You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India

A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  ”drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

Small is beautiful. Maybe.

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There’s lots to like about Alter Eco, a San Francisco-based food company that aims to do social and environmental good. The company supports poor farmers, sources from cooperatives, offsets its carbon footprint, etc. Better yet, its products are tasty. I’m partial to the organically-grown, fairly-traded Dark Quinoa Chocolate Bar, which you could think of as a politically correct (and pricey) version of Nestle’s Crunch.

There would be even more to like about Alter Eco if it was a bigger company. The challenge for its founders,  Mathieu Senard and Edouard Rollet, who I visited last fall in San Francisco, is to figure how to drive growth without compromising their values.

My story about Alter Eco, which ran this week at  Guardian Sustainable Business, begins like this:

What would a truly sustainable food company look like? That’s hard to say, but a small company called Alter Eco, which sells quinoa, rice, chocolate and sugar grown in Latin America, Asia and Africa, offers a clue or two.

Striving to hit the very highest environmental and social standards, Alter Eco sources only Fair Trade commodities, buying from small-farm co-operatives. Its products are certified organic. It offsets its carbon emissions. And, when the founders could not find packaging that satisfied them, they designed their own: a bio-based, backyard-compostable package with no petroleum or chemicals or genetically modified corn.

“We are trying to push the envelope towards full sustainability,” CEO Mathieu Senard says.

The trouble is, Alter Eco is small – it reported just $7m in revenues in 2012. When I visited co-founders Senard and Edouard Rollet at Alter Eco’s headquarters in San Francisco, they told me that sales topped $10m in 2013 and are expected to jump 44% to $14.5m this year. “We can go to $100m in the next five to 10 years,” Senard claims.

That said, big food companies measure their sales in billions, not millions. General Mills booked sales of nearly $18bn in the 2013 fiscal year, meaning it does more business in a day than Alter Eco does in a year. For small, socially responsible companies like Alter Eco to have a big impact, they either need to grow rapidly, or influence their much larger competitors, or both.

Part of the problem facing Alter Eco is pricing. Paying Fair Trade prices, sourcing from smaller coops and carbon offsets all cost money, costs which have to be passed along to consumers. (That 2.82 oz. quinoa bar retails for about $3.50.) Higher prices, of course, limit demand–and growth. This is a challenge that has been overcome by a handful of values-driven food companies, including Starbucks and Stonyfield Yogurt. But not many.

You read the rest of my story here.

Big business loves marriage equality

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

At Target’s annual shareholder meeting in 2011, Gregg Steinhafel, the company’s chief executive, was asked whether Target would take a stand on a constitutional amendment being proposed in Minnesota to ban gay marriage.

His reply:

“Our position at this particular time is that we are going to be neutral on that particular issue, as we would be on other social issues that have polarizing points of view.”

You can almost feel him squirming, can’t you?

Steinhafel ducked the issue of gay-marriage even thought Target has a reputation as a gay-friendly employer. The company gets a top score of 100 percent and the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. This was a time when most companies ran away from the gay-marriage debate, figuring that no matter what they said, they’d annoy someone.

That has changed, dramatically, in just a couple of years, as I wrote a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business:

Last year, when the supreme court pondered the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, a friend-of-the-court brief urging the repeal of Doma was signed by nearly 300 employers, including such big brands as Apple, CBS, Citigroup, eBay, Facebook, Google, Marriott, Mars, Nike, Starbucks and Walt Disney. Goldman Sachs flew an equality flag outside its downtown New York headquarters when the court overturned DOMA.

Now, as the battleground shifts backs to the states, businesses have allied themselves with supporters of gay marriage in Oregon and Indiana. In Oregon, a liberal-leaning state, you might expect a youth-oriented company like Nike to back marriage equality, and it has – with a $280,000 donation to the cause. The Portland Trail Blazers, meantime, became the first NBA team to back gay marriage.

More surprising is the role of two big companies in Indiana, a Republican stronghold. Cummins, the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engines, and Eli Lilly, the big US maker of insulin products, each gave $100,000 to Freedom Indiana, a coalition of businesses, community groups and faith leaders trying to keep a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage off the ballot this fall.

