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(Adds comments from Dannon in paragraphs 7-8, background throughout)
By Chris Prentice
NEW YORK, Oct 17 (Reuters) - A coalition of farmers slammed Danone SA's U.S. subsidiary on Monday for marketing new products made without genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs, as supporting sustainable agriculture.
In a letter to The Dannon Co head Mariano Lozano, groups representing ranchers, beet sugar, corn, soybean and dairy farmers said the marketing misleads consumers about genetically engineered ingredients, which can boost sustainability by reducing the need for pesticides and water.
The farmers' letter represents one of the most coordinated moves yet by farmers to fight a wave of food companies including Hershey Co and General Mills Inc that have shunned GMO ingredients in some of their products.
Dannon went a step further than other companies when it said in April it would transition all of the feed for its farmers' cows to non-GMO within three years as it moved to use non-GMO ingredients in three of its brands.
The company's pledge will force farmers to take a "step backward in truly sustainable food production," groups including the National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation and American Sugarbeet Growers Association said in the letter.
Randy Mooney, chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation, and a dairy farmer from Rogersville, Missouri, said Dannon's push was "marketing puffery."
A Dannon spokesman said the statements were unfounded.
"We believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs," the company said in a statement, but said that it wants to work with farmers to meet growing consumer demand for non-GMO ingredients.
Farmers are worried that the yogurt maker's move to use milk from cows that haven't eaten GMO crops may spark a trend, one that may prove costly for farmers at a time of low prices for commodities like milk.
Major U.S. crops like corn and soybeans have been genetically engineered to introduce traits like resistance to insects and pesticides. Debate over GMOs heated up this year as lawmakers moved to make labeling of the ingredients mandatory, pressed by consumer advocates.
The letter comes as industry members await a rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a new national labeling standard for GMO ingredients, one that will likely include what exactly constitutes a genetically engineered ingredient.
Farmers previously pushed back on Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc for advertising of its non-GMO ingredients and fought hard against efforts by states including Vermont to introduce mandatory labels, saying it stigmatizes the ingredients. (Reporting by Chris Prentice; Additional reporting by Tom Polansek and Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Andrew Hay and Cynthia Osterman)