You Won't Believe What Anti-GMO Activists Are Forcing on Starbucks

Looking to avoid food products created from genetically modified organisms with your morning caffeine injection? Well, you'll have to avoid all 20,000-plus stores of Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) . Good luck.

GMO Inside, an organization with a long history of pressuring large companies to jump ship from GMOs, called on Starbucks "to stop sourcing milk from cows fed genetically modified organisms in feed" and backed up its demands by reminding consumers "Starbucks already serves soy milk that is organic and non-GMO. Consumers also deserve dairy milk held to the same standard and level of quality." While the coffee chain may already serve GMO-free soy milk, it is much easier to source and verify than dairy milk, which faces nearly insurmountable hurdles for a supply chain stretching across 62 countries. Despite that fact, some consumers won't back down from their demands. Will Starbucks ever offer only organic dairy milk?

A Grande mistake?
The movement to persuade Starbucks to use more "consumer-friendly" products is less than one week old, so I would expect the pressure to only intensify over the coming weeks and months. After all, GMO Inside launched a "No GMOs, Cheerios" campaign on social media in 2013. General Mills  (NYSE: GIS  )  responded by ensuring its supply chain for Original Cheerios was GMO-free. However, considering that no other General Mills cereal brands would make similar changes -- not even the other 11 offerings of Cheerios -- it appeared more symbolic than the beginning of a breakfast revolution.

Despite the success with General Mills and the fact that the Starbucks campaign is still in its infancy, you shouldn't expect the ingredients for your morning latte to change anytime soon, if ever. Simon Redfern, director of corporate affairs for Starbucks U.K., responded to GMO Inside's campaign by simply saying, "We keep all aspects of our business under regular review and our milk supply is no different. At this current time we have no plans to change our milk."

That doesn't exactly scream defiance, but Redfern's words aren't the only thing making GMO-free organic dairy milk at Starbucks an unlikely possibility. As I explained last year before and after Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM  ) booted all-natural Chobani Greek yogurt from its shelves, the tiny organic feed market simply cannot support large numbers of organic meat or dairy (organic meat and dairy milk must be produced from cows fed organic feed). In 2011, organic pastureland in the United States totaled 3.5 million acres, which represented 350% growth from 1997 levels. While impressive, it's important to put the figure in perspective. So, simply consider that Nebraska alone contains more than 24 million acres of total pastureland.

If that alone wasn't enough, consumers should consider that claims made by GMO Inside implying organic dairy milk is higher quality or healthier than conventional milk are irresponsible and wrong. Numerous studies have demonstrated that there is no nutritional difference between the two. In fact, studies have shown that the levels of growth factors in conventional milk is not significantly different from levels found in organic milk, nor would any increase impact human health, since bovine growth factors are not biologically active in humans. Luckily for worried consumers, Starbucks already removed growth factors from its dairy milk supply chain. Just don't expect organic dairy milk to follow.

Foolish bottom line
Every consumer can make the choice to purchase exclusively organic foods, but you have to realize that the organic feed market simply cannot support the international, let alone domestic, operations of a global chain such as Starbucks. If more organic pastureland were available, it might be a different story -- and an easier decision to make. It just isn't possible given the logistics at this time. Before you sign GMO Inside's petition, ask yourself if you're really demanding the impossible.

What would Buffett think of Starbucks?
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Read/Post Comments (13) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 5:14 PM, MelissainVA wrote:

    Really? Poor little Starbucks against those big, bad, anti-GMO activists?? Is that the best you can do?

    If Starbucks consumers want GMO free products, then Starbucks would be well advised to listen, before someone else does. And if Starbucks is confident that its customers don't care, well then it's got nothing to worry about.

    But in the mean time, get your facts straight. Organic dairy is free of antibiotics and growth hormones. It's America and you are free to have a big helping of those with every meal if you so desire, but it's not possible to argue any longer that your thrice daily serving of them is without detrimental impact.

    And 95% of soy in the U.S. is GMO. If Starbucks can somehow navigate that sticky wicket to provide non-GMO soy milk, well then, they are capable of doing just about anything they put their minds to.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 7:56 PM, brucer51 wrote:

    Thanks Melissa for your prompt, if a bit sarcastic, response. I think your argument gets down to the financial realities of this situation.