What’s more, as I go on to write, the executives at Cummins and Eli Lilly were very direct in their support of marriage equality. They said it was good for business and good for Indiana, and that the state does not need a divisive and emotional debate over gay marriage. You can read the rest of the story here.

I’ve followed the debate over LGBT equality in the corporate world since 2006 when I wrote a long story for Fortune headlined Queer Inc. In light of the fact that we are either stuck or moving backwards on some other important issues — climate change and economic mobility, to name just two — it’s heartening to see the progress being made by people who are working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* equal rights.

By the way, Minnesotans eventually enacted legislation supporting marriage equality. It was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, the great-grandson of George Dayton, the founder of Dayton’s – the department store that later became Target.

My radical plan for McDonald’s

1272056932627So I like McDonald’s. Really, I do. The fries. The coffee. Even the (850 calorie for a large!) strawberry McCafe Shake. The clean bathrooms, too. It’s my default place to stop when driving more than a few hours.

I also like the people I know who work at McDonald’s. Bob Langert, the company’s sustainability chief, is a great guy. Their PR folk are unfailingly gracious. And I’m told by a friend of the CEO, Don Thompson, that he’s a terrific person, too.

But–and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?–McDonald’s has a big problem. Actually, a couple.

The company wants to sell the world as many hamburgers as it possibly can. Beef, when produced at an industrial scale, is a terribly inefficient way to deliver protein to people. The production of beef requires more water and more land, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions, than the production of chicken or pork or, goodness knows, vegetable protein. Maybe the easiest way for any of us to do our part to deal with the climate crisis is to eat less beef. So long as McDonald’s is pushing burgers, it is, in effect, pushing climate change and deforestation, not to mention obesity and heart disease, at least for those consumers who do want the company wants them to do and eat more burgers. McDonald’s response to this is to join in the Global Coalition for Sustainable Beef–a laudable idea, and one that could reduce the environmental impacts of beef. But I’m skeptical about how far and how fast coalitions like this will take us. (See my 2012 story for YaleEnvironment360, Should Environmentalists Just Say No To Eating Beef?) The evidence, when you look at similar efforts to produce “sustainable” palm oil or fish, is decidedly mixed.

Then there’s the inequality problem, which is all over the news lately, and for good reason. CEO Thompson made $13 million or so in 2012. The front-line McDonald’s worker makes less than $20,000 a year. Many rely on government assistance to get by. I don’t begrudge Thompson his paycheck, but something’s amiss when the people who work for him need help from the government to feed their families.

What should McDonald’s do? I tried to address that question in a story today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Promoting its Dollar Menu and More, McDonald’s says: “An empty stomach shouldn’t mean emptying your wallet, too.” A Bacon McDouble – beef patties topped with bacon, American cheese, pickles and onions – costs just $2. A bargain, no?

Alas, the price of a burger does not reflect its full cost. The environmental impact of beef is staggering: on average, 6.5 kilograms of grain, 36 kilograms of roughage and 15,500 cubic meters of water are required to produce one kilogram of beef, according to the new Meat Atlas from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an environmental non-profit. What’s more, beef generates more greenhouse gas emissions than cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs or vegetable protein.

Then there are the costs of supporting those who cook and serve burgers: More than half (52%) of the families of front-line fast-foodworkers are enrolled in at least one government-funded safety net program, according to a 2013 UC Berkeley Labor Center study titled“Fast Food, Poverty Wages”. The research estimates the industry-wide cost to these programs, very roughly, at about $7bn. Median pay for front-line fast-food workers is about $8.69 per hour, which comes to a bit more than $18,000 per year. And we won’t even consider the costs of treating the health problems that are caused by consuming too much processed food.

All of which raises a question: how can a company that depends on cheap meat and cheap labor become sustainable, responsible and even admirable?

You’ll have to read the rest of the story to see the full answer, but, in essence, I argue that McDonald’s should do three things.

(1) Nudge its customers to eat less beef.

(2) Raise the wages of its workers, publicly and proudly.

