The TH Interview: Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm (Part Two)



In part two of our in-depth conversation with the world's first CE-Yo, Gary Hirshberg says we can still trust organics, but to beware of convenient aphorisms. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

For part one of the interview, click here.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: You say that the organic label is more creditable now than it's ever been, but a lot of people are scared that it's being eroded. Can people still really trust organic certification?

Gary Hirshberg: Well, first of all, the skepticism and the demand for verification of the organic label is, I think, an incredibly healthy thing. This is a standard that took 10 or 11 years to actually move from legislation into law, and we've only had it now for about a decade. The authors of those regs (and I supported all of them) will be the first to tell you they were imperfect, so we need vigilance and we need to keep on them.

As an example in my area, the whole question of access to pasture for animals is still very much a controversy. On the one hand, the organic standards say animals must have access to pasture every day. But on the other hand, certain dairy processors (not us) have decided that that just means they can have access to pasture for a certain part of their lives, namely, when they are young. But when they become milking age they move into the barn forever.

Well now, Stonyfield doesn't believe that. Stonyfield believes that animals have to have pastured every day. The point is that's just one of a thousand areas where there will continue to be battles.

To your fundamental question about organic standards, the answer is absolutely yes. They're better than anything we've ever had before. The word "natural" means nothing. I often tell the anecdote that there are ice creams that don't change shape when they melt; and they say natural on them! I don't know whether your listeners think that's natural or not, but I sure don't.

The reality is that organic is a body of law. It does have teeth. There have been farms and manufacturers decertified for breaching, and you do have to pass a rigorous certification to get through. The problem is you've got only five regulators in the office at the USDA. To this administration, organic has not been a priority at all. This is another reason that we need a change in Washington.

A lot of people say, well gosh, Kellogg's is into organics now; or Kraft, or Nestle, or Wal-Mart. Isn't that going to be bad for organics? My answer is no, it's great for organics because, number one, any time you take toxins out of the biosphere you are doing a good thing. Number two, when these companies go into organics, it's not because they are doing it for moral reasons. They are doing it for financial reasons and, therefore, they have a financial stake in its success.

You can rest assured that, for the most part, these companies don't want to dilute what the standards mean, because if organic becomes as meaningless as natural they'll no longer have a niche.

TH: I asked the TreeHugger writers what questions they had for you, and Kara DiCamillo asked why Stonyfield yogurt containers are made out of number five plastic, when number five can't be recycled everywhere. And I actually found the answer to this question in your book. It was a very conscious environmental decision that has to do with the weight and what weight means for carbon footprint. Is this right?

GH: Yes, exactly. It's funny, I've been on this book tour and the very first question is always this one. And I'm glad that you read that section because, I think, well-intentioned consumers are, of course, very fixed on recycling—and we should all be fixed on recycling—but we have to understand, first and foremost, that recycling is the failure to have reduced or reused first.

Recycling is what we should do only after we have failed to reduce or reuse. The simple answer to your question is that the cups we use are the lightest weight pre-formed cup that's out there. And therefore, according to the University of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (with whom we did our life cycle analysis 14 years ago), the type of resin is of small consequence compared to the weight, because the weight is all the embodied energy.

Strictly speaking, if we're going to try to get to being CO2 neutral as a society, we have to address the issue of mass and of weight in production. This is where the Europeans have had it on us for ages; because they are paying the real cost of oil and natural gas. And, unlike our recent energy bill, they're not subsidizing fossil fuels. So they have smaller fridges, smaller cars, smaller packaging, etc.

Weight and mass are of enormous significance. And not only is number five polypropylene not recyclable everywhere, but all plastic in total is only recycled to the extent of somewhere between 5% and 12%, depending on the resin. (And believe me, I'm a maniacal recycler. In my household this is the way my kids grew up.) But this means that 88% of plastic in circulation is still going into the landfill.

So the point is, let's take it out of circulation in the first place by reducing. And when you do that, you save many, many tones of not just plastic, but oil, water, and electricity. By the way, the weight of transport is far lower.

And so, yes, it's an extremely conscious effort on our part to go with the lightest weighting. We do, of course, have a recapture program. People can send us their cups, and we partner with a company called Recycline, who makes them into toothbrushes and razor handles.

But more recently we've switched to a new form of plastic called "form, fill, and seal" where we actually mold the cups on-line. And this system dropped our weights even further. In addition, we save all the shipping and transporting of cups. Anybody who's seriously and responsibly looking at their climate footprint inevitably finds their way to the supply chain.

Clearly this argues for local, but it also argues for being really thorough in your research and your methodology in the same way that recycling, really, is the third priority, not the first.

I can tell you that local is not always exactly correct either. We have not done this, but we could bring in dried organic milk powder from New Zealand that is from a 100% grass fed, non-grain system. We could bring that to New Hampshire with a lower climate footprint than fluid milk from Wisconsin, if we were inclined to do so. I discovered this when we had a milk shortage here a couple of years ago.

So the point is that we shouldn't rely on simple aphorisms or simple ideas here. Of course buy local, buy organic whenever you can and, of course, recycle whenever you can. But that's not necessarily where the solutions lie.

TH: So to get back to the packaging thing, you guys have made a pretty serious commitment: making all your packaging 100% sustainable by 2015. What is this going to mean? Are we going to get yogurt floating in a bubble? What's this going to look like?

GH: Well, of course the fantasy is that after you finish the yogurt you can then eat the cup. By the way, that's not entirely a joke. We have a lot of evidence that edible polymers are within sight. But the problem with sustainable packaging right now is that the industry has gotten excited about this stuff called PLA (polylactic acid), which is unfortunately derived from corn.

And I say unfortunate because, first of all, we need to be using the land on which corn is gown to produce food, not to produce packaging. Aecondly, corn—as your listeners are probably well aware—is a very chemically-intensive crop. It's not very kind to the soil. And thirdly, the energetics are really screwed up: a huge amount of energy is used—as much or more than goes into producing a pure petroleum-based package.

So what we need to discover here (and we're working on it) is biological polymers that are, of course, degradable, but perhaps provide nutritional benefit to people or to the soil around us. And that really is the future. In the meantime, what I urge people to do is buy in larger quantities and scoop out into reusable containers. So in my house we eat a tremendous amount of yogurt out of 32-ounce containers and we scoop it. If you're producing lunch for kids and you need small cups with re-closeable caps, write to us and we send those to you. So you can scoop from quart container, mix in something they want, and then they'll bring the cup back that night.

Tags: Carbon Offsets | Cattle | Clean Energy | Farming | Food Miles | Food Safety | New Hampshire