John Roulac exudes a weather-beaten, albeit well-polished, flower child image. The founder, CEO and face of Nutiva, named one of Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing food companies in America for five consecutive years, reportedly forgoes designer watches and high-end shoes, instead opting for a more modest lifestyle of hiking, traveling, and soaking in natural hot springs. Yet he heads up the largest organic superfoods company in the world, with growth supposedly projected at $1 billion by 2025.
Roulac seems composed of equal parts tree-hugger, nutrition buff, and business mogul, capable of charming money out of pockets, and coaxing Nutiva’s pricey organic coconut oil into smoothies, with a pinch of Nutiva’s organic chia seeds on top.
And it’s easy to see why. A corporation whose revenue hit just under $70 million in 2013 and boasted a massive and steady 482% three-year growth, Nutiva knows how to tap into its demographic with buzz words like “revolutionize”, “sustainability”, “community”, “superfoods” and phrases like “we can change the world” and “food doesn’t have to be a choice between the lesser of evils” in its “Mini-festo.”
These very marketable phrases reflect the values of none other than Roulac himself, known as “The Rou” among biotechnology proponents. A self-styled advocate for healthy people and ecosystems, his company goes as far as calling itself “champions of the greater good.” But do these lofty words translate to real-life action? Is there another side to Roulac, and Nutiva, that the public is not yet aware of?
John Roulac appears to walk the philanthropic talk as co-chair and founder of another organization called GMO Inside. Brandishing its powerful slogan, “Getting GMOs and toxins out of our food,” GMO Inside purports to help Americans “know which foods have GMO inside,” presumably to enable them to fear avoid genetically engineered products. GMO Inside also lobbies aggressively for mandatory GMO labeling initiatives throughout the U.S., and mobilizes its throng of social media followers to intimidate companies from Starbucks to General Mills to drop products containing genetically engineered ingredients, or even to stop using products like milk, which isn’t itself genetically modified but comes from cows fed GM crops. Roulac himself helps fund GMO Inside’s initiatives. And remember, GMO Inside was founded by its co-chair John Roulac himself, hand in hand with members of its “steering committee” including Nutiva, Food Babe, and other organic and natural food proponents and companies who charge their customers a premium for nothing more than a marketing-manufactured good feeling.
Social media maven, or can’t stand the heat?
While the savvy business man loathes genetic engineering technology, he embraces the lightning-fast communication the internet enables. The Rou himself, CEO and founder of a company projected to grow to a mind-boggling billion dollar behemoth by 2025 (incidentally also the year the earth’s populated is slated to grow to 9 billion mouths to feed) isn’t above hitting the social media trenches.
“Today, every corporation is translucent,” John Roulac told Smart Business Magazine. “How you handle a Twitter exchange with a dissatisfied customer or what people say about your company on Glassdoor matters. Companies need to be aware of what people are saying and respond appropriately.”
Apparently, the Rou thinks spreading unfounded accusations and bad science straight from a company’s founder and CEO is “appropriate.” Just last week, he stepped into the ring with me and other science advocates on GMO Inside’s Facebook page in a conversation about organic milk, and the ongoing, unsuccessful campaign pressuring Starbucks to switch to organic milk. GMO Inside deleted the thread when Roulac could no longer handle the heat, but fortunately the internet is forever. See the majority of the now-deleted thread here; it reveals a telling story. Some highlights are below:
Opinions matter when an issue is subjective, but this isn’t such an instance. Roulac’s claim that Roundup is “now in mothers’ breast milk” is based in bad science, if we can even call it science. Presumably, he is referring to this “pilot study” from Sustainable Pulse and Moms Across America. The data from a paltry ten self-collected breastmilk samples, from which they concluded that three mothers had “detectable levels of glyphosate in their breast milk,” is misleading. As Academics Review explains, “[H]igh in this case means measurable above the lower limit of detection rather than high meaning a cause for alarm. The highest of these 3 samples, if real, contained glyphosate at levels that represent a worst-case infant exposure (33 ug/kg/day) more than 50-fold below the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) set by US EPA regulatory toxicologists (1750 ug/kg). The ADI is set to provide a wide margin of safety of exposure.”
After gish galloping a little more, Roulac pulled the shill card at the end of the comment above, so I posed the following question, among others. (A “gish gallop” is a debate technique in which a large number of small arguments are made with the intention to confuse and distract from the main argument):
After a few other participants made interesting and relevant points (again, the full thread is archived here), John Roulac wrote a long, and unbelievably inflammatory comment (the person in pink is one of the other commenters in the thread):
First in his massive gish gallop, Roulac brings up one of my regular co-authors and mentor, Dr. Henry Miller. As I’ve written, I would certainly balk at Dr. Miller’s motives if he truly were a tobacco industry ally, but I know better. Dr. Henry Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has already responded to these accusations. “As a physician, I detest cigarettes and the carnage wrought by smoking,” he wrote in 2012. “In fact, I have written about the urgent need for government policies to reduce the risk from cigarettes.” Those who have claimed that Miller is a tobacco industry ally haven’t produced evidence. Still, Roulac’s claim is beside the point.
Next, he asks whether I “even science climate” followed by spouting misinformation about organic agriculture being better for the climate. He condemns various modern agricultural practices, trying to blame anything and everything but organic farming for global warming. The truth is, genetic engineering enables practices like low and no-till farming, which helps fight climate change by reducing fertilizer use, better carbon sequestration, and reduced fuel-consumption among others. It also reduces runoff of agricultural chemicals into our waterways.
But the pièce de résistance of Roulac’s lengthy comment is his accusation that science advocates like me are “science shilling” for a “toxic system,” with a you’re-depriving-your-children-of-oxygen cherry on top. The Rou himself, an organic superfood mogul who presumably shells out from his own pocket to fund GMO Inside to demonize non-organic food calling little old me a “science shill”? Color me flabbergasted. (Admittedly, we can’t be sure about funding because Roulac failed to answer questions about finances, and GMO Inside’s financial statements aren’t readily-available).
While we know that organic milk is really no healthier than conventionally-produced milk though it comes at a hefty price difference, I assumed for the sake of argument that organic is healthier in the comment pictured below. After all, the original discussion thread happened on GMO Inside’s post imploring followers to ask Starbucks to serve only organic milk. Here is the million dollar question:
If Roulac truly cared about nutrition and health as he asserted in his previous comment, Starbucks wouldn’t be the company to hound. He and his fellow activists should go after the entire dairy industry, and after grocery chains. I wish he’d answered the question, but instead of answering or letting John Roulac respond, GMO Inside deleted the entire thread, and banned all of the participants from commenting on their page. So much for transparency. For now, I’ll presume that my assumption was correct, that GMO Inside, Roulac, Food Babe, and the like target Starbucks because of the attention to be gained.
It takes barely a scratch below the surface to realize that Roulac and Nutiva demonize corporations in the name of health and environmentalism to fuel their own colossal growth in the name of, well, health and environmentalism. But this earthy altruism is a subterfuge. Its circular trajectory is based in hypocrisy and hype, not fact. Just last week, the Rou himself shared Nutiva’s “Real Food Manifesto,” on his Facebook page. Number three on that manifesto is “GMOs begone, label our food because we have a right to know.”
But this “right to know” trope is a ploy, originating from organic industry leaders who stand to gain handsomely by demonizing foods genetically engineered using molecular techniques. Through Nutiva, Roulac and organic and natural food companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods (which is a major carrier of Nutiva products) wave this flag in the name of “rights.” The proclamation begins on high from Big Organic, and trickles down to frightened anti-GMO activists demanding the right to know what’s in their food. With strategically-planted visions of syringe-laden produce dancing menacingly in their heads consumers wonder, “why not just label it?”
But the labeling call is mired in ideology and like other biotechnology opponents, the real motivation behind the “right to know” rallying cry is to ultimately eliminate GE foods, not just to label them to enable consumer choice. After all, when armed with fear disguised as information, those with the most purchasing power (read: privilege) will avoid foods with the labels that GMO Inside advocates. And Nutiva puts its money where its mouth is, making hefty donations to push GMO labeling propositions like Prop 37, as well as producing anti-GMO videos.
When asked about Nutiva’s end goal in a 2013 SFGate feature, John Roulac answered, “To see Monsanto bankrupt. We would like to create an organic, non-GMO world, even if customers go elsewhere to buy it. If they want to buy it from us, that’s great, too. But we have plenty of business. The important thing is to change the supply chain and make it more organic and more healthful.” How nice of you, dear Rou! You really care about the earth and our health. Not only do you want to eliminate genetic engineering technology to protect us, you don’t even mind if customers buy organics from other companies.
It truly seems heartwarming and altruistic, but it’s not. The hefty weight of scientific evidence shows that an organic, GE-free world cannot nourish its growing population nor preserve the environment. Is it heartwarming to fear monger and strive to eliminate beneficial technologies in the name of profit, at the expense of human health, hunger, and the Earth’s resources? A 2014 PLOS One study showed that genetic engineering has increased crop yields by 22 percent, reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. And this isn’t just number-dressing, but the result of the gold standard of study types, the meta-analysis. Meta-analyses combine results from multiple studies to glean patterns and meaningful information. This one aggregated data from no less than 147 original studies. In addition, we know that usage of several herbicides has dropped since the adoption of modern agricultural methods, as this article from the Credible Hulk shows. Further, unless we believe in conspiracy theories, we know that GE varieties and the agricultural chemicals that Roulac and Nutiva demonize are safe and beneficial for both humans and the earth when used properly.
Every single scientific oversight body in the entire world agrees, and to deny that is no better than paranoia. We also know that as a set of tools in a larger agricultural toolbox, genetic engineering can mitigate problems of water shortages during drought, micronutrient deficiencies that have already claimed over 1.4 million life years, food wastage, allergenicity, and more.
But anti-biotech bigwigs couldn’t possibly openly agree with overwhelming scientific evidence, because it would hurt their bottom line. Instead, they fear monger and promote conspiracy theories in the name of health and the environment, call science advocates shills, and accuse us of causing death and destruction.
Though John Roulac seemingly could not hold his own this time around, I’ll extend the same courtesy I offer all biotech and mainstream science opponents: Please engage with me and other genetic engineering advocates. We’re all happy to dialogue, in public, and in any forum of your choosing.
Featured image via Nutiva