Stirring It Up

If you like to keep up with the GMO and science literacy conversation, you’ve probably heard about the conversation not happening over on Stonyfield’s Facebook page this week.

Stonyfield makes organic yogurt and other products. I don’t have anything against organic production practices. In fact, it’s a great option for farmers looking to diversify or find another buyer for their product. My problem is with the organic product marketing tactics practiced by some.

At the heart of the debate is a video recently posted to Stonyfield’s Facebook page, which carries the logo of their kids’ yogurt brand and opens with a “What are GMOs?” title card. Not sure how that has anything to do with a dairy product, but they’re allowed to have opinions, so whatever. Because I work in the communications field, so I’m going to break this video down, play-by-play for you.

 

The “What are GMOs?” title card disappears and the video continues with a shot of a young, elementary-school aged girl opening the dialogue with, “That sounds monstrous.”

So now the viewer is in the mindset that they’re about to hear something negative.

The video switches shots to another elementary-school kid, who continues the dialogue with “…and they take a gene from a fish and put it into the tomato…”

Yeah, that’s a common misconception about GMOs.

Fact: There used to be GMO tomatoes, called Flavr Savr, but they haven’t been available since the 1990s.

Myth: Fish genes are in our tomatoes. (However, scientists did explore this several years ago. They wanted to see if they could take characteristics from an arctic fish species to make tomatoes more resistant to freezing, which could help eliminate food waste. This research was discontinued.)

Next kid, “Are you kidding me?”

I feel you, kid. I’m still trying to figure out how this has anything to do with yogurt.

Fourth kid, “Yeah, I think it’s better if we got informed of it before we, like, eat it.”

Ooh, good point. We should all be better informed about what we’re eating, to better understand the benefits and risks. I, personally, should read more on what the ingredients of the fat-free products I buy are compared to the regular version. Will it change my eating habits? Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what the fat is replaced with (probably sugar). But this kid has a point. We should all have a stronger desire to know what we’re eating and why we choose to eat that product.

The video transitions to another title card, this time with “Avoid GMOs, Eat Organic!”

They’re right, organic standards do not allow GMO production methods. But I’m still not sure why I need to eat organic yogurt to avoid GMOs – GMO milk isn’t a thing.

Fourth kid comes back on: “It’s important to know what’s in your food.” 

Yes. And it’s also important to know what’s not in your food. It drives me nuts when a product is presented as not being something, rather than for what it is.

 

I normally don’t like to include links to things that spread misinformation, but in the interest of open dialogue, you can watch the video for yourself here.

You can read more about it here and here. While the video itself is annoying, this isn’t a first, and, like I said, everyone is entitled to their opinions. Nothing they said was a blatant lie, however, it was framed in what I feel is a misleading way.

The uproar that’s been all over my social media this week has been in response to Stonyfield actively blocking those who dare question or discredit their stance (I’ve heard rumors that this has stopped as of 2/2, but there’s a large number of folks who have been banned from their page). Granted, some of those deleted comments are likely a little troll-like, just because of how people act when they’re fired up. We’ve all been there.

It’s their decision, but blocking someone for having a different opinion on a public platform is ethically questionable. Deleting comments that don’t follow community standards (foul language, etc.) is fine, but deleting everything that disagrees with their stance only creates an echo chamber. And both sides are guilty of that sometimes.

I took a look around the Stonyfield website to learn more about their company and what they stood for. In the footer of their website, there are three “labels”:

  • No toxic, persistent pesticides
  • Yogurt with live, active cultures
  • Only pasture raised milk

I thought it was a little odd that they don’t have an organic certification label down there, but they do talk about organic elsewhere, including in their name and logo. And, unlike other companies, I didn’t see any evidence of them parading the “Non-GMO Verified” butterfly logo around, which surprised me a bit, but I appreciate that.

I can agree with two of the labels, but the “no toxic, persistent pesticides” one annoys me a bit. Persistent pesticides refer to pesticides used many decades ago and are no longer allowed in any agricultural production in the United States. But was it necessary to point that out? Not really. The addition of “toxic” wasn’t really necessary, either.

I would love to see us shift to a system where we label things for a product’s attributes, rather than pointing out what they are or what they aren’t. Gluten-free, whole-grain popcorn? How about we just call it popcorn? Why can’t we just rely on reading the nutrition facts label on the back and make our own informed decisions about whether or not we want to bring home a product to our families?

We live in the age of information and we have to make choices about which information we consume. I would love to see science literacy play a bigger role in our decision-making, but the growing number of labels on any given food product isn’t taking us in that direction. Maybe we’re just overloaded with information, maybe we just prefer the convenience of the label, or maybe we just don’t care.

Regardless, videos like Stonyfield’s help reopen productive, balanced conversation, even if they won’t let it happen on their social media pages. But they did the video promised – they stirred up the conversation.

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