Stonyfield new packaging program funds non-GMO corn production

Stonyfield Farms recently introduced a new yogurt cup made from corn-based plastic. A unique aspect in the manufacturing of the new cup is that Stonyfield contracts Iowa corn farmers to grow non-genetically modified corn as part of a “GMO-offset.”

Looked for more sustainable packaging

Speaking at Natural Products Expo East in Boston last October, Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield’s vice president of Natural Resources, said her company wanted to get away from polystyrene plastics and find a more sustainable packaging.

At first she resisted the idea of corn-based plastics, called polylactic acid or PLA, because of the unsustainability of corn production. “We’re aware of the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico caused by excess nitrogen from corn production,” Hirshberg said.

Then, Hirshberg learned about a program called Working Landscape Certificates (WLC) developed by the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). WLC rewards farmers by linking sustainable corn production with bioplastics. Through the purchase of WLCs, Stonyfield could provide support for more sustainable—and non-GMO—corn production on over 500 acres in Iowa.

Supports farmers who want to grow more sustainably

The Working Landscapes Certificates program was created by IATP to address a core issue: linking the emerging biobased market to more sustainable farming. Bioplastics, which are currently made from corn, provide a more environmentally sound alternative to petroleum plastics if they support sustainability goals throughout their production, use and disposal. Currently, however, direct sourcing of more sustainably produced feedstock crops for the production of bioplastics is logistically and financially difficult. So the WLC program provides an alternative mechanism for companies like Stonyfield to support farmers who want to grow corn more sustainably.

“This innovative, market-based mechanism allows companies to link their purchase of bioplastics to support for more sustainable crop production locally,” says Jim Klein­schmit of IATP, who heads the WLC project.

GMO offset”

To be eligible for the WLC program, farmers agree to undertake certain production practices, including: planting only non-GMO seed varieties; excluding the use of atrazine and carcinogenic chemicals; and using soil fertility testing and residue management to avoid soil erosion and water quality issues.

Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield’s chief executive officer, describes the program as a “GMO-offset” because it takes 500 acres of GM corn out of production.

But the non-GMO corn grown by the Iowa farmers is not used to make Stonyfield’s cup. The cup is made at a Nebraska facility owned by NatureWorks, LLC, a subsidiary of Cargill; the facility is not designed to segregate non-GMO corn from the vast volumes of corn, which are predominantly GM, that are used to make PLA plastic.

All Stonyfield Farm multipack yogurt cups are made from PLA plastic.

Hirshberg says the cup cuts carbon emissions by nearly half (48%).

“Plant-based plastic is already better for the planet than polystyrene because it produces lower carbon emissions and requires less fossil fuel to make,” Hirshberg says.

She admits PLA is not a perfect solution—it is not currently recyclable or compostable—but “one step along Stonyfield’s journey” to greater sustainability.

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, December/January 2011)