(3) Become an advocate for a price on carbon.

Will this happen? Probably not. Could it happen? I’m curious to know what you think.

Chocolate, and the Congo

Joe Whinney, in the DRC

Joe Whinney, in the DRC

I met Joe Whinney, the chief executive and founder of Theo Chocolate, last month here in Washington, and liked him right away–he’s an unpretentious high school dropout, with a great deal of enthusiasm for his work. It’s important work: Theo Chocolate is helping to alleviate poverty in one of the world’s most godforsaken places, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I wrote about Joe and Theo today for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Buying a Theo chocolate bar will not put a stop to the long-running conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But it will help, at least a little.

Seattle-based Theo sources cacao beans from war-torn eastern Congo and pays premium prices for them. By doing so, the chocolate maker provides a livelihood to about 2,000 farmers and indirect benefits to perhaps another 20,000 people in the Congo.

As a small company, with revenues of about $12m last year, Theo can only do so much. But its work in the Congo demonstrates how companies, big or small, can find ways to attack some of the world’s most intractable problems, if they have the will to do so.

“We’re trying to build a business that can change the way an entire industry conducts itself,” says Joe Whinney, Theo’s founder and CEO. His hope is that other chocolate companies invest in the livelihood of cacao farmers, as Theo has.

I hope you read the rest of the story. This is the second time this week that I’ve written about the DRC, where more than 5 million people have died in the past two decades; my previous story looked at Intel’s progress in eliminating conflict minerals from the Congo from its supply chain.

While I’m by no means an expert on the DRC, both stories suggest to me that businesses can play an important role in resolving conflicts and promoting economic development in even the poorest places in the world. NGOs like the Enough Project, which is working closely with Intel, the Eastern Congo Initiative, a group supported by the actor and activist Ben Affleck that is allied with Theo, are doing good work in the DRC, but it will take enlightened businesses like Intel and Theo Chocolate to provide sustainable livelihoods for people living there.

Theo’s work is especially impressive because of the way the company goes well beyond Fair Trade to support cacao farmers. It will be interesting to see if the world’s biggest chocolate companies follow this pioneering small one into the DRC.

By the way, I’m delighted that Joe Whinney will be joining us in May for the FORTUNE Brainstorm Green conference, about business and the environment.

Theo Classic Bars

Sustainable business: What’s ahead in 2014?

equipmentprotection3So the answer to the question above is, honestly, it’s anybody’s guess.

As a reporter, I’ve always resisted the idea of what editors like to call “forward looking” stories. Predictions are fun, but it’s hard enough to fully understand the present and the past. My preference is to leave the future to fortune cookies.

So when an editor at Guardian Sustainable Business asked me to write about the year ahead in sustainable business, I’d ignored her and took a look back instead. Here’s how my story begins:

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, the baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly said. (Or was it the physicist Neils Bohr? Or Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn?)

Whoever said it, I agree – so instead of trying to forecast 2014, let’s look back at the the big stories in sustainable business from 2013, knowing that they will shape whatever lies ahead. As the US editor-at-large ofGuardian Sustainable Business, I’ll offer what is unavoidably a US-centric perspective.

My story goes on to look at five themes of the year just past:

  1. The decline in greenhouse gas emissions in the US
  2. Solar power, mainstream at last
  3. The aftermath of Rana Plaza
  4. Industrial-strength sustainability, by which I mean collaborative efforts to change entire industries or systems.
  5. Inequality, on  the political agenda

You can read the rest of the story here.

I see reason to be optimistic about all of these themes. Each offers opportunities for forward-thinking companies. That said, the challenge for business in 2014 will be to accelerate and scale its efforts to deal with the world’s big environmental and social problems. That’s one prediction I will comfortably make.

Mushrooms: They’re good for more than eating

It looks like Styrofoam but it's made from mushrooms

It looks like Styrofoam but it’s made from mushrooms

One of the more exciting themes coursing through the world of sustainable business is the circular economy–the idea that we can eliminate waste, and turn stuff we no longer need into something else. That’s why I got excited when I heard about a startup company called Ecovative, which uses mushroom and crop waste to make substitutes for plastics.

