Ben & Jerry's Is Fighting GMOs, for Some Reason

The company says it doesn't think genetically modified ingredients are unhealthy. The problem is that most consumers think they are.

Last month, Vermont became the first state to require that all foods that are entirely or partially produced with genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such. This month, a coalition of food industry groups, including the Snack Food Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, filed a lawsuit, saying that the measure is arbitrary and impedes interstate commerce.

But the pro-labeling side has an unlikely defender: Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream company, has “ceremonially renamed” one of its most popular flavors, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, to “Food Fight Fudge Brownie.” The renaming is “ceremonial” because the new/old flavor will only be available in the company’s two company owned-stores in Vermont— you won’t be seeing it on the shelves at Kroger anytime soon. Ben & Jerry’s is also donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of that flavor to support GMO labeling initiatives.

“We generally feel that the genetic engineering technology that's in the marketplace at the moment ... only further industrializes agriculture, which we think is a generally bad thing,” Chris Miller, the company’s activism manager, told me. “We tend to support and like smaller-scale family farms, and small-holder co-ops.”

It’s hard not to love Ben & Jerry’s. Miller proudly touts the company’s record on other humanitarian and foodie causes. It long ago stopped using recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, and it has pushed back against states that tried to restrict rBGH labeling. Entry-level Ben & Jerry’s employees earn $15.97, and the company has advocated for expanded gay marriage rights. Neither Ben Cohen nor Jerry Greenfield, the two co-founders and namesakes, runs the company any longer; it’s been a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever since 2000.

Ben & Jerry’s has an odd history with GMOs, though. Two years ago, Unilever spent nearly half a million dollars trying to defeat a California GMO-labeling ballot initiative, and labeling proponents were miffed. Now, the company is phasing out GMOs from its products—14 of its 50 flavors are now GMO-free. It's also lobbying to pass labeling bills in Oregon and elsewhere, complete with what sounds like some sort of nationwide tour of Chunky-Monkey-and-food-policy fireside chats. 

“We'll be working with our franchise scoop shops to talk about these issues,” Miller said. “We'll have a scoop truck giving away ice cream and talking about the ballot initiatives. We'll be doing some in-kind advertising in support of the campaign.”

Miller says the shift away from GM ingredients hasn’t cut into the company’s bottom line by much, but that’s partly because ice cream doesn’t have a lot of genetically modifiable ingredients. The most common GMO crop in America is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” corn, which would only make a trace appearance—it might go into the corn syrup used in making Ben & Jerry’s caramel swirl, for example.

To Miller, labeling is all about transparency. After all, he says, we label orange juice when it comes from concentrate, even though there’s nothing objectively unhealthy about concentrate.

“Of course consumers have a right to know what they're buying," he said. "We're proud of what we produce, proud of the ingredients in those products, and happy to tell people what's in our stuff.” 

There is no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful to health. But it does seem like even though anti-GMO groups say labeling is only about empowering customers, what regular people hear is that GMOs need to be labeled because they are dangerous to eat. According to an ABC News poll conducted last year, 52 percent of people believe GMOs are unsafe, 13 percent are unsure, and just over a third believe they’re safe to eat. Nearly everyone in the same poll—93 percent—said they supported GMO food labeling, and most of those people said that if they knew which foods contained GMOs, they would be less likely to buy them.

There’s some interesting psychology research propping up these fears: Risks that are man-made feel more dangerous than those that are natural. The sun and nuclear accidents both release radiation, and yet we lay by the pool and protest nuclear power plants.

Miller said scientific reasoning has nothing to do with the decision: “We're not scientists,” he said. “We don't have a position whether GMOs are good, bad, or otherwise." He reiterated that the company’s fight against GMOs is purely about sticking a finger in Monsanto's eye.

Fair enough. Though it’s worth noting that singling out GMOs won’t exactly put an end to large-scale agriculture. The New York Times' Mark Bittman made this point well in a column last month:

If anti-GMO activists were successful in banning GMOs, we’d still have industrial agriculture, along with its wholesale environmental degradation and pollution, labor abuse and overproduction of ingredients for the junk food diet.

Another part of risk psychology holds that people view voluntary risks as far more acceptable than involuntary ones. So labeling GMO foods might also just make people more comfortable with them. 

Even if we had GMO labeling at the national level, in other words, Big Food would likely remain standing strong—like, I don’t know, some sort of herbicide-resistant plant.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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