    If Mr. Chatsko were not so wed to the bio-tech industry I would be more confident in his position around GMO safety, one dimensional as it is.

    The lack of detectable differentiation of the "health" benefits between GMO and non-GMO products is the case bio-tech generally cites for their wares. This position is true in that Indeed the basic nutritional value has been found to be similar and GMO products do not cause immediate death. However, it fails even a rudimentary systemic impact analysis.

    We need to look at the reason for a genetic modification which in the case of animal feed is adding genes to allow the plants to survive large doses of chemical herbicides. The systemic outcome has already been documented is the development of weeds that a resistant to the herbicide.

    Great outcome...and it is only one of the unintended consequences of the proliferation of GMO products

    I suspect that no rational person wishes to continue to degrade our agriculture and ruin our depleted soil--clearly the results of bio-agro technologies. We need to look deeper into innovations such as genetic modification before releasing them into the food supply chain and ecological systems upon which we depend.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 8:22 PM, Calimesa wrote:

    I don't play that GMO bull. I'm tired of the tail wagging the dog. And all the nay-sayers who believe that a non-GMO label actually makes a difference you need to wake up. Labels don't mean diddly squat.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 7:36 AM, Weitzhuis wrote:

    Starbucksshould listen to their customers. However, GMOInside people aren't their customers to begin with. So, take a biotech hike and keep walking, GMOInside !

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 7:43 AM, Weitzhuis wrote:

    Will Organic growers ever stop killing people ?

    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/06/german-officials-seek-...

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 10:56 AM, MelissainVA wrote:

    So why do you think they switched to GMO free soy milk? Because there was a demand for it. They will eventually do the same for all dairy. It fits their brand to be progressive, to lead the way in this effort similarly to Chipotle and Wholefoods.

    GMOInside is issuing a public challenge to them to give it a try. Because they understand that when large global brands like this put their minds to making these kinds of changes, they can have a tremendous impact.

    With a commitment to non-GMO dairy by such a large consumer, more organic ranchers will be willing to through their hat in the ring. If Wholefoods and Chipotle can figure it out, so can Starbucks.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 11:07 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @MelissainVA

    "it's not possible to argue any longer that your thrice daily serving of them is without detrimental impact."

    Well, actually, that's not what science says. Of course, when science disagrees everyone plays the conspiracy card.

    "So why do you think they switched to GMO free soy milk? Because there was a demand for it. They will eventually do the same for all dairy."

    My point is that may not be possible given the current makeup of the organic feed market. Sure, 94% of soy in the United States is genetically modified and Starbucks decided to source from the other 6%, but that 6% represents almost 5 million acres. Moreover, the small organic pastureland acreage is divided into organic meat and organic dairy products, while providing for cows than conventional pastures. Percentages are meaningless without context.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 11:15 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @brucer51

    Thanks for your response.

    "If Mr. Chatsko were not so wed to the bio-tech industry I would be more confident in his position around GMO safety, one dimensional as it is."

    If you had a health ailment and needed to see a doctor, I'm sure you could argue that he was pretty wed to his craft as well. Does that make his opinion more or less valid?

    "We need to look at the reason for a genetic modification which in the case of animal feed is adding genes to allow the plants to survive large doses of chemical herbicides."

    That is true, and many in the industry don't agree with traits that allow more herbicides to be used. However, not every GM crop is engineered to resist a herbicide or produce its own pesticide. I don't think you're saying that here, but it's a fact that tends to get lost on many people.

    In fact, from 1996 to 2011, global consumption of pesticides fell 9% while Bt cotton and Bt corn alone saved farmers $57 billion in pesticide costs.

    "The systemic outcome has already been documented is the development of weeds that a resistant to the herbicide."

    All pesticide use, whether applied to a field of conventional or GM crops, can lead to resistant weeds. Resistance is not a new problem that arrived with the introduction of GM crops.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 4:48 PM, MelissainVA wrote:

    Actually Maxxwell,

    It is what many scientists around the world say about GMOs, just not the ones who work for or are funded by Monsanto. There is a reason GMOs are banned in 26 countries AND why every other developed country in the world besides the US requires labels.

    There is NO consensus on GMO safety. And that is NOT being anti-science. That is respecting the need for MORE and better science with regard to GMOs.

