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Gary Hirshberg standing in a field of tall grass.

Gary Hirshberg, Chairman and Co-Founder of Stonyfield Farm (the world’s leading organic yogurt producer) champions a simple philosophy: “everybody who eats has to vote.”

Of course, Gary doesn’t expect to realistically enforce this statement, it’s the idea behind it that he’s passionate about. The author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World, and a frequent speaker on the topics of sustainability, organic agriculture and the profitability of green business, Gary knows a thing or two about the intersection of agriculture, business and policy.

“We have never had more facts at our disposal than now about the real impacts of non-organic, or conventional or chemical-dependent food and processing,” says Gary continuing that “the first thing we need to believe is that science and facts still matter.”

For instance, it’s a fact that the cheapest form of healthcare is preventative; that is, not getting sick at all. It’s also a fact that organic food can be a form of preventative healthcare—because it isn’t laden with carcinogenic chemicals, for starters. Just as anyone who eats (that is, everyone) can and must find power in their right to vote, Gary also sees the act of choosing organic as a form of personal power.

“The choice to embrace organic whether as a grower or a consumer, or as a policy person or a scientist, is really a choice to exercise your own will and commitment to a world that’s really better for our children, better for all species and ultimately more sustainable and more durable.”

Unfortunately, the current US administration is not interested in supporting organic agriculture or climate and environmental initiatives. “Without some normal, reasonable checks and balances, without some folks in there who actually are going to honor science and honor fact, and honor medical and agricultural and environmental statistics, I’m afraid there’s no hope,” says Gary.

This is, again, why Gary holds that “everybody who eats” needs vote in the upcoming elections—both the midterms and beyond. To hear Gary’s case for political and environmental engagement in his own words, listen at the link above, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.


Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Gary Hirshberg

Air Date: April 16, 2018

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m truly delighted to be here today with Gary Hirshberg. He is the chairman of the advisory committee for Stonyfield Farm, but even most important a cofounder of Stonyfield Farm. Stonyfield is the world-leading yogurt producer. Gary is a visionary who has really done a tremendous job moving the idea of organic yogurt, and yogurt in general, through the United States of America. So welcome, Gary! What a delight to have you here.

GARY HIRSHBERG: Thank you, Theresa. And just to be clear, we’re the leading, world-leading organic yogurt producer. We aspire to be the world’s leading yogurt producer, but we’re not there yet.

TM: Darn it, did I leave the word “organic” off? You know, one of the things that I’ve always really admired about Stonyfield—and I know that I’m not alone; many, many others join me—is that when Gary starts talking about yogurt, he does it with such passion but also with such a mission. It isn’t just a food—it represents so much. Gary, how would you describe the other values that Stonyfield has that is not just about yogurt?

GH: Yeah, thanks. Well, so, to be clear, I’ve been at this a long time—41 years working in organic and climate advocacy. And so, even before Stonyfield, in the 1970s I was working at and then eventually running an ecological research institute, trying to advance solutions that, what I now call twenty-first-century solutions, that are essential to minimize exposure to toxins, to restore some balance to our ecosystems, put carbon back in soil, take it out of the atmosphere, and so on and so forth. Not to mention, I think, the broader mission which is, I view organic really as preventative health care. Most of our debate in this country about healthcare has really been about sickness care. It’s been about how to deal after we’ve gotten sick, which, as your listeners and you know, is the most expensive time to be dealing with health.

So I would say that the central mission is helping consumers to recognize that we are what we eat, and every time you purchase something, whether it’s at a farmers’ market or a grocery store or a co-op or online or whatever, you’re really voting for the kind of world you want to live in and we want to live in. And that we need to take those votes seriously because, as we learned back in the days with seven cows, when we started in the early ’80s, and as we know now today with nearly 2,000 farms that we support, people’s choices really do matter and really can shape the kind of world that we live in. So it’s a bit of education, it’s a bit of empowerment, but mainly it’s about exercising our right and our need to make healthier and better choices for people and the planet.

