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Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) this week called for an international boycott of Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry’s in conjunction with World Water Day, March 22. “Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, spend millions on marketing to create the false image that the Vermont-based brand is a champion of the environment, when in fact Ben & Jerry’s supports an industrial dairy system that is responsible for a water pollution crisis in Vermont,” said Ronnie Cummins, OCA’s international director. “Today we once again call on Ben & Jerry’s to convert its dairy supply chain to 100-percent organic and pasture-raised to help end the dumping of hundreds of thousands of pounds of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers into Vermont’s water supply.”

Many people remember Ben & Jerry’s original “hippie,” natural, anti-corporate image when it was founded in 1978 in Burlington, Vermont. But over the years, its eco-friendly, family farmed image has eroded, highlighted by its sale to Anglo-Dutch multinational food giant Unilever in 2000 and culminating with the Organic Consumers Association’s shocking discovery last year of Monsanto’s glyphosate (Roundup) in Ben & Jerry’s products. In fact the presence of glyphosate in a product thought “natural” was so unexpected, unsettling and apparently hypocritical, major media TV stations and the New York Times covered the discovery in July.

While Ben & Jerry’s blamed the herbicide’s presence on an under-examined supply chain and mainstream media stressed the small amounts of glyphosate found, founder Ronnie Cummins said at the time, “Not everyone agrees with the acceptable levels governments have set and anyway, would you want to be eating this stuff at all?”

Big Food in Sheep’s Clothing

It is not surprising Ben & Jerry’s exposes food consumers to glyphosate. Unilever is the third largest food marketer/manufacturer in the world––right after number two Pepisco–– and profits from the toxic farming methods of all Big Food companies. In fact, five years after selling to Unilever, founder Ben Cohen admitted “Although there are some wonderful people with a social conscience inside Unilever, most of what was the soul of Ben & Jerry’s has been lost.” That is an understatement. In 2012, Unilever, donated an astonishing $467,000 to defeat California’s Prop 37–Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food.

Some remember when Ben & Jerry’s in 1993, prohibited Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in its products, a GMO given to cows to increase their milk output. But that has been its last GMO action. When OCA and several other groups asked Ben & Jerry’s to go 100 percent organic––ban dairy suppliers from feeding GMO grains to cows––it flatly refused. Founder Ben Cohen admitted that going organic wouldn’t allow them to “maximize profits.”

Behind the Happy Ice Cream– Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and GMOs

Ben & Jerry’s admits its milk is not organic and that it allows its dairy and egg suppliers to use GMO grains in animal feed. This means Ben & Jerry’s supports the 92,000 acres in Vermont now dedicated to GMO-derived feed corn and all its environmental consequences.  In addition to toxic chemicals and polluted waterways, dairy CAFOs including Ben and Jerry’s have devastated wildlife and hollowed out rural communities, putting family farmers and residents in despair. When Vermont activists sought to find out how much manure is released in Vermont waterways by CAFOs, officials told them the information would cost them a prohibitive $34,000.

Dairy Farming at Its Worst

Ben & Jerry gets it its milk from the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, a 400-farmer dairy co-op increasingly dominated by large factory farm-type dairy operations. How big are St. Albans co-op dairy farms? “Mexico is our biggest destination for dairy, and it’s not only dairy,” said board president of the co-op Harold Howrigan Jr. in defense of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) this spring. “It’s corn and soy also that go down there to our huge trading partner, and we need that market.”

Then there is the mega Vermont CAFO and mega Vermont water polluter Pleasant Valley Farms, cited for violating the clean water act and drug residues and selling to the St. Albans co-op, according to employees interviewed according to Vermont activists I interviewed.

According to the FDA, three years ago, owners Mark and Amanda St. Pierre, “offered for sale an animal for slaughter as food that was adulterated.” Specifically, the FDA found the antibiotic ampicillin in tissue samples of a cow kidney.

Also, the FDA said in a letter to the St. Pierre’s that it “found that you hold animals under conditions that are so inadequate that medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues are likely to enter the food supply.” No one who believes the Ben & Jerry’s “image” will fail to be shocked at the size and operations of the highly industrialized Pleasant Valley Farms who contribute to its dairy chain.

Last summer, more than 200 farmworkers marched on the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont demanding the company implement a program called “Milk with Dignity” to address abusive working conditions, wage theft and other labor violations.

Talking Out of Both Sides of the Ice Cream Cone

Ben & Jerry’s has decorated its board with some of the most progressive environmentalists in the country who have remained silent about the ice cream maker’s use of CAFOs and GMO feed.  The company also also gives pea sized, inconsequential grants to grassroots organizations or runs small promotions for them which ensures their continued loyalty. The “feel good” largesse sounds good until you realize the effect of industrial agriculture that Ben & Jerry has on its own state through refusing to go organic.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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