Ben & Jerry’s, the affable ice cream-making duo turned global brand from Vermont, has always mixed ice cream with politics. The company has renamed flavors in suport of gay marriage and created a giant Baked Alaska in protest of Arctic drilling. Now, the ice cream itself will take a hard line on a hot-button issue.
Ben & Jerry’s is in the process of removing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) entirely from its products, the company announced on its website. According to the company, the ice cream sold in Canada and the US is currently about 80 percent non-GMO; in Europe, it’s 100 percent. The goal is to have GMO ingredients completely phased out by the end of the year. The transition will take at least that long because of the wide range of flavors and ingredients involved.
“Because we’re Ben & Jerry’s, we’re all about lots of flavors with lots of chunks & swirls—and that means lots of ingredients to transition,” the company wrote in a blog post on its website back in April. “While most of our ingredients are already sourced Non-GMO, we decided to take this opportunity to also source any ingredient that can be Fairtrade certified as such. Our goal is for all of our flavors to be Fairtrade certified and sourced with Non-GMO ingredients by the end of the year.”
Furthermore, the company will make changes so that its packaging “will be labeled with respect to GMO by the end of 2013."
In making the announcement, Ben & Jerry’s, which is now owned and operated by the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, is taking a hard stance on a murky yet inflammatory debate.
A GMO is a food product whose DNA has been genetically altered in a lab. Through this pinpointed modification, growers can develop desirable characteristics, like resistance to weed-killer and a longer shelf-life, more quickly than the selective breeding techniques used by farmers for centuries. Most GMOs are commodity crops, like wheat, corn, and soy.
Because of the large proportion of grocery products that contain things like wheat, corn, and soy, there’s a growing movement in the US calling for GMO labeling. Proponents argue that the effects of GMOs haven’t been adequately tested, and that it can be a clever way for large agro companies to sidestep regulations and maintain monopolies on certain crops (earlier this year, a case for GMO crops as trademarked property was argued before the Supreme Court).
But opponents of such legislation argue that such techniques can increase the global food supply, among other things. Plus, they say, there’s no definitive proof that GMOs are harmful, and that targeted genetic modification is just a technologically advanced version of what farmers have always done: breed for certain traits.
GMO labeling is already required in several European countries, but legislative attempts to bring it to the US have failed thus far. Last year, California voters rejected Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would have required GMO labeling. Several large companies, including Monsanto and Hersey Co., donated millions in opposition. In March, Congress caused an uproar when it passed HR 933, a spending bill that included a provision banning federal courts from halting the sale of GMOs, protecting companies that sell them from liability in the event that they are proven to be harmful (it became popularly known as the “Monsanto Protection Act”).
But some US companies have taken the labeling issue upon themselves. Grocery chain Whole Foods announced earlier this year that it would label all products containing GMOs by 2018.