The president Ce-Yo of Stonyfield Farm and Keynote Speaker at Natural Products Expo East talks to NFM about environmental awareness, what role big companies have to play in the food system and what local means to him.
Q: You recently spoke at a Slow Money conference—a movement dedicated to supporting local food systems that is not a proponent of big business. How do you see Stonyfield fitting in?
A: One percent of U.S. households make up 90 percent of our sales. That means 3.5 million people are supporting local food systems by buying Stonyfield because 100 percent of our milk comes from organic family farmers. Our goals are the same. The kinds of problems we’re facing in society and on our planet, whether it’s toxicity, the decline of family farmers or genetically modified organisms, require urgent action and need to be done at scale. In other words, we need political power and we need clout. We don’t have time to reinvent capitalism now to reverse climate change. We have a matter of a decade or two to fix this mess, or it’s kind of game over.
Q: What are the roles of big and small companies in relation to food safety?
A: I don’t think any company should be off the hook when it comes to safety. I understand what’s beyond the question—should smaller companies be given some leeway? The reality is, especially if we are talking about the organic food industry, that we need to be vigilant that no shortcuts are taken when it comes to implementing safe and standardized practices for food production. The day someone gets really sick from eating something organic, well, you and I already know what the headline is going to be: “Woman gets sick from organic food.” I don’t think there should be any allowance or tolerance for doing anything less than perfect.
Q: Should bigger companies lead the way when it comes to environmental impact?
A: I don’t believe that what’s critical is the absolute metrics—in other words, how many absolute tons of CO2 you’ve eliminated or reduced. Obviously more is better, but what matters is how you make a difference relative to your scale. That said, I do think there’s an inherent responsibility that comes with scale to do that little bit extra because you can. Larger companies have resources that little folks don’t.
Q: How do you think companies can raise consumer awareness on environmental issues such as soil fertility and agricultural processes?
A: The reality is that you cannot assume that most consumers are interested in this stuff. I go back to my quote [above] that 90 percent of our sales come from 1 percent of the U.S. population. Obviously, that 1 percent does care. We’ve been able to build our business on the strength of them caring. But we’re not achieving our potential or our goals by just selling to that 1 percent. All you can do is be transparent and open about what you are and aren’t doing, and hope that those who are interested take notice.
Q: How do you see local and national businesses working together?
A: Most of us, the so-called larger organic companies, know about being tiny. We were there. Many of my colleagues, people who were early players in the organic-food movement, are on the boards of smaller companies. We also partner with lots of little companies around the country. I think that’s a powerful way to collaborate.
–Interview by Kelsey Blackwell