By Dr. Mercola
The industrial dairy industry is in crisis mode in the U.S. after Dannon Company announced in April 2016 that it would be committing to non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) agricultural practices over the next three years.
"Because consumer preferences are continuing to evolve and Dannon puts consumers at the center of every decision it makes … new yogurts with non-GMO ingredients are available for the first time from Dannon," the company wrote in July 2016.1
The company said this was only the beginning of a transformation of its Dannon, Danimals and Oikos brands of yogurt to all non-GMO ingredients.
In addition, by the end of 2018, Dannon pledged to ensure the cows that supply milk for its three flagship brands will be fed non-GMO feed — "a first for a leading non-organic yogurt maker."2
The latter change alone will require the conversion of about 80,000 acres of farmland to produce non-GMO crops for the feed. In addition, the company stated that it would clearly label GMO ingredients in those products that contain them, "independent of actions taken (or not) by the federal government."
Consumer Demand Is Challenging the Dairy Industry
It's a major step forward that is indeed a sign of changing consumer attitudes and an attempt to protect itself from steep losses facing competitors, like General Mills, which sells yogurts under the Yoplait, GoGurt, Annie's and Liberté brands.
Total retail yogurt sales in the U.S. fell by 17 percent in the fiscal second quarter results reported in December 2016,3 but General Mills' brands, in particular, have underperformed because they've failed to respond to consumer demands.
With no organic options until recently and a large offering of "light" and "low-calorie" yogurts that are quickly falling out of favor with Americans, president and chief operating officer Jeff Harmening acknowledged fundamental shifts would be necessary to "give customers what they want from their yogurt,"4 which is more natural, grass-fed and organic varieties.
Even with a switch to non-GMO ingredients, conventional yogurt leaves much to be desired. It's far too high in sugar and/or artificial sweeteners to be healthy, and most of the milk comes from cows living in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) instead of on pasture, which negatively changes its nutritional value.
Not to mention, most of it is pasteurized. Truly healthy yogurt is organic, unsweetened and made from raw 100 percent grass-fed milk, which is difficult to find commercially (although yogurt made from organic, grass-fed milk is becoming more popular).
That being said, I applaud Dannon for its forward-thinking pledge to get GMOs out of its primary yogurt brands. Not surprisingly, however, Big Dairy does not.
Industrialized Dairy Takes Aim at Dannon's GMO-Free Pledge
Industry groups including the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and American Sugarbeet Growers lashed out at Dannon for their non-GMO pledge.
Genetically engineered (GE) feed dominates the industrial dairy industry, despite mounting concerns that it's not safe for people or the environment.
In addition to risks from the genetic engineering itself, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, is used in large quantities on GE glyphosate-tolerant crops (i.e., Roundup Ready varieties).
Glyphosate in animal feed has been found to sicken farm animals, with farmers noting correlations between glyphosate in animal feed and rates of miscarriage, deformities in piglets and infertility among the animals.
Meanwhile, plants treated with the chemical show severe damage to root growth, not to mention that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen.
Dannon noted that a reduction in the usage of herbicides and pesticides is one goal they hope to achieve through their changes in sustainable agricultural practices (including the move toward non-GMO feed).5
Although Dannon said they believe currently approved GMOs are safe, they said the growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients prompted their decision.
None of this seemed to matter to the industry groups, who called Dannon's intention to switch to a GMO-free feed for its dairy cows, giving the American public what they want, "a tipping point." Randy Mooney, chair of the U.S. National Milk Producers Federation, said in a conference call with reporters:6
"When something is out there that is outrageously wrong, all of us are going to have to speak up and attack it … If this isn't addressed, we're going to see a radical change in how food and feed is produced in this country."
But isn't that precisely the point? The industry groups continued in a letter to Dannon:7
"In our view your pledge amounts to marketing flimflam, pure and simple … It appears to be an attempt to gain lost sales from your competitors by using fear-based marketing and trendy buzzwords, not through any actual improvement in your products."
Dannon, in turn, fired back at the accusations in a news release, stating:8
"We were surprised to receive a divisive and misinformed letter about our efforts to continue to grow America's enjoyment of dairy products, including yogurt …
We believe there is growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients and food in the U.S. and we want to use the strong relationships we have with our farmer partners to provide products that address this consumer demand."
Drastic Changes in How Food Is Produced, Including Dairy, Are Desperately Needed
Part of Dannon's pledge included a promise to provide a fixed profit margin to its farmer partners supplying milk, which is newsworthy in itself since the price of milk is now so low that an average-sized dairy farm in Vermont (about 125 cows) is operating at a loss of $100,000 a year.
It's gotten so bad that farmers in Vermont only get about $14 for 11.6 gallons of milk, which cost about $22 to produce. So they're essentially paying about $8 to sell 11.6 gallons of milk.9 It's economic exploitation, VT Digger noted,10 and the direct result of industrialized dairy.
As CAFOs became the norm, farmers were forced to grow their herds and increase milk production using artificial (drug and hormone-based) methods, among others (like feeding cows an unnatural amount of GE grain-based food, 24-hour confinement and increased number of milkings per day).
