Business Brains

Icon | Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and chairman, Stonyfield Farms

Icon | Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and chairman, Stonyfield Farms

Posting in Environment

After more than 30 years as a pioneer of sustainable business practices, the organic yogurt entrepreneur stirs up the U.S. campaign to require labeling of GMO food.

Since long before our televised love affair with extreme sports, the annual American Inferno ski race, born in 1933, has seduced downhill daredevils with eight precipitous miles of summit-to-base trail down the barest, steepest headwalls of New Hampshire's glacial majesty, Mt. Washington.

As a boy in the 1960s, aspiring ski racer Gary Hirshberg stood longingly with the thrill-seeking spectators cheering them on, breathing in the 6,288-foot summit's breathtaking vistas. Although the peak's weather is notoriously fickle, on sunny days he was treated to spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean more than 60 miles to the east.

Then one day, the ocean faded from sight, obscured by industrial pollution. It was another rude epiphany for the naïve teenager, who was still coming to terms with the demise of several nearby family farms, where Gary and his mother once bought turkeys and chickens for their dinners. "I realized, 'This is broken.' We were screwing up something really, really good," Hirshberg, now 59, recalls.

The "this" that the legendary organic food entrepreneur is describing is an economic model predicated on encouraging unbridled consumption to drive long-term growth. "This" isn't sustainable, Hirshberg insists.

"No one set out to say let's pollute, let's warm the planet," he acknowledges. "But these are the indisputable consequences of our choices. Our economy has been based on our being blind, choosing to be voluntarily blind to these consequences."

Speaking in May at his son's commencement from Maine's Bates College, the co-founder and former "CE-Yo" of Stonyfield Farms yogurt and dairy food company urged the soon-to-be graduates to question the conventional wisdom that there must be a tradeoff between being ecologically responsible and economically successful as a company. And he encouraged them to write new rules for business as they make their mark in the workforce.

I asked Hirshberg to elaborate several weeks later, when I finally pinned him down for a 45-minute phone interview -- far more than granted, but far less than I desired.

"We have to realize that we are part of nature, we are not above it," he explains, the words tumbling with the cadence of an evangelical preacher. "We are not exempt from nature's rules. Waste is a uniquely human invention … We built our modern society on the back of several myths. The myth that the waste from our system, our species, can be allowed to pollute or contaminate is absurd. The idea that the earth is infinitely resilient to handle these kinds of insults is a myth. The idea is that there is a place called 'away' where we can send our waste is a myth."

Hirshberg had no formal business training: during his final years at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., he studied climate change. But Hirshberg decided to learn a more "practical" trade -- building windmills -- to pay off his student loans. This eventually landed him a job with a non-profit agricultural school in Wilton, N.H. Hirshberg and his co-founder Samuel Kaymen borrowed $35,000 from a convent, after convincing the nuns it was a good business investment, to spin out its small-scale yogurt-making operation into what would become Stonyfield Farms, producing its first 50-gallon batch for sale at local markets in 1983.

Almost done in by a "near-death" cash flow issue four years later, the company relocated in 1988 from the Kaymens' farm home to Londonderry after Hirshberg used his powers of persuasion to raise money for the lease: it now generates more than $360 million in annual sales as part of Groupe Danone. Since 1993, Stonyfield Farms has donated 10 percent of its profits to environmental, health and family farming causes.

Along the way, Stonyfield's CEO has generated numerous headlines for adopting sustainable business practices, some perceived as costly green boondoggles.

In 1997, HIrshberg and company teamed with the Union of Concerned Scientists to start measuring carbon dioxide (C02) emissions, something Stonyfield can now do for individual products. The 50-kilowatt (kW) solar array at its manufacturing facility seems ancient at almost 10 years old. What to do with wastewater sludge? Stonyfield was one of the first dairy companies to install an anaerobic wastewater digester, cutting the amount of gunk that must be hauled away by 90 percent. In 2010, it introduced plant-based packaging to cut its use of plastics. One of Hirshberg's current projects as chairman centers on how to make yogurt cups edible: he hints at news as early as fall 2013.

There's always something more to be done when it comes to sustainability. The consumer litmus test to determine whether a company's intent is genuine lies in the answer to this question: Is the business trying everything it can to address its impact on the planet?

