Chicago retailer Marshall Field famously said, “Give the lady what she wants.” A related axiom is “The customer is always right.” Here’s more good business advice: “Don’t insult your customers” and “Play it straight with consumers.”

By these standards, America’s farmers would not make a very good retailer. They insult a buyer of raw milk. They misrepresent what their customer is doing. And they are tone-deaf to the wants of the food-buying public.

The farmers in question are a coalition of six associations, including the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents dairy farmers. In October, the coalition had what I can only describe as a hissy fit. Released with much fanfare, its letter to the president of The Dannon Co. accused the yogurt maker of engaging in “marketing flimflam.”

What triggered that accusation? It was Dannon’s pledge in April to remove genetically modified ingredients from three brands: Dannon, Oikos and Danimals.

This is an “attack on the livelihood and integrity of our farmers,” huffed the six heads of farmer organizations in a letter to Mariano Lozano, Dannon’s president. In addition to National Milk, the others  signing the poison pen letter were the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the National Corn Growers Association and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers’ Alliance.

A two-way street for buyers and sellers

“Your pledge would force farmers to abandon safe, sustainable farming practices,” they wrote.

Of course, Dannon has done no such thing. The yogurt maker is not forcing any farmer to do anything it does not want to do. A partnership is a two-way street. Each party can agree to do business with the other. Or not.

Because the farmers alliance cites “The Dannon Pledge” in its letter, I assume the farmers had read it. So I can only conclude that they willfully misrepresented Dannon’s intentions.

Their real objective is to defend their use of genetically modified organisms. And I don’t fault them for that. But they lost the public relations battle over GMOs with the public so they decided to make Dannon their personal punching bag.

Here’s the deal: Consumers want clean food. They want to know how crops are raised, the country of origin and how animals are cared for. They want transparency in labeling. Some consumers just want the use of GMOs to be noted on the label. Others definitely are against all foods made with genetically modified organisms.

Unilever, Nestle heed consumers' calls

Unilever and Nestle, two multinational food and dairy processors far larger than Dannon, also are making products without GM ingredients. They say they recognize that consumers want such products. Neither questions the science of genetic engineering. Here’s Unilever: “We believe that these GM crops are as safe as their traditional counterparts.” Nestle’s point of view is “foods made with GMO ingredients are as safe as foods made with ingredients from conventional crops.” Dannon’s stance regarding GMO crops is “we believe the currently approved GMOs are safe.”

That’s why farmers are being dishonest when they say food companies are anti-technology. Here’s Wesley Spurlock, president of the National Corn Growers Association: “Despite overwhelming evidence supporting the safety of GMO crops and their benefits to the environment, marketers of some major food brands, such as Dannon, have aligned themselves against biotechnology.”

Dannon and other food makers have done no such thing. They are making products that consumers say they want.

So what’s in Dannon’s pledge? The company states: “We are committed to using novel ways of working that allow us to be better stewards of our environment and the food we produce. We will continue to monitor and study the evolution of best practices in sustainable agriculture.” Dannon promises to work with farmers to improve biodiversity, soil health and water usage.

Growing preference for non-GMO ingredients

In answering the farmers’ charges, Dannon replied, “we believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs. However, we believe there is growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients and food in the U.S. and we want to use the strong relationships we have with our farmer partners to provide products that address this consumer demand. The changes we will make will enable consumers to make everyday choices for themselves, their family and children consistent with their wish for more natural and sustainable eating options, choosing which agricultural and environmental model they favor.”

Farmers are spreading something of their own

Spurlock of the National Corn Growers Association said, “Farming organizations believe in open and honest communication with consumers, and allowing people to make informed choices in the market.  But we cannot sit by while certain food companies spread misinformation under the guise of a marketing campaign.”

The association president should re-read his quote about “honest communication” and follow his own advice.

Editor's note: Read a rebuttal to this column. "Dairy farmer responds to Dairy Foods editorial."