In 2016, the industrial dairy industry dumped 43 million gallons of milk due to a massive milk glut. The glut was the result of a 2014 spike in milk prices, which encouraged many dairy farmers to add more milk cows to their farms — but with too much milk and nowhere to sell it, prices tanked.
And though it hasn't been mentioned, mortality rates in U.S. dairy herds are more than 10 percent a year, up from 3.8 percent in 2002, according to a Cornell University study.11
It's the cost of producing milk in a system that values maximizing production above all else, even the health of its producers, the cows themselves. So, change is indeed desperately needed; it can't come soon enough.
Ben & Jerry's Releases Updated Dairy Statement
Dannon is not the first major dairy company to pledge non-GMO ingredients. In 2014, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, which is owned by Unilever, announced that more than 85 percent of its ice cream sold in the U.S. was made from non-GMO ingredients, with a goal of 100 percent in the near future.12
Ben & Jerry's does some things right, like supporting GMO labeling, and their environmentally friendly image has propelled the ice-cream maker to a $600-million-a-year enterprise.13 However, Ben & Jerry's is a non-organic dairy, and they source their milk largely from CAFOs.
In Vermont, more than 200 dairy farms have transitioned to organic and returned their cows to a grass-based diet. Regeneration Vermont, a non-profit educational and advocacy organization, is dedicated to bringing sustainable, regenerative agriculture back to Vermont and that includes bringing Ben & Jerry's into the discussion.
Regeneration Vermont is urging the ice-cream maker to source milk from organic/regenerative farmers, which would signal to desperate dairy farmers that there's another, viable option to the destructive GMO, CAFO method that's currently considered the norm. In an updated dairy statement released January 2017, it appears Ben & Jerry's may be committing to positive change:14
"The dairy industry in Vermont, and the U.S. as a whole, is a broken system … and we at Ben & Jerry's share a desire, with many others, to make it better.
We want to make it work for the farmers who are continually finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. We want to make it work for the farm workers, the animals, the environment, our fans, and in the end, to match the values that we believe very deeply in.
So as we have been evaluating our current Dairy Supply chain, and while we have worked diligently over the past [seven] years to improve farm practices, we fully acknowledge that it is not where we would want it to be. There is greater opportunity to have a positive impact to change the current system.
We recognize that we are operating in the same broken system that is failing our dairy farmers, and we are actively exploring ways to change that — to create a more viable system … We are working now to define our path forward and plan to share our plans as soon as possible in 2017."
Why Grass-Fed Dairy Is Better
Returning to grass-fed (and naturally GMO-free) dairy is a solution to the problems created by industrial dairy. As it stands, however, only about 22 percent of U.S. dairy cows have access to pasture, and even this tends to be limited.15
Tim Joseph, founding farmer and CEO of New-York-based grass-fed dairy farm Maple Hill Creamery, explained that while monocrops of GE soy and corn used for dairy feed and processed foods are often considered "healthy" for the environment, they require inputs in the form of fertilizers and pesticides.
Grass-fed cows require only grazing and manure from grazing cows. It's a closed-loop system that regenerates the soil, supports wildlife biodiversity, sequesters carbon and limits pollution of waterways, Joseph told FoodNavigator-USA.16 While critics claim that raising cows on pasture isn't a practical way to meet the future food demands of a growing world population, research says otherwise.
In a study published in Global Change Biology, researchers found that managing grazing on grasslands more efficiently could significantly increase milk and meat production — more so than converting land from other uses.17
About 40 percent of the world's natural grasslands could support increased livestock grazing, Science Daily reported, which could in turn increase milk production by 5 percent and meat production by 4 percent.18 Maple Hill Creamery shared even more reasons why grass-fed dairy is a viable solution to the problems of industrial dairy:19
- When a cow eats corn and grain, the pH of the rumen (the first chamber of the cow's stomach) becomes acidic; this destroys some flora and increases systemic inflammation, shortening the cow's lifespan and increasing her risk of infection
- Raising grass-fed cows requires fewer resources than growing grain crops to feed CAFO cows, along with fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides
- On a 100-percent grass-fed farm, manure is spread over pastures naturally as the cows roam; there is no need for environmentally destructive manure lagoons
- Grass-fed dairy farming works best with small herds, which in turn helps support local economies and small farmers, who are able to claim a premium price for their premium dairy products
Choose 100-Percent Grass-Fed, Organic Dairy
If nothing else, the fact that Dannon is switching to GMO-free products shows the power that the public holds, even over giant corporations. They are responding to consumer demand, and so will other companies if the demand for grass-fed continues to grow. By choosing to support companies that, in turn, support natural and traditional farming practices like grazing cows on pasture and feeding 100-percent grass, you let your voice for positive change be heard loud and clear.
Unlike the rest of the yogurt industry, organic, grass-fed yogurt is experiencing 82 percent dollar growth, which is more than three times the growth of yogurt that does not contain the grass-fed label, according to Organic Valley dairy,20 whose "Grassmilk" brand is the top-selling grass-fed dairy brand in the U.S.
There's still a lot of confusion about the term "grass-fed," and in many cases, it's an abused term like the word "natural." Organic Valley and other U.S. grass-fed dairy producers are teaming up to change this, but in the meantime, look for dairy that is 100-percent grass-fed, organic and, ideally, raw.