Since the late 1970’s Gary Hirshberg has worked tirelessly to build a better food system. He’s followed his heart to encompass a love for the planet and its people. From building a business with seven cows, his heart has driven his mission. Tirelessly defending people from toxic chemicals, protecting the environment all the while selling some darn good yogurt, propels him still tirelessly to this day.
With his accomplishments and accolades in hand many like him would have sauntered off into the sunset of retirement. But Gary keeps pressing and driving hard for a better tomorrow. With such passionate energy I had to sit down and ask him: “Why do you do it?”
Gary is chairman and former president and “CE-YO” of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer. Besides helping lead the business, he is an avid advocate for sustainability, organic agriculture and the profitability of green businesses. I asked him to elaborate on all that he has done and what keeps him pursuing his dreams.
MM: You’ve had an accomplished career in the organic food business. When did you first realize this was about more than just a cup of yogurt?
GH: “I realized it before there was ever a cup of yogurt. The yogurt was always the means to a greater end. Our purpose was to figure out solutions for family organic farmers to become economically sustainable. Remember that we started out as a project of Samuel and Louisa Kaymen’s organic farming school, The Rural Education Center where I was a Trustee.
I was also the ED of another larger organic research center in the 70’s so I knew the science clearly showed that organically managed soils were richer and sequestered carbon better, organically raised animals were healthier and lived longer, organic farms enjoyed more biodiversity and that organic food tasted better. What wasn’t clear was whether there was a path to penetrate the market and compete with conventional food, while also giving farmers real economic hope that we could provide them with a long-term sustainable income and margin.
This was at a time when Ronald Reagan was slashing funding for most things I was working on, like renewables and organic, so most of the NGO’s I knew and our two organic farming NGO’s became financially jeopardized by those cuts. With federal research and support drying up, private philanthropic funding became a lot tighter with the absence of those funds. We saw the writing on the wall at our farming school and envisioned growing Stonyfield as a way to make ourselves economically self-reliant. We set out with Samuel’s yogurt recipe to advance the fortunes of family farmers. So, the yogurt really followed the mission.”
MM: Your work on the Just Label It Initiative was invaluable to the process of getting a GMO labeling bill. Why was this important to you and what work is still left for us to do?
GH: “Like everyone in the organic space I have been proud of the incredible continuous growth of organic. In 2011 I was enjoying our 16th consecutive year of double digit growth. But that year, I also watched GE herbicide-tolerant alfalfa sail through USDA approval, even though less than 7% of America’s alfalfa farmers were using herbicides and therefore it wasn’t solving any real problems. To watch the deregulation of a product so important to the dairy industry enhancing the use of herbicide use caused me to question: what’s behind all this?
We learned then that this crop’s approval had nothing to do with farmer interest. It was just the latest in a string of products rolling out from chemical companies who wanted to sell more of their chemicals and GMO seeds. And glyphosate, the compound that GE Alfalfa was engineered to resist, was growing at a rate far faster than organic. So as proud as I was of the mega trends favoring organic, I was really alarmed by the GE trend.
I realized that very few people, and particularly elected officials and policy makers understood the link between herbicide use and GE. This technology isn’t about feeding the world – there’s still no independent verified proof of higher yields – it’s about enabling greater use of dangerous and worrisome herbicides.
I could see then that the organic and environmental community weren’t going to marshal enough political power to stop the deregulation of this technology. And as a business guy, I realized we needed to try to stop it in the marketplace. So the first step was that consumers needed to be able to understand the issue and vote at the check-out counter whether they supported its use. The only way I saw to do this was to secure a mandatory federal label declaring that products contain GE ingredients. In just the same way we’d all worked to establish a certified organic national seal that has led to widespread consumer adoption – I believed that so too would a national GE disclosure label empower consumers to exercise our votes for more transparency and help get our food system, companies and farmers off the herbicide treadmill.
It had been 28 years since we’d started Stonyfield and I realized it didn’t matter how much organic yogurt we sold if the use of probably carcinogenic herbicides was increasing just as fast. Putting it more bluntly, it didn’t matter what any of our children eat if our air, water and topsoils were being contaminated with dramatically increasing amounts of herbicides. So I decided to step out of my CEO role to become Stonyfield’s Chairman and shift my focus to leading this campaign with the launch of Just Label It (JLI). A year later, we partnered with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and many other organizations as we turned this into a robust national campaign.”
What are the next steps?
“The mandatory labeling bill signed by President Obama required that the USDA develop labelling rules by July, 2018, two years after its passage. We have stayed in almost daily contact with the USDA throughout the process and are now expecting the rules to be announced any day. This is going to become the next crucial chapter in the fight, for if the rules are not strong, or they are loaded with loopholes and exemptions, we are going to have to fight for the transparency that consumers want and deserve. There are a lot of reasons for concern about this rule: the possible exemptions of oils and sugars and the overall clarity and rigor of what’s included as GE are critical and the emphasis and execution of the digital QR code will require lots of scrutiny. Years of work have led to this moment and with July looming, we will need to mobilize fast. There may not be an opportunity to comment on the rule. If we don’t like it, our only recourse may be that we need to sue to change it. Your readers should check in with the Just Label It website to learn more about being involved.”
MM: You can often be found on Capitol Hill in the offices of Congress. Most recently you have been working on a campaign to “Make the Earth Cool Again”. Why is being politically active so important to you these days?
GH:” If anyone ever wondered whether “policy” matters, those doubts should be erased today – the foxes are now literally guarding the henhouse in our federal regulatory agencies, particularly the EPA. When it comes to environmental and health protection, this administration is far worse than our worst fears. They are waging an all-out assault on science, reason and rational facts. They are dismantling the regulatory structure of the EPA – which I now call the CPA or Chemical Protection Agency. From the withdrawal of our participation in the Paris Climate Agreement to the USDA’s suspension of the organic check off and the abandonment of the organic animal welfare regulations, it is now clear that we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. Every one of us who believes in Organic must now stand up to oppose these actions.
The one thing I have learned about DC is if you don’t show up, you don’t get to participate. And what that means to me is changing the makeup of Congress this fall. There can be no higher priority than to elect Congresspeople and Senators who respect science and have a back bone and are willing to stand up for facts and fairness. So at Stonyfield, in partnership with EWG, we recently launched the “March to November” with the motto Let’s Make Earth Cool Again. The effort is to remind consumers that regardless of your party or leaning, if you believe the environment should be protected- you MUST choose candidates who have a clear record of supporting science and sound policy.
We created a 501-c4 with the hashtag #Midterms2018 with the goal of helping to educate voters and consumers about the issues and the candidates. People simply must participate this fall – There is nothing more crucial right now than getting concerned citizens to stand up and vote “
This is the first in a two part interview with Gary Hirshberg. Stay tuned for the next post to find out more about what drives him to work so hard for people and the planet.
Why don’t we all do it?