By Kasey Morrisey and Nicole Keller, DO
Often advertisements walk a fine line, trying to appeal to consumers and set their products apart while remaining truthful and relying on facts. While intentionally misleading advertising is technically illegal, the Federal Trade Commission, who is the consumer protection agency in charge of monitoring misleading and false advertising, does not have enough resources to effectively, or proactively monitor all advertising. The negative effects of misleading advertising are many, but there has been an increasing trend in food marketing over the past several years to use fear-based messages. And these messages are unfortunately having a measurable negative effect, including consumers purchasing less fruits and vegetables and may be contributing to anxiety around food for consumers of all ages.
Stonyfield Farms, a large organic dairy company sells and markets its products using many of the strategies outlined in the Academics Review report on organic marketing. One of their most recent advertisements has attracted a lot of attention from consumers, and also scientists and farmers. The video can be seen here https://www.facebook.com/stonyfield/videos/10155468613626902/. The question is, how does it stack up in terms of bias, and fact checking?
In the video, the kids are quoted describing GMOs as, “monstrous” and give an example saying, “They take a gene from a fish and put it in a tomato.” It’s worth noting that while a gene from a flounder that confers cold tolerance was trialed in a tomato variety to make them easier to grow in northern climates, it was never commercialized due to poor performance and concerns about consumer acceptance. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has commented on how exploitive and mischaracterizing this message in Stonyfield advertisement is. The video ends with a young girl saying ‘it’s better to get informed before you like, eat it’. But Stonyfield’s handling of the situation indicates that they don’t support the free flow of information around this subject at all.
In response to the video, hundreds of comments appeared within hours to days questioning the accuracy of Stonyfield’s information, and the use of children to target mothers concerns about food safety. The Stonyfield’s social media team put up a response to address the high volume of user engagement on their video (which they have since deleted). In this post, they attempted to provide sources to back up their stance on genetic engineering in agriculture. These sources however, all lead back to the company; Environmental Working Group (EWG) and OnlyOrganic.org and JustLabelIt.org. Stonyfield’s founder Gary Hirschberg is the co-founder and a board member of JustLabelIt, with Stonyfield being a platinum sponsor of the organization. His wife sits on the board of the EWG, Stonyfield is one of the major funders of the organization. Hirshberg is also a co-founder of, a board member of, and funder, of Only Organic. They also stated that they valued the importance of science-based discussion and appreciated those who were concerned for reaching out.
Seemingly in direct conflict with those statements, the founder Gary Hirshberg interviewed with Forbes and accused those who commented of being ‘trolls with fake names’. By that time, the social media team had taken to removing thousands of comments that did not violate page rules, but pointed out the inaccuracy of Stonyfield’s claims and the low quality of their sources.
Stonyfield claimed concern for safety of foods made with GMOs, while also admitting that they don’t believe GMOs themselves to be harmful. Several examples of their stated concerns were with lack of long term studies on GMOs, lack of studies on GMOs from unbiased sources, use of persistent toxic pesticides secondary to GMO crops and increase reliance on pesticide use overall. Multiple links to peer-reviewed and independent research addressing these concerns were deleted and removed from the page. (see links at bottom of article). Many commenters started asking why there were so many deleted posts and comments, Stonyfield’s reply was that a “Facebook algorithm” and those in “violation of Facebook’s policies” where what was dictating those actions, and that questioning consumers should take it up with Facebook directly.
So how do Stonyfield’s marketing campaigns and handling of consumers response stack up regarding fact-checking and bias?
Stonyfield’s action in posting the video ad show their willingness to rely on a fear-based message to market their products. Their follow up post, and content on their blog show a consistent trend of misunderstanding, or intentionally dismissing scientific studies regarding GMOs, their safety and the real world use of these products. They instead use misleading and bias information to fuel the general public’s fear as a marketing strategy to increase market share. The reliance on low quality sources with clear conflicts of interest, shows a lack of transparency and objectivity. Their extensive use of deleting and banning outside input, while claiming to welcome a conversation shows a direct attempt to artificially shape the conversation. They continued to show lack of any integrity as they speculated that those who were commenting were “trolls” and not real people. However, in a grassroots movement to counter that claim, a Facebook Group has been collecting the stories of the real people who have been Banned By Stonyfield. You can see the open letter they have written to Stonyfield’s executive team, as well as some of the comments that have been deleted and removed for ‘violating community standards’.
Sources Regarding Stonyfields Claims about GMO’s
No long term and/or independent studies:
- NAS 2016 GMO report
- Statements from over 280 (independent) organizations on GMO crop safety
- Overview of funding sources of GMO research
- NAS 2016 GMO report
- Herbicide use in GMO and nonGMO crops
Toxic Persistent Pesticides are not in use in the US; they have been banned and discontinued for years: https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/persistent-organic-pollutants-global-issue-global-response#domestic
How organic farming and biotechnology can be used together to improve agriculture:
About the Authors
Kasey Morrisey is a proud AGvocate, and daughter of lifelong family farmers. She and her husband live in Texas where she is a Financial Advisor and enjoys gardening, and rock crawling with her husband.
Nicole Keller, DO is a board certified pediatrician and mother of two boys. She lives in Oswego, Illinois on the farm that her husband and their 5th generation farming family grow vegetables on.