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Many of you will be familiar with the food producer known as Stonyfield Farms. They have a wide range of organic products, mostly focusing on dairy items. Now, anyone who understands plant and animal breeding knows that selective breeding for preferred genetic traits and naturally occurring mutations have yielded almost all of the plants and animals that we eat today.

But Stonyfield has added a new feature to their use of products of agricultural technology. They are now employing GMOs! I was delighted to see their announcements recently of their new packaging:

Our multipack cups are now made from plants

Here's some material from their website:

As of October 2010, all of our multipack cups are now 93% made from a plant-based plastic.  Previously our multipack cups were made from polystyrene PS #6, so this is a major move away from traditional petroleum-based plastic.

We’re the world’s first dairy company to use plant-based plastic for this kind of packaging.

This is terrific! There is a great deal of opportunity for genetically-modified organisms to yield products that will help us to reduce the use of petrochemicals. Certainly Stonyfield is not the first to make this observation. There was a GreenTech article in the NYTimes last year that offered another look at aspects of this: Recipe for Green Tires: Plants, Not Petroleum.

But this is not a recent phenomenon. Corn on the Catwalk provided a look at the potential for this years ago. And there are a number of different projects in materials science that are looking at alternatives to petroleum.

It was great, though, to see Stonyfield recognize the value in these alternatives. And they got some buzz from this. GreenBiz did a story on them: Lifting the Lid on Stonyfield's New Plant-Based Packaging, where they describe it as:

First, the basics. Stonyfield's new cup -- now being used in its multipack Yo-Baby products and a few others -- replaces polystyrene with a plant-based plastic called polylactic acid, or PLA. Essentially, it's a plastic made from corn....

The cups offer a number of advantages. Aside from the obvious -- substituting plants for petroleum -- PLA uses less energy and releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions than polystyrene over its lifecycle.

PLA is made from corn, which captures carbon as it grows, so PLA releases 48 percent less carbon into the atmosphere than polystyrene does from cradle to grave. For Stonyfield's 200 million-odd cups that translates to reducing its carbon footprint by 1,875 metric tons a year. That's no small number, since packaging represents Stonyfield's second-largest carbon footprint, after cows.

Those are a lot of reductions, in an important component of Stonyfield's operations.

Some people may be critical of this, however, because this relies on GMO corn. And this is one of the unfortunate realizations that many environmentalists are going to have to come to terms with. There are many environmental benefits of GMOs {emphasis mine}:

One key finding is that the amount of land required to grow a certain amount of food has fallen. Because of yield gains, for example, it now takes 37% less land to grow a bushel of corn than it did in 1987. In addition, the rate of soil loss per amount of grain or cotton grown has declined between 30% and 70%. This is due mainly to the adoption of no-till farming, in which the fields are not plowed multiple times for weed control. Less plowing means less soil blows or washes away.

The analysis, led by agronomist Stewart Ramsey of the consulting firm Global Insight, also finds that the amount of energy spent on farming has fallen by 40% to 60%, probably because farmers who plant genetically modified crops are driving tractors less frequently to spray pesticides and herbicides. Irrigated water use dropped by 20% to 50%, the report found, and carbon emissions fell by about 30%.

But let's also look at another material--cotton: Genetic Engineering for Good:

It’s an example of how genetic engineering has accomplished exactly what many environmentalists and organic farmers want, Ronald says. Genetically modified cotton is a prime example. Little more than a decade ago, farmers in China started using "Bt cotton," a genetically engineered variety containing a protein that kills pests but is not toxic to mammals. (The Bt protein is a favorite insecticide among organic farmers.) Within four years, the Chinese cotton farmers reduced their annual use of poisonous insecticides by 70,000 metric tons—almost as much as is used in all of California each year.

I know a lot of people are critical of these things. But here's what I support--just to be clear:

  • Alternatives to petroleum products for packaging and materials

  • Increases in yield, so that less land is converted to farms

  • Reduced energy used in driving tractors

  • Reduced water usage

  • Reduced pesticide use

  • Improved farmer health due to reductions in pesticides.

I know some of these things aren't pure enough for some people. Stonyfield has chosen to assuage their guilt around these things by purchasing offsets.  I'm not really a fan of offsets, they seem like Papal indulgences to me in general. But in this case science I don't really see the sin involved in the first place, I think it's fine for them to do that.

So on your next purchase of Stonyfield farms products, I just want you to know that you are making an environmentally sound choice. You are choosing GMOs! Enjoy.

Oh, and one final note about this: China is making many advances in agricultural technology, and stands to gain quite a bit if we erect barriers to that here in the US. Conveniently for us Europe is behind on this right now, but if we stand still or move backwards this is another area where we can get left behind. I hope that won't be the case.

Originally posted to mem from somerville on Sun Jan 23, 2011 at 07:40 AM PST.

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