What Patagonia Gets Wrong About Sustainable Food

It’s time for the company to accept that GMOs can be part of the solution.

Still from Unbroken Ground.
Still from Unbroken Ground.

Screenshot via Patagonia

Outdoor gear giant Patagonia has a long history of effectively (if bizarrely) pairing environmentalism with commerce—its famous “don’t buy this jacket” campaign led into two years of increased annual sales. One of their more recent ventures is a sustainable food line, which it officially launched in the fall of 2013. Patagonia Provisions released the short film Unbroken Ground this spring to explain why the company finds this endeavor a worthy cause. I watched it at the company’s Georgetown store in late June. Viewers sipped complimentary beer and munched on sockeye salmon summer rolls and chocolate-dipped fruit and almond-bar bites, all items the company sells and touts for their sustainability. In the film, free-range buffalo graze before becoming buffalo jerky, scientists develop a perennial wheat to improve soil quality, and a Pacific Northwest fishery catches salmon sustainably with reef nets. The film is more than just a profile of Patagonia’s food producers: In Unbroken Ground, Patagonia tells us that in order to solve the environmental crises looming ahead, we must return to traditional farm and fishing methods like restorative grazing, traditional crop breeding, and selective harvest fishing.

What’s missing from the film, and the argument, is the fact that there’s already a solution to practically every food issue shown—they just rely on genetic modification. Genetically engineered salmon are a sustainable alternative to diminishing wild salmon stocks. Genetically modified crops already require less pesticides and tillage. Ranchers in hot climates may even be able to raise GMO cattle. After the film, in addressing a question about whether the wheat discussed was genetically modified, Birgit Cameron, director of Patagonia Provisions, obliquely referenced the vague idea that while science may offer us many solutions, we don’t need to use them all.

In fact, Patagonia is opposed to genetic modification, though you might not know it from the movie. The company has opposed GMOs for more than a decade, donating to groups like GMO Free USA and the Center for Food Safety, questioning the safety of GMO foods (in spite of the scientific consensus), and publicly campaigning for labeling GMOs. Patagonia’s unfounded stance on GMOs means Unbroken Ground and its food-based solutions to climate change are missing a powerful and necessary tool. This is bizarre, because most of Unbroken Ground is firmly grounded in and accepting of science.

For example, the film shows researchers at the Washington State University’s Bread Lab and the Land Institute in Kansas working to improve crops like wheat via selective breeding. At the Land Institute, scientists have been working with traditional crop breeding methods for more than a decade to develop Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass that improves soil quality by requiring less tillage and pesticides. But genetically modified crops like Bt corn already offer these advantages. It’s baffling that Patagonia would champion one method of crop breeding while publicly campaigning against another. Both methods work, and both methods are forms of genetic modification. By favoring one over the other, Patagonia is supporting the incorrect idea that there’s something wrong with genetic modification. But by leaving aggressively anti-GMO messaging out of the film, it bypasses the need to justify its position, perhaps because it knows it can’t.

Unbroken Ground also warns us about the problem of dwindling salmon populations—according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, salmon stocks in California and the Pacific Northwest are endangered. Patagonia’s answer is to source salmon sustainably from fisheries that use a traditional method called reefnet fishing. This is certainly sustainable, but it is not the only option—genetically engineered salmon offers a similarly sustainable solution and potentially on a much broader scale. GE salmon raised on farms have been bred to grow more quickly, reducing the time to market from 3 years to just 18 months. That means producers can grow more fish faster, offering a real alternative to wild salmon. But most anti-GMO advocates oppose GE salmon, citing health concerns and fears the fish could escape and breed with wild salmon populations. Those concerns don’t hold up. The Food and Drug Administration has stated GE salmon are as safe as conventional salmon. The fish are sterile and bred in tanks on land so there’s no risk of escape. If the company is going to keep peddling salmon as a food we should consume regularly, it should at least acknowledge that there are other safe means of procuring it.

By glossing over Patagonia’s anti-GMO stance, the film does a disservice to consumers. The scientific community has pushed back hard against anti-GMO activists in recent years, calling their position anti-science—perhaps this is why Unbroken Ground steered clear of mentioning GMOs. (OK, to be entirely accurate, it references GMOs twice, both times to clarify that the wheat grown by the Bread Lab is not genetically modified.) If the film had been aggressively anti-GMO, backlash would have been expected—by not mentioning it, they can avoid such criticism. When asked directly, Unbroken Ground filmmaker Chris Malloy said that the story of GMOs has already been told. “Knowing the vast majority of our audience understands the basic impacts of GMOs, we wanted to pick up where that story leaves off,” he wrote in an email. “This film gives examples of where we go as a species while we hope for GMOs to go away.”

But if anything, recent evidence suggests that even the movement against GMOs realizes they are not going away. At the end of June, 110 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter to Greenpeace (one of the most active anti-GMO organizations globally) asking the organization to reconsider its opposition to GMOs. Last week, the Senate passed a GMO labeling bill to preempt laws in states like Vermont that would require prominent GMO labels. When the bill passed, longtime opponents like Just Label It and the Organic Trade Association broke rank and supported the legislation.

Perhaps we should take Unbroken Ground’s deflection on GMOs as a sign that Patagonia may soon pivot on the issue. It would be high time—whether Patagonia says so or not, we can’t address the crises of climate change without GMOs, and there’s no good reason why we have to.