    However, that's not what I was referring to. Non-organic dairy comes from animals who not only eat GMO food, but who also get big helpings of growth hormones (again banned in much of the world) and a whopping dose of antibiotics.

    Do you really want to argue that antibiotics in our livestock are NOT a problem?? It took two decades but the same "non-science activists" who have been have been warning and lobbying for someone to pay attention...were actually proven to be right all along.

    Too bad it didn't happen before the superbugs became a reality.

    As for pesticide decreases with GMO products....well that was the promise AND that is what GMO manufacturers promote....but plenty of other "non-activists" source report that it is actually increasing the use of pesticides by about 7%.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/02/us-usa-study-pesti...

    http://www.enveurope.com/content/24/1/24

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 5:57 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @MelissainVA

    "It is what many scientists around the world say about GMOs, just not the ones who work for or are funded by Monsanto."

    Again, invoking the conspiracy theory argument.

    "However, that's not what I was referring to. Non-organic dairy comes from animals who not only eat GMO food, but who also get big helpings of growth hormones (again banned in much of the world) and a whopping dose of antibiotics."

    Thanks for clarifying. Not all non-organic animals get growth hormones and/or antibiotics. The use of bovine growth hormones doesn't affect humans (different mechanisms involved biologically) and the FDA is working to remove antibiotics from feed and unnecessary use in raising livestock. That's a good thing:

    http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378100.ht...

    "Do you really want to argue that antibiotics in our livestock are NOT a problem??"

    Not my argument.

    "As for pesticide decreases with GMO products....well that was the promise AND that is what GMO manufacturers promote....but plenty of other "non-activists" source report that it is actually increasing the use of pesticides by about 7%."

    Thanks for correcting me, I meant insecticides, not the broader term (pesticides) used to describe herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and the like. And thanks for the Reuters article, although it utilizes the same statistic I wrote above.

    From the article: "Insecticide use did drop substantially - 28 percent from 1996 to 2011".

    The Reuters article does seem a bit gloomy. Many scientists are thrilled that resistance isn't occurring nearly as fast as was once predicted.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23688-superpests-are-f...

    Additionally, farmers share in the blame if they do not follow responsible use of their seeds and sprays.

    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/09/22/are-farmers...

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 6:28 PM, MelissainVA wrote:

    Nope, not invoking the conspiracy theory argument.

    But are you suggesting that the 26 countries who ban GMOs have no scientists? So China, France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Australia, Austria, (just to name a few) have no scientists?

    What about the coastal states in the U.S. who have had bans against GMO fish in place for a while now?

    Are you suggesting that the European Network of Scientists for Social responsibility are not really scientists?

    What about the Australian Institute for Health and Environmental Research?

    What about the Laboratory for Molecular Genetics of Plant Development in Mexico?

    The Institute for Responsible Technology?

    What about Dr. Thierry Vrain, former research Scientist for Agriculture Canada?

    The Union of Concerned Scientists?

    I can keep going on this list for quite a while. All scientists, who believe that much more research is needed before anyone can say that GMOs are safe.

    But here's the point...there is NO consensus, scientific or otherwise. The idea that there is...IS part of the marketing campaign around GMOs.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 11:17 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @MelissainVA

    "But are you suggesting that the 26 countries who ban GMOs have no scientists? So China, France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Australia, Austria, (just to name a few) have no scientists?"

    Each country's regulatory body has concluded that GM crops are safe for consumption and only pose a "slight risk" to the environment. I could argue that each independent organization you listed has its own agenda as well, but without seeing actual reports it's difficult to see what they are concerned about relating to biotech crops.

    Perhaps it's more fruitful to list your concerns about biotech crops. What is your understanding about how the technology (transgenic crops) may pose a risk to human health or the environment?

    Thanks for the comments and discussion.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2014, at 11:32 AM, ichbinthor wrote:

    Hey naysayers, by all means eat everything you can that is GMO, PLEASE! Championing a terrible company like Starbuck's is first off, idiotic. Secondly, no one is going to force them to do anything. People have a right to know what mad scientists at such lovely, earth friendly companies like Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta are doing to the food supply. If miscreants like yourselves think it is safe, eat up. If you think corporations running rough shod with the environment is ok because they have lots of money, shut up.

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