to ship somewhere else to grow to feed their animals. So, for us, it’s really more of an environmental health issue, and we cannot seem to control it. It’s going beyond their borders. That is why we’ve taken a more aggressive approach.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jerry Greenfield, in Vermont, you also have been active in those fights for labeling in Oregon and Colorado. Why do you think they went down? What are the biggest battles here? They also went down in California and in Washington state, enormous amounts of money, millions being put in by the companies

JERRY GREENFIELD: Yeah, in Oregon, the most recent ballot initiative just last Tuesday, the opponents to GMO labeling spent over $20 million, and the “yes” forces spent less than $8 million. So, the people fighting against consumers’ right to know are spending enormous amounts of money, and they’re just blanketing television and the airwaves with messages that it’s going to cost consumers more money, it’s going to be confusing. They just want to put doubt into consumers’ minds so that they won’t take action. And unfortunately, it seems to be really effective. I mean, even in a state like Washington state, which last year had a ballot initiative that narrowly failed, where once again the spending by the opposition far outweighed the spending for the “for,” the ballot initiative lost by under 2 percentage points. But they did polling after the ballot initiative failed, and it showed that two-thirds of the people still wanted to have labeling. They just were convinced by all this advertising that [inaudible] bill wasn’t right, or seeds of doubt were sown in their minds. But people still favor labeling. They want it. It’s just that there’s enormous advertising—

AMY GOODMAN: Jerry, we just have a minute, and we just came out of the most expensive midterm elections in history, right, $4 billion. Ben & Jerry’s and you personally are opposed to money in politics. How do you link the whole issue of GMOs to the issue of money in politics and what’s called corporate personhood, if you could explain that?

JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, due to a couple of recent Supreme Court decisions, corporations are now considered to be [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Are now considered to be people.

JERRY GREENFIELD: —expenditures for elections. And this GMO labeling is all part of the same thing. You have these unlimited corporate expenditures to try to influence elections, and it’s completely undermining our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jerry, we want to thank you for being with us, as well as Dr. Lorrin Pang, involved in the Maui struggle, one of five co-sponsors of Maui’s successful GMO moratorium initiative. Jerry Greenfield is co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which has campaigned for GMO labeling measures. Special thanks to our friends at Vermont PBS in Colchester, where Jerry was speaking from.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, we go to Mexico to speak with Ethan Nadelmann about the marijuana initiatives on the ballot around the country, the issue of marijuana decriminalization and other drug policy issues. Stay with us.

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