"This is aspirational, it's a continuous improvement process," Hirshberg notes. "That's not the objective. The objective is are we looking at every aspect of our business to make ourselves more green?"

Why, then, did he hand over day-to-day control of Stonyfield in January 2012 to former Ben & Jerry's CEO Walt Freese, albeit an admirable successor?

Aside from his conviction that it was time for new blood, Hirshberg's motivation is tied to one of the most controversial acronyms ever to hit U.S agriculture: GMOs, aka genetically modified organisms, which are creeping into more of the nation's food supply without the average citizen knowing it.

Originally, the idea was that genetically engineered (GE) strains of corns and soybeans would help fight pests and, in theory, cut down on the use of harmful pesticides. But Hirshberg points out that the exact reverse has happened. Consider this data point: The total volume of one of the most controversial substances, glyphosate, applied to the three biggest GMO crops -- corn, cotton and soybeans -- increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012, reports Food & Water Watch.

"What I started to understand was that this really wasn't about feeding the world," Hirsberg recalls, listing off statistic after statistic to underscore his point. "There was no evidence that GE crops had actually produced higher yields. As a matter of fact, there are now lots of studies that show that organic or sustainable food products actually produce higher yields than you can get, particularly over time and particularly when you look at economics. Because of the high inputs of conventional, there are many more competitive alternatives than becoming addicted to these sprays. But I also realized that the system had been gamed in Washington through really, I would say, brilliant lobbying on the part of biotech."

In Hirshberg's mind, GMOs pose a very real threat to the organic farmers who supply Stonyfield because over time they will find it tougher to feed their dairy cows with "clean" alfalfa. No clean milk, no clean yogurt. So, after 29 years of advocating organics from inside Stonyfield, Hirshberg took his cause external as part of the "Just Label It!" campaign lobbying for labeling of foods containing GMOs. He is also encouraging other organics leaders to speak up; days before our phone call, he convened a meeting for this purpose at his New Hampshire home.

"As somebody who just turned 59, I realized that we don't have another 30 years on some of these issues, climate change among them," he explains. "That means we really need not to just sit in our corner and work like busy little beavers on our businesses, but we really need to get into policy and give consumers some input into some of the decisions that are getting made."

In June, Connecticut passed the first state referendum supporting the GMO labeling idea, but it needs its Northeast neighbors to pass their own laws before it can happen. Even though labeling is common practice across Europe, federal attempts to require disclosure in the United States have been thwarted.

"Consumers not having the right to know what was in our food was not some accidental act of Congress. In fact, Congress had no input at all," Hirshberg claims. "It was a direct result of hearings that took place in 1992 under then vice president Quayle, and the so-called Council on Competitiveness, in which they determined -– knowing full well that GE crops were in the pipeline for imminent approval, they were ultimately approved by 1996 -- that the materiality for labeling should be organoleptic. In other words, can you see, smell or taste a difference? No other criteria. Of course, since you can't see, taste or smell the difference between a GE variety and a non-GE variety, it was speedy on-ramp, a way of eliminating an obstacle to approval of these crops. But also a way of eliminating any input that consumers would have."

If humans can't tell the difference, what's the big deal? Hirshberg's point is that no one really knows because the only detailed research that we have about the impact of GMOs has been funded and conducted by the same biotechnology companies that are developing them.

At $30 billion in sales annually and growing, organic food could emerge as a logical alternative during the GMO debate, which, of course, Hirshberg would love to see happen. But he knows that many organic options are still out of reach for consumers on a limited budget. The products only represent about 8 percent of U.S. agricultural production and a mere 1.5 percent of all U.S. agricultural research.

It's not that Hirshberg wants to put a complete stop to genetic engineering. That would be akin to being against the benefits of science, he notes, pointing out that millions of people with diabetes are alive today because of GE-derived insulin.

Looking forward to his 60th birthday -- which he plans to enjoy next year atop the mountain where he had his first environmental epiphany -- Hirshberg says the United States must be far more circumspect about the choices it makes to stimulate economic growth. It should make decisions based not on what's convenient in the short term but what is viable over the long term.

If Hirshberg has his way, this will apply not just to GMOs but to other flashpoint issues like climate change, toxic chemicals, water conservation and waste management. "I just feel that it's time to pull back the curtain and have an honest conversation as a nation about what we're doing and to allow average citizens some say, for the first time, in whether or not we want this kind of future."

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure