This month General Mills announced that it would begin labeling its flagship product, the breakfast cereal Cheerios, as containing no ingredients from GMOs (genetically modified organisms), by which the company means crop plants bred with modern bioengineering techniques.
The Jan. 2 announcement came three months after activist group Green America launched a "No GMOs, Cheerios!" petition campaign online, although the company says its decision was made because it thinks "consumers may embrace it."
Whatever the motivation, General Mills may find that its move will neither catch on with "natural foods" devotees—who are unlikely to choose a highly processed, nonorganic breakfast food—nor silence antitechnology activists. The company may also have put itself in a legally awkward position.
General Mills's decision will require "a significant investment," according to a company spokesman, even though the bioengineered cornstarch and beet sugar in Cheerios make up a tiny fraction of its ingredients. The increased costs are a function of the difficulty of finding non-bioengineered sources of corn and sugar, and of maintaining a paper trail to document those sources. The company says it won't remove bioengineered ingredients from Honey Nut or Apple Cinnamon Cheerios or its other well-known brands.
Some consumers may opt for "GMO-free" products if the price is right. Still, it's an open question how many will pay the inflated prices necessary to remove the far less expensive bioengineered ingredients. In any event, General Mills received no applause from critics. Wired Magazine's Marcus Wholsen called the company's announcement "an elegant piece of corporate doublespeak that's completely devoid of substance." Mark