I had the privilege today of attending a lunch with Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield. I’ve been looking forward to this lunch for weeks. I know I’ve been talking more and more about organics and buying local here on the blog and I’m sorry if it’s been overwhelming (I’m trying not to throw it at you all at once). It’s just a subject I’m learning more about every day and I cannot help but be impacted by the power of this new (to me) information… so I want to share it with you as well!!
The movie Food Inc. has definitely changed the way I think about the meat industry. Before the movie I “knew” it wasn’t pretty but I was also afraid to really “see” it for myself (that includes reading about it). Ignorance is definitely bliss but we’re not doing anyone any favors by ignoring the reality of conventional farming and factory meat (and dairy) production (and their impacts on our environment, our health, the animals and our future). Gary Hirshberg was featured in Food Inc. and I knew that Stonyfield was passionate about making organic dairy more available to the average consumer. I was most interested in hearing about the following:
- “organic vs. conventional” stats – I am already convinced that organic is the “right choice” but the stats help make that argument stronger when I mention it to others (like my parents who are still not converts – I’ll get them in time 😉 ;
- whether organic farming/production can truly feed the world;
- whether there are any loopholes in the system that we as consumers should be aware of – I feel like large corporations always find ways to slap a label on something even as “pure” and well-intended as “organic” and still make it about soul-less profits (yes, they’re always guilty unless proven innocent in my book. 😆 )
That was my personal agenda for the luncheon. And here is how it went down (and what I learned… and ate 😉 ). Lunch was held at EVOO in Kendall Square – a restaurant I’ve been dying to go to for ages. EVOO uses as many local produce as possible and changes their menu based on what’s available. I thought it was the perfect location for the occasion!
We had a private room reserved – a large window brought great light into the room and made it feel a lot more open (the sunshine helped too).
Here are Gary Hirshberg and Alice Markowitz (Stonyfield VP of communications)
After going around the table and shaking everyone’s hand, Gary sat down and “got to business.” He was definitely throwing lots of stats at us but it was all presented in a very approachable way. He’s done this before, I think. 😉
Here is what I learned during the bread course (with EVOO, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese)
Stonyfield was founded 27 years ago. At that time there were 400 dairy farmers in New Hampshire. Today there are 87, and the farmers are making the same $/gallon as they were in 1982 (although prices have been volatile over the same period – sometimes the farmers made less and sometimes more). The smaller number of farmers cram more cows into the same space. Methane levels are significantly increased (it is estimated that a cow may produce an amount of methane comparable to the pollution of a car – source), which of course raises concerns about global warming.
Our predecessors ate 100% organic food (at that time it was just called “food”), that’s until 1935 when new advances in technologies introduced synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals into the food system. Today organics comprise 3.7% of all food consumed in the US – that’s a $3.5 billion industry. It’s been growing around 20% annually over the past 20 years (Stonyfield followed a similar trend with 20+% growth until last year’s recession which slowed growth) and Gary’s dream is to go back to 100% organic food. He believes it’s a win-win for all and there is no reason not to.
New Jersey asparagus soup with parmigiano reggiano, red chili flakes and EVOO
The soup had a strong garlic flavor – the asparagus was very lightly cooked (almost raw) and added a fresh crunch to the soup. Delicious!
Organic farmers receive a more fair wage (Stonyfield’s farmers receive 2x – 2.2 x conventional farmers’ pay and the rates never decline but steadily increase as opposed to conventional farmers which track some kind of “milk index”). Stonyfield purchased it’s 1 billionth gallon of organic milk last year – just this one company alone saved 185,000 herbicides, thousands of toxins and pesticides (I couldn’t write all the figures fast enough), 12-18% of methane levels. Stonyfield purchases $30 million of pounds of non-dairy ingredients (sugar, cocoa, vanilla, fruit) – all products are organic, humaine, fair-trade and all farmers are profitable. So is Stonyfield.
Chinese box full of crisp fried mustard glazed tofu, asparagus, gingered vegetable – cashew salad and organic brown rice
What a fantastic dish! The mustard glazed tofu was particularly delicious – the mustard flavor was very prominent and the tofu was perfectly fried without being greasy.
Organic is a win for all:
- profitable farmers
- animals are happier, live longer (ave life of a conventional cow is 4-6 years, organic cow lives 12-20 years)
- food has more anti-oxidants
- humans eat healthier food
- environmental footprint is lower (food miles only comprise 6-10% of the footprint, the rest is about how the food is grown)
- less contribution to climate change
- companies (such as Stonyfield) are profitable
Stonyfield organic yogurt tart with balsamic basil glazed strawberries
Incredible – fresh and elegant. Loved it!
Conventional food is cheap but the cost is high. Consumers are not seeing this cost reflected in food because of soy and corn subsidies (which make their way into a lot of the food consumed in the US – including cow feed and most of the processed foods). If the subsidies were removed, it would be clear that the gap between conventional and organic cost is much smaller. The other costs are born by our healthcare system. A recent study by the American Medical Association concluded that 41% of Americans will develop some kind of cancer in their lifetime. If we don’t start focusing on preventative measures (such as eating organic foods!) it will bankrupt the healthcare industry (and you know, 41% of us will get cancer!!!!). I wonder how this figure can be reduced just be switching to real wholesome food instead of over-processed junk. 😕
Of course the one thing that’s still preventing people from going organic is the price. Volume (economies of scale) will create more efficiencies for companies and can help with that. Subsidies for the right industry can do that as well. Also, this does not have to be an all or nothing approach. Just one or two products (the most important ones to you) can make a difference. The stats about how just milk purchased by Stonyfield reduced emissions are astounding and only 1% of US consumers purchase Stonyfield yogurt. Imagine if that 1% becomes 2% – those figures will double. The same knock-on effect can take in other industries – berries, meat, etc. We can all make a difference (large or small) one yogurt at a time. 😀
So can organic farming feed the world? Yes. Organic farmers’ yields are the same or better. In 27 years of Stonyfield operations, their suppliers’ yields actually improved (by 15% for sugar, for example). In contrast, there are limits to the productivity of a conventional farm. It will peak. It’s not sustainable.
Are there loopholes in dairy organics? No. For the first time in history the laws are actually being enforced and if you see an organic label you can trust that the products are free of pesticides, antibiotics and the animals are humainely treated (get access to pasture, graze, etc.). This is reassuring to me given what I recently learned about organic egg farming.
We learned so many other things but I’m running out of steam so I encourage you to do your own research. Gary truly believes that this is about saving the world. It sounds cheesy but I guess it is a little about that since conventional farming is running it to the ground, increasing pollution and contributing to global warming.
I’ll eat to that! 😉 Oikos chocolate yogurt to-go (I also received a few other goodies, including Gary Hirshberg’s new book – Stirring It Up).
What are your thoughts on organics? I think given the price, not very many of us can afford to go 100% organic. What do you prioritize? I always buy oikos 😀