Pints that Pack a Punch: A Conversation with Jerry of Ben & Jerry’s

Recently, Earthjustice sat down with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s to talk about ice cream, GE labeling and the inspiration behind the Bernie’s Yearning flavor.

Robert Marschelewski/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /
Recently, Earthjustice sat down with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s to talk about ice cream, GE labeling and the inspiration behind the Bernie’s Yearning flavor. (Robert Marschelewski/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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While 90 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, certain members of Congress want to hide this information from consumers. This past week, the House of Representatives passed a weak GE labeling bill that will nullify stronger state labeling laws—including a GE labeling law passed in Vermont.

The House vote rescinds years of advocacy from consumer groups and businesses in the Green Mountain State, including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Earthjustice is representing Ben & Jerry’s, as well as Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Consumers Union, in defending Vermont’s GE labeling law. 

Recently, I sat down with Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Jerry Greenfield to talk about the importance of GE labeling, the company’s commitment to social responsibility and creating the perfect pint of Bernie Sanders ice cream. 

Jessica Knoblauch: How did you get involved with the issue of GE food and food labeling?

Jerry Greenfield: I got involved mostly when Ben & Jerry’s got involved. That was a couple of years ago, when the issue came into the public consciousness. But Ben & Jerry’s has always supported this idea of transparency in the food system. The company was one of the first to push for labeling of rBHG [a genetically engineered artificial hormone injected into dairy cows]. The company actually had to go to court to label what wasn’t in its product.

Ben & Jerry’s has really good credibility on the GE labeling issue because we’re involved in the food industry and we can refute a lot of what is has been saying, falsely, about how labeling will dramatically increase costs. Currently there’s GE labeling in 64 countries around the world, including in Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. This is not some radical idea. And we decided to join with Earthjustice because we’re up against incredibly well-funded corporations, so having access to talented, smart legal folks is just critical because so often these types of issues get tied up in litigation.

JK: What inspired Ben & Jerry’s to transition to non-GE ingredients in 2015?

JG: From the company’s point of view, it’s a belief that, “Hey, this is what our customers want.” And, though the company isn’t made up of scientists, they do know that the long-term health and environmental impacts of GEs are unknown at this time. There may be times where clearly beneficial GEs are developed, but most of the GE crops used today involve a really heavily increased use of herbicides, particularly glyphosate, which I personally believe has questionable health and environmental impacts.

The other reason why Ben & Jerry’s  moved to using non-GE ingredients is because GEs further support the industrialization of agriculture, and the company has always favored small-scale family farming. We think that, generally speaking,—for farmers, for the environment, for the food system, for everybody—further industrialization of the agriculture system is not the direction we ought to be moving in.

JK: How does Ben & Jerry’s balance its social mission with turning a profit?

JG: Ben & Jerry’s has a three-part mission statement with a product, economic and social mission. All three parts of that mission are equally important—it’s not like you make money and then you figure out how to do this other stuff. We believe that having a social mission, honestly believing in values and being committed to what you believe in is beneficial to the business, in and of itself. People crave that kind of authenticity.

That said, fewer than half of our consumers know that we work on these social issues. For a company that’s been around for 35 years, you’d think that everybody would know, but they don’t! But having such a diverse set of consumers really creates an opportunity for social change. We’re not preaching to the choir. Our list is not Greenpeace’s list. You come to Greenpeace because you give a sh*t about whales or climate change. Our people come to us because they like cookie dough, so we have this great opportunity to reach a broad set of people who might not otherwise be engaged on these issues.

JK: How do you choose which social issues to get involved with? 

JG: I think Ben and I are a little different in this regard. Ben is really issue-oriented. He is really motivated by justice, inequality, fairness—essentially people getting screwed and wanting to stand up to that and make a change. I agree with him on that, and I think I’m also motivated as much by working with particular groups and by relationships with groups.

As for the company, Ben & Jerry’s will have longer-term issues like GE labeling, which it’s been working on for two or three years now, and then it also has annual campaigns. Last year there was a big campaign around climate change. This year it’s around what the company is calling “Democracy Is in Your Hands,” which is about voting rights, voter suppression and voter registration. There’s a flavor that the company has come up with, “Empower Mint,” to support the cause, and it’s working with a few different nonprofits to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

JK: Speaking of progressive issues, cofounder Ben Cohen recently created a Bernie Sanders ice cream flavor—how did that come about?

JG: Ben was personally inspired to create a flavor for Bernie—it’s called “Bernie’s Yearning.” It came out under the label of Ben’s Best, not Ben & Jerry’s, and it’s essentially mint ice cream with a solid disc of chocolate at the top of the pint. The chocolate disc represents all the wealth that has gone to the top 0.1 percent since the end of the last recession. The idea is that to eat it you take your soup spoon and you whack the disc into all these little pieces and then you stir it in and you mix it all around.

JK: What do you say to those who feel that most companies simply can’t afford to push for progressive change?  

The truth is, this is the future of where the food industry is heading. Increasingly, people just want to eat less crap, and they want to feel like they know what’s in the food they’re eating. And I don’t think you’ve got to be a hippy, high-end ice cream company to embrace these values. General Mills, Kellogg’s and Mars have all said that they will comply with Vermont’s GE labeling law. If you can label M&Ms, if you can label potato chips, it sort of pulls the rug out from under those who say this cannot be done.

(Click here to take action by demanding strong and straightforward GMO labeling laws).

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.