I wrote about Ecovative this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Mushrooms, as any cook knows, are versatile: they enhance soups, stews, pasta, salads and omelettes, and they can be stuffed, baked, fried or sautéed.

As it turns out, they are equally versatile outside of the food world. They can produce packaging, home insulation, fiberboard for furniture, even a surfboard.

So says Eben Bayer, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Ecovative, a small company that’s developing an array of environmentally friendly materials that perform like plastics but are made by mushrooms – specifically, by their webs of thread-like roots, known as mycelium, which consume crop waste. These materials can be grown and recycled, as opposed to being drilled, pumped, refined and discarded.

“We’re able to compete with an entrenched billion-dollar plastic industry because we’re not extracting things,” Bayer said last week, at the fall conference of the Social Venture Network (SVN) in Baltimore. “We’re leveraging the power of biology.”

Founded in 2007 in the aptly named village of Green Island, New York, near Albany, Ecovative is a small company with big ambitions. It already has generated a lot of buzz: It won the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, a global $750,000 sustainable business prize. The World Economic Forum named the company a technology pioneer in 2011. Bayer even delivered a TED talk. And Ecovative won grants by the US EPA, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture.

More important than all the acclaim, as the story goes on to say, is that Ecovative last year signed an agreement to license its Mushroom Packaging technology to Sealed Air, a $7.6-billion company. Sealed Air had adapted a factory in Iowa to produce Mushroom Packaging, using corn stalks as feedstock. This is evidence that Ecovative may have a real business.

When I first read about Ecovative (in a long story earlier this year in The New Yorker), I immediately thought of biomimicry — the idea designers can learn from nature, and then use its designs and processes to solve business or human problems. But, as Eben noted in his talk at SVN, Ecovative isn’t imitating nature. It is actually deploying nature–i.e., those mushroom roots–in its factory.

Ecovative is planning to make home insulation and a substitute for fiberboard using similar processes. Here’s a link to a video of Eben talking about how the company built a “tiny house,” in part using the mushrooms. You can read my story here.

Are your investments tied to genocide?

SP1119147That’s a refugee camp in Sudan. If you are an investor in mutual funds, it’s possible–perhaps even likely–that you own a small share of one of a number of foreign oil companies that are doing business with the government of Sudan, and thereby helping to finance a genocidal, outlaw government that is directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and the displacement of many more.

I’m returning to the subject of “genocide-free” investing with a column this week at Guardian Sustainable Business, about the puzzling and troubling refusal of a mutual fund managed by ING US to even consider divesting in holdings in foreign oil companies that do business in Sudan. US oil companies are prohibited by law from operating there, but US-based mutual funds are free to invest in Chinese, Indian and Malaysian oil companies that help finance the Sudanese authorities.

Despite the best efforts of an advocacy group called Investors Against Genocide, big US mutual fund companies including Fidelity, Vanguard, JP Morgan Chase and Franklin Templeton continue to invest those foreign oil companies. It’s not because they are unaware of the issue. I’ve covered the topic of “genocide-free” investing since 2007, beginning with a story for Fortune.com headlined Fidelity’s Sudan Problem, and followed a few months later by another called Warren Buffett and Darfur. By then, Harvard, Yale and Stanford had divested their holdings in PetroChina and Sinopec, demonstrating that divestment is both possible and practical. In 2009, as an investor in mutual funds managed by Fidelity and Vanguard, I voted for divestment (and blogged about it here).

A few mutual fund companies–notably T. Rowe Price and TIAA-CREF–have agreed to purge their holdings of the Asian oil companies, but most have resisted. Among the most egregious is ING US, whose own shareholders voted for divestment. If nothing else, this is a reminder that we’re a long way from achieving “shareholder democracy” in corporate America.

Here’s how my story for Guardian Sustainable Business begins:

Call me old school but, in my view, companies should be accountable to their owners.

They should also try to stay away from repressive governments like the one in Sudan, where millions of people have been killed in a long-running genocide.

So when, as part of a campaign to stop the flow of money to Sudan, investors voted to ask a mutual fund managed by ING US to sell its holdings in companies that “contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity,” you’d think that ING US would comply.

It has not.

You can read the rest here.

To put this in perspective: It has been more than 15 years since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sudan, and nine years since the killings in Darfur were declared to be a genocide by the U.S. Congress. Yet financial institutions are still investing in the worst companies funding the genocide.

It’s another reason, not that we need one, why so much of Wall Street is rightly held in such low esteem by so many Americans.

My beef with B Corps

logoThere’s lot to like about the fast-growing B Corps movement, and one thing to dislike, as I explain in my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business US.

If you’re reading this blog, you are probably aware of B Corps. The idea takes a bit of explaining. B Corps are businesses that are certified by a nonprofit organization called B Lab to meet what its backers call “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” These businesses win certification much in the way that buildings are certified to have meet LEED environmental standards by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council; they have to complete an assessment of their performance, provide documentation and be open a review from B Lab, as the group explains here.

But the term B Corps is also used to describe “benefit corporations,” a corporate legal structure that has been set up by legislation that has now been passed by 20 states, including, most recently, Delaware. Benefit corporations need not be certified by B Lab, although many are.

It’s unavoidably confusing, but my beef with B Corps is simple.

The voluntary certification system makes sense to me, for reasons that I explain in the story–it’s a way to signal employees, customers and investors that a B Corps aims to do better than conventional companies. Most B Corps are small and privately held. Among the best known are Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, which is a unit of a conventional C Corps, Unilever.

The legal “benefit corporation” purportedly gives companies more freedom to serve society as a whole than conventional corporations have. I’m skeptical about this claim, to say the least, and I worry that it could be counterproductive–because it implies that conventional companies, which make up the bulk of the global economy, need to pursue profits, at the expense of broader social and environmental goals. This seems wrong on the face of it. After all, if Ben & Jerry’s can be certified as a “good” B Corps, doesn’t that mean that its parent company, Unilever, can be “good” too?

My worry is that the implicit argument — that most of the world’s companies don’t have the freedom to do the right thing for society — undermines faith in capitalism (which is fragile, at best, for good reason) and that it discourage reformers inside and outside of big companies who are pushing corporate America to do business better. It’s a bit smug to suggest that traditional companies can’t do as much good for the world as B Corps can.

Here’s how my story begins:

To the supporters of B Corps - benefit corporations that say they aim to serve workers, communities and the environment, as well as their owners – 1 August 2013 was an historic day. In what B Corps described as “a seismic shift in corporate law,” the state of Delaware, where one million businesses are legally registered, enacted legislation that will “redefine success in business” by giving the owners and managers of legally recognised B Corps protection as they pursue “a higher purpose than profit.”

The B Corps movement has much to be proud of: it has built a brand that stands for good business, attracted hundreds of committed followers and sparked debate about the role of business in society. But claims – sometimes made explicitly, sometimes implicitly – that B Corps have more freedom to take an expansive view of their social and environmental responsibilities is not only mistaken, but potentially damaging to the cause of sustainable business.

After all, if conventional companies have no choice but to focus narrowly on maximising short-term profits, at the expense of workers, communities and the planet, then we’re in a heap of trouble and unlikely to get out, because 99% of US businesses today are conventional C Corps, and most are likely to remain so.

You can read the rest here.

What Ben Franklin can teach US companies about climate

Benjamin-Franklin-006Given the inability, or unwillingness, of political and business leaders to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s no surprise that governments and companies are increasingly talking about adaptation or resilience. It’s only prudent. We need to prepare for climate disruption.

But it seems strange that businesses would tackle the question of adaptatation without, simultaneously, doing all they can to push for climate regulation. At least, that was my reaction last month when I attended a Washington event on adaptation organized by the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). Everyone acted as if extreme weather and a warming planet were all but inevitable.

And perhaps they are. But as companies, understandably, prepare for a warming world, it’s incumbent upon them to engage politically in any way they can to slow down emissions. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. [click to continue...]