Ben & Jerry’s Commits to Building Non-GMO Supply Chains from Scratch

Last year, Ben & Jerry’s celebrated a milestone: all the plant-based ingredients in their ice cream, yogurt, and sorbet products transitioned to non-genetically modified (non-GMO) sources. Now, they’re working with dozens of other food companies to build up non-GMO commodity supply chains across the country to support this growing sector of the food industry. According to Andy Barker, the social mission strategy and policy manager for Ben & Jerry’s, getting to a non-GMO supply chain is difficult because the existing logistics infrastructure for major commodity crops like corn and soy “is built for undifferentiated crops.”

Non-GMO supply chains need infrastructure that can segregate non-GMO products. Storage bins will need to be the right size, in the right locations to support their family farmers, and close to the right transportation infrastructure. If non-GMO crops are put in rail cars, those cars will need to be thoroughly cleaned before accepting the non-GMO crops. When the commodities are processed, those plants will also need to thoroughly wash down their lines before processing the non-GMO crops.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have had their genetic makeup altered through genetic engineering in a way that does not occur through traditional cross-breeding. Increasing numbers of consumers are worried that food that has been genetically modified poses health risks.

This is controversial. Some scientists argue these are bogus fears and genetically modified crops are the best path toward feeding a warming and increasingly populous world. Few would argue, however, that if consumers want non-GMO products, then they should have a right to buy them.

Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever – a global, public, multinational food and consumer goods company. But Ben & Jerry’s still retains its funky roots. Ben & Jerry’s is still headquartered in Vermont where they were founded. Despite being owned by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B Corp, a type of for-profit corporate entity whose goals include, in addition to profits, positive impacts on society and the environment.

Ben & Jerry’s non-GMO goals include:

  1. Committing to sourcing non-GMO ingredients and being transparent with consumers about their products.
  2. Working with Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions and other food companies to build scalable non-GMO supply chains.
  3. Supporting consumers’ right to know by advocating for mandatory GMO labeling.

The first goal includes insuring the ingredients – the sugar, the chocolate bits, marshmallow, caramel, etc. – they add into the ice cream are made from non-GMO crops. Marshmallow, for example, might use corn syrup as a sweetener. Ben & Jerry’s needs to insure the corn that goes into that corn syrup, comes from non-GMO seeds. The sugar Ben & Jerry’s uses must come from sugar cane, avoiding GMO sugar beets in the supply chain. And so on.

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According to Ben & Jerry’s 2014 sustainability report, the company began the process of sourcing all of the ingredients they put in ice cream and related products from non-GMO sources in 2012. Over the course of 2014, “94.96% of our ingredients, by volume, were non-GMO by the original seed source for that ingredient.” By the end of 2014, Ben & Jerry’s had transitioned all its plant-based ingredients to non-GMO sources. This took a year longer than they expected, but it is good progress when you consider that GMOs are very widely found in key commodity crops grown in the U.S. In the U.S., according to USDA, between 88%-95% of all corn, soy, canola, and sugar beet are genetically modified.

But producing food that avoids GMOs entirely in the extended supply chain also involves making sure the dairy cows eat non-GMO feed. This is proving to be a tougher goal for Ben & Jerry’s. Their sustainability report admits that the “Vermont milk and cream that our family farmers supply to us is not organic. This means that it is almost certain that some portion of the cows’ feed contains GMO ingredients, such as corn and soy.”

To build a non-GMO dairy supply chain you need collaboration among farmers, handlers, processors, and distributors. Building this non-GMO supply chain will give consumers choice, but it will only become possible when the family dairy farmers in this supply chain can find competitively priced non-GMO feed for their cows and have access to high performing non-GMO seeds to plant in their fields.

This is where Green America has a key role to play. Green America builds “Innovation Networks.” In other words, they bring together diverse groups of stakeholders to solve complex sustainability problems that no individual business, organization, or leader could solve by themselves. Green America, Ben & Jerry’s, and other value chain players, have been at this since 2013. Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator at Whole Foods, said: “What they’re doing here is the first effort I’ve seen to really deal with the whole system. Everyone is so focused on their part of the supply chain, so no one can see the big systemic problems. The process … is exactly what we need to create real change.”

Mr. Barker does not believe that verification – the testing that will need to go on at multiple stages in the non-GMO supply chain – will be a major cost. “The major cost will be segregating non-GMO product at the multiple stages of the supply chain.” In many cases, non-GMO grain farmers will need to invest in on-farm storage, rather than continuing to send their crop to local elevators. The farmer will then need to find buyers specializing in non-GMO crops and figure out how to work with carriers that can transport these commodities without “contaminating” them. “Contamination” in this context refers to some very small percentage of the commodity that is being stored and shipped that is allowed to be intermixed with GMO crops.

Clearly, growing non-GMO supply will involve investments across the value chain. Part of the work includes convincing the various actors in this chain that non-GMO is not a “passing fad” so that they will invest. Mr. Barker believes the consumer data is compelling: according to a report issued by the Hartman Group, 40% of consumers are avoiding or reducing GMOs in their diet.

An important part of the conversation that has taken place among the diverse group of stakeholders convened by Green America has centered on standards that support non-GMO supply at scale. Without definitions and standards, it is hard for actors in this emerging supply chain to know what to target in terms of purity. “Defining at a high level what a non-GMO (consists of) is easy. But when you get to the level of how much contamination is allowed, it gets harder.”

“It is much easier to innovate within the boundaries of your own company,” according to Mr. Barker, “than across an extended supply chain.” But in this case what is being attempted is even bigger. Green America participants seek to build a new non-GMO supply chain from the ground up. This may seem like an almost Herculean task, but Mr. Barker pointed out that Green America has had success in doing just this in the paper recycling and solar industries.

I expect this new value chain will come into being within a few years. When big players, like Ben & Jerry’s, make new sustainability commitments, their buying power usually means that over time, these goals can be achieved.

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