TM: I am really remembering very well a speech that you gave at ShiftCon this year that was a tremendous insight into some of those values and the mission that we all have who are in the organic industry. And one of the topics had to deal with trying to get these messages through in an era of “post truth.” And you talked some about—I forgot the person’s name who had written a very disparaging article about organic. And I wondered, how is it that you and I and all of us, what are we supposed to believe now that we have so much false information coming at us?

GH: Yeah. Well, [the] first thing we need to believe is that science, in fact, still matters. And the speech that you’re referring to began—and it’s always interesting to stand up on a podium and look at the horrified faces of people as you start to regale them with the litany of insults that we’ve brought to people in the environment. But I referred, you might remember, to this fantastic new book by Dr. Philip Landrigan on children, called Children & Environmental Toxins: What Everyone Needs to Know. And the reality is that while you and I and many of our colleagues have been at this for decades, we have never had more facts at our disposal than now, about the real impacts of nonorganic or conventional or chemical-dependent food production and processing.

So I think, just to level set us, what Phil writes about and what I spoke about is that we have this incredible life expectancy today—it’s some 80 years now in the U.S., nearly twice the lifespan that was the norm just a century ago. And that’s in large part because we’ve achieved incredible reductions, 90 percent reductions, in the control of old infectious diseases, the things that used to kill people: cholera and smallpox and malaria and tuberculosis and polio.

But unfortunately, what has happened is that infectious diseases are no longer the major causes of illness in children, at least in the West. And it’s actually, we’re dramatically bringing down those problems in Asia and Africa and less developed countries. But the bad news is that those threats have been replaced by a whole host of noncommunicable diseases: asthma, autism, leukemia, brain cancer, and so forth. And cancers overall are now the second-leading cause of children’s death, actually, surpassed only by injuries. And of course I’m just talking about toxins. Now, we could just as easily talk about what we’re doing in terms of warming the planet and the incredible cost and dislocation and pain that that’s wreaking: hotter hots, colder colds, more serious storms and fires and droughts and so on.

So the point is that I think we can’t give ground to folks who want their opinions to trump data and science. What we need to do is take inventory of real science. [Unclear—The fact?] that 41 percent of Americans are going to be diagnosed with cancers in our lifetimes is not something that anybody wants, from any political or other persuasion. It’s not a partisan statistic and the lines don’t break down depending on whether you’re in a red or a blue state. Now, those of us who have access to these data need to be relentless in putting them back out there. But I also think we need to be relentlessly hopeful about the fact that these are all solvable problems.

Like I said earlier, what organic really means is in the big picture, sure, you can say, well, it means avoidance of chemicals or toxins, or putting carbon back in the soil, or improving animal health or biodiversity, or all of these many, many things that we now know are facts, are true. But even more importantly it’s personal power. The choice to embrace organic, whether as a grower or a consumer or a policy person or a scientist, is really a choice to exercise your own will and commitment to a world that’s really better for our children, better for all species, and ultimately more sustainable and more durable. And I think we have to be relentless in making those connections.

I also think we have to speak optimistically and positively because we now know that people can really effect super positive change by making these choices. And I also think we need to continue to come back to the fact that this is where the growth is. The good news is that the millennial consumer, half of whom are now parents, they know all this stuff. We don’t have to go back and explain, “Hey, we’re warming the planet. We’re toxifying.” We can instead talk about what you can do and the importance of personal choice and the opportunities to exercise that power.

So I wish that the organic world was united. The circular firing squad in the organic world that you spoke about at a recent speech, I heard you talking about, is I think one of our big problems. But we do have real enemies out there, and I think what can unite us—I mean, there are real chemical companies trying to sell their wares and reduce regulation and sort of open the flood gates to more of their sales—and I think what really can unite us is that this is a more economical, more hopeful, and more, proven more financially and ecologically responsible, an opportunistic way to live. As I said before, the cheapest form of health care is not getting sick. And so organic has to really be seen in that context, and we need to keep reminding people of that.

