For grocery shoppers who want to avoid genetically engineered ingredients, the only milk they can buy is organic — usually the most expensive option. A gallon of organic milk from Petaluma’s Clover Stornetta Farms, which comes from cows given non-GMO feed, costs upwards of $8. But with its newest product, Clover is betting that there is also a market for conventional milk produced without GMOs that is cheaper than organic milk.
“Our primary constituency group is moms buying milk for their children,” said Marcus Benedetti, president and chief executive officer of his family’s $200 million company, which will be the first major dairy in the United States to sell non-GMO conventional milk.
“The organic premium is just too much for a lot of families to sustain, but they want something more than the generic conventional milk that’s out there.”
Benedetti won’t say exactly how much the new non-GMO milk will cost consumers who are worried about GMOs’ unknown health and environmental risks. The new milk will be released early next year, and will cost no more than 25 cents extra per gallon, Benedetti said. The company will also absorb the extra cost to farmers who have to get new sources of feed for their cows and will have to follow strict guidelines from the Non-GMO Project, which certifies the label.
To be certified organic, milk must come from cows that are given non-GMO, organic feed and that aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics. On the other hand, conventional milk can come from cows treated with antibiotics and growth hormones; their standard feed is made of genetically engineered grain, a result of the fact that around 90 percent of corn and 93 percent of soy grown in the United States comes from genetically modified seed.
Though accessing non-GMO feed isn’t that easy, Benedetti said his farmers already have contracts in place for primarily U.S.-grown feed sources with their West Coast suppliers, who previously sent most of their non-GMO feed to Japanese dairy farmers.
BY TARA DUGGAN
“Our hope is as we grow that base of non-GMO feed we can change the industry and ultimately the cost will go down,” said Benedettiwhose dairy counts milk as 75 percent of its business, half of that organic and half conventional. The new non-GMO milk will take the place of its conventional brand, and be sold alongside its organic option.
Interest in non-GMO foods is expected to increase by 15 percent by 2019, according to market researcher Packaged Facts. Over the past year, many national food brands, including Campbell Soup Co. and General Mills, announced they would add GMO labeling to their products. Some are removing genetically engineered ingredients altogether. The trend has spread to dairy products, too; next year, Dannon will begin transitioning to non-GMO milk for some of its yogurt brands, including Danimals and Oikos.
“If the dairy case is any indication, and if all the other non-GMO products are any indication, it will find a market,” she said. The example of Dannon is a good one, because it’s only taking some of its smaller lines non-GMO. “It’s a way to keep up with ever-changing consumer demands. It seems to be something that’s viable in dairy.”
California has the largest dairy industry in the United States, with total milk production at around 41 billion pounds in 2015, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. A California Milk Advisory Board study showed that in 2014, California milk production and processing added up to $65 billion in total sales in the state.
But prices to farmers have dipped a lot since that bumper year, by 36 percent from June 2014 to June 2016. Benedetti said Clover already pays a premium to its 28 dairy farmers, because of the other extra things they do — such as not using the growth hormone rBST, getting certification from American Humane Association and working with an independent auditor to check milk quality.
The World Health Organization, National Academy of Sciences and American Medical Association are among the leading international scientific institutions that say the GMO foods on the market are safe to eat. However, new products like non-GMO certified milk provide another option for shoppers concerned about GMOs’ safety.
“I don’t necessarily think you’re going to switch those that are your core organic consumers,” said Dorland. But “those who go back and forth between organic and conventional from time to time — they may find some appeal with the conventional, non-GMO product.”