(10:32)

TM: Well, that certainly qualifies for why we should be relentlessly hopeful, so I’m really glad you said that. And that is, food as medicine is such a wonderful way and a fun way to take a look at those three meals a day that we all want to dive into.

When you talked about, “We have real enemies out there…,” we don’t really usually think that the USDA and the EPA and government is one of those enemies, but sometimes it’s beginning to feel that way. Like, for example, the organic OLPP (Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices) that was denied by the USDA, we have what I guess you would call the era of Trump. How are we, as consumers, as we try and sort through what’s truth, what’s post truth, what should we be believing out there—what comes out of the EPA and USDA?

GH: Right. Well, we don’t have to think twice anymore because we now have a full year and several months of bona fide experience here. And you mentioned—you know, I call this the TPPPP, right? It’s the Trump-Pence-Pruitt-Perdue Problem. These folks have made absolutely clear what they see as the role of government. Their goal is to reduce these agencies by, in Pruitt’s case with EPA, half; and in Perdue’s case it’s really a question of allowing the foxes to run the henhouse. They’ve cut EPA and FDA funding. They’ve put industry lobbyists and lawyers in charge. They’ve reversed chemical bans, including bans on toxic chemicals that we know to be, they’re known carcinogens. They’ve rubber-stamped new chemicals. They’ve cooked the books under pressure from industry to, for example at the EPA, violate the new chemical safety law by using literally junk science to review old chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. They have hidden chemical risks. EWG, Environmental Working Group, has documented again and again and again that they’ve abused trade secret claims to keep safety information from the public. They’ve undermined worker and farmer safety, delaying rules to prevent catastrophic accidents at chemical manufacturing plants, and delayed implementation of new protections for farm workers from pesticides. And we have the San Joaquin study where we know that farm workers are more vulnerable than anybody in our society. And on and on and on.

And again, I want to remind you that I’m not the most depressing person on earth, so I’ll get off of this. But I think the point is that from a data-driven or evidence-based, well, the evidence and the data are all in. And so where I and Stonyfield are focusing all of our activism right now—because as you point out, from the livestock rule to the check-off program to ever-so-many violations of their own seal, of the Organic Seal and all the opportunity and all the economic growth that the seal is leveraging, we can and must fight and push back on everyone of these violations. But the real reality is that we can’t change this administration. We have another two and half years before we can hope to replace them.

So right now, in 2018, what every single person I talk to and every one of your listeners needs to get clear is that the only thing we can do is be active in the midterms. We have a hashtag, it’s #midterms2018, that we put out with the Environmental Working Group, where your listeners can go and get access to these issues that we’re talking about, but also to the voting records of candidates. Now, those voting records will going up by the end of April and May, voting records of candidates, incumbents and challengers, on environment. And I would just say very simply, all this boils down to every one of us, in whatever district we’re in, needs to work hard for candidates who will recognize that the environment needs to be protected.

And there’s nothing, of all the issues we’re dealing with—and this is a very difficult thing to say and it makes me deeply sad to say it—but there’s actually nothing more important right now than getting some checks and balances and getting a Congress with a backbone to stand up, hold hearings, hold these agency heads accountable for what is no less than the demise and theft of our children’s futures. And I really have a hard time seeing anything that is more important than being active with these midterms, because without some normal, reasonable checks and balances, without some folks in there who actually are going to honor science and honor facts and honor medical and agricultural and environmental statistics, I’m afraid that there’s no hope.

So everyone needs to be eating organic? Of course. Everyone needs to be buying organic? Of course. Everyone needs to be acting locally to remove toxins from your local farms and fields, and all of that’s great. But we’ve got to turn out the vote as never before and remove any congressperson or senator who’s unwilling to stand up to the EPA and the USDA’s theft of our children’s futures, period.

(16:24)

TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Gary Hirshberg, who just gave us an excellent summary of why it’s so important to vote in this midterm election. Gary, isn’t it true that midterm elections have the lowest turnout of all elections?

GH: They do. And this is the first moment, I think, in my life where I can honestly say that this midterm is absolutely as crucial as any election we’ve ever had. So it’s not just about voting, it’s about talking this up. It’s about reminding people… You know, again, let’s just be blatant about this. There are polls now from the Mellman organization that show Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, when you ask them, “What is the number one thing that concerns you about the Trump administration”—so this is, again, the question is: What’s the number one thing that concerns you. It’s not what most upsets you, it’s what the number one thing? It’s the environment, and it’s by 74 percent. And it’s goes right across party lines. It’s a nonpartisan issue.

Nobody out there wants a Flint, Michigan, in their backyards, right? The water situation that these poor people have dealt with. Nobody wants more pesticides and toxins in their air, water, and soil. And yet that’s exactly going to be the repercussions of these policies. So, very simply, regardless of the party that you’re in, what’s important is to talk up with your neighbors, your friends, people who you don’t agree with politically, people who you do agree with politically, that can’t we all at least agree that our children deserve cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner soil? And again, as I say, by vast majorities the polling data suggest that we do.

And then if you do feel that way, then you’ve got to not just vote, but communicate to candidates at rallies, in email, through social media, that you’re going to vote for the environment. You’re going to choose candidates who pledge to stand up to this theft of our children’s futures.

 TM: You know, as we talk about our children, I just read something recently very chilling: that our average age now that we’ll live to is 78—and that our children won’t live to be that old. And that made me sad. And I think that part of it has to do with something that you mentioned. You said that you were saying there’s something different about twentieth-century agriculture versus twenty-first-century agriculture. How would you describe that difference and what’s happening in the twenty-first century that should be happening in agriculture that maybe isn’t? Or what is it that we’re carrying over from the twentieth-century agriculture that we shouldn’t?

GH: Well, when you look at the cancer data—and again, I mentioned Phil Landrigan’s work, but you can find these data in most sites. You realize that only 10 to 20 percent of cancers—let’s just focus on kid’s cancers for a moment—only 10 to 20 percent are actually considered to be genetic. So the remaining 80 to 90 percent are due to environmental factors. And the evidence now, and it started with the President’s Cancer Panel, in the report that the Bush-appointed panel then provided to incoming President Obama back in ’08, the evidence is now overwhelmingly strong—again, these are not ecologists, these are oncologists just reporting on the statistics—that environmental threats, notably from toxic chemicals, are the critical contributing factors to all of these diseases that we’re now seeing.

And we have reports going back to 1993, the National Academy of Sciences, looking at pesticides in the diets of infants and children. And what we’re finding is that, first of all, children are far more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults. They have disproportionally much larger intakes of air, food, and water. Therefore, you know, if you’re taking in seven times as much water as an adult if you’re a baby, so therefore if there’s pesticide residue in that water, if you’re in a rural area, then you’re getting literally seven times as much per pound of body weight as an adult is. Your internal organs as kids are not fully developed, so the immune systems might not be able to protect against, again, pesticides and toxins.

And then of course, there’s this period of rapid growth and development where all developmental processes are really easily disrupted. And most of the fast-moving changes in young people at that stage are controlled by hormones that are regulated by our endocrine system. So we now know that the preponderance of these toxic chemicals, many of them act as endocrine destructors. So even minuscule amounts of organophosphate pesticides, for example, can interfere with the brain or the hormones that regulate growth and development.

So in the big picture here, what’s happened is that we can be really proud that organic has grown as much as it’s grown—and the data will soon be out from the census, as you know, but it’s fairly clear that in 2017 the organic sector passed the $50 billion mark, which is absolutely amazing, right? And that’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is we’re still about 5.5 percent of U.S. food and we still have about 1.7 percent of U.S. acreage in organic. So the problem is that on the other side, we’ve seen the rise and, in recent years, since 1996, thanks to genetically engineered food, the very rapid rise of exposure to toxic herbicides and pesticides, because most of these engineered crops have been engineered to use and enable the use of greater and greater amounts of herbicide. So you have a situation now where glyphosate, for example, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the most-used agrochemical in the history of humanity.

So on the one hand, yes, let’s champion the growth of organics and the emerging millennial consumer who’s demanding more transparency, wants to know about how animals are being taken care of and how the land is being taken care of and how many chemicals are being used. But you also have this much more efficient and now, aided and abetted by their alliance with the current administration, an expedited increase in these toxic compounds.

And so the real central issue here is, no matter how much organic food you or I grow and sell and consume, we can’t just be satisfied to do that right now in 2018. We’ve also got to go back and really focus on policy. Everybody who eats has to vote. Everybody who chooses, makes choices every day at the checkout, has to also focus on these elections. Even if you hate the whole topic—because unfortunately, the undermining of our regulatory infrastructure, the reduction of the EPA by half, the abandonment of science in these agencies, is a matter that will have decades and decades of impacts on us. And again, just consuming our way out of it is not going to reverse this damage fast enough. So we’ve got to be politically active as well as active as consumers.

(24:32)

TM: Well, you know, I am looking at the fact that we do have solutions. And both of us are in the livestock industry, for example, but we know that we can do livestock better. And it’s certainly, what you just talked about is why I think some of us refer to the EPA as the CPA, the Chemical Protection Agency. But we do have tons of twenty-first-century solutions in agriculture and especially in the livestock world. I wondered if you could speak to some of those.

GH: Well, we now know for sure that organic traps more carbon than does conventional agriculture. We know that by growing and improving soils we improve biodiversity at the microbial level, which means you’re making more nutrients available, which means you have more built-in natural controls on disease and on pests. We now know that in most cases, farmers can actually make more money, can have lower input costs. We know that organically raised livestock live twice as long and produce—that means they’re productive twice as long, which is a better return on assets for the farmer but also, obviously, better for the animal.

In other words, when you and I both started out in this space—I often say, back in the early days of Stonyfield in the early ’80s we had a wonderful company, just no supply and no demand. We didn’t know enough; we followed our instincts and our hunches. But now we’ve got real science. We now know that we can be highly productive with much lower inputs and that basically everybody can win. And let’s not forget that that means the consumer as well, because again, we pay the highest costs of health care of any culture in the world and our costs are only going up and our [unclear—efficacy?] is flying. While we’re making scientific advances in medicine and health care, we’re also making ourselves sicker—rising rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes. But now there’s links between pesticides and autism, pesticides and brain cancer, pesticides and IQ.

So, in other words, the data is in now: that we have proven methods of food production that are better for the environment, better for the animals, better for the farmers, and better for the consumers. The one thing we don’t have is we don’t have subsidies in organics to actually compete with our conventional counterparts. And I’ve always been proud of that, that the organic sector has never been seeking subsidies. I think most of us believe that we should level the playing field, get rid of all subsidies, and let the best practice win. And now, in our experience, we’re confident as we’ve watched more and more farmers have more and more economic success and more and more preventative health care, we’re confident that organic will win now.

TM: Excellent, Gary. Thank you so much. For those of you who want to learn more about Stonyfield Farm and about this midterm election, StonyfieldFarm.com.

GH: Stonyfield.com.

TM: Stonyfield.com! Thank you. And I really want to thank you for bringing both the problem and the solutions to us, Gary, because I love the idea of relentless hope. And so I hope we all take this away from this interview. So, thank you so much!

GH: Well, thank you. Thanks for doing this. And thanks, everybody, for being active this time around. It’s never, ever, ever mattered more.

You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go wherever you get your podcasts, and find us online at RootstockRadio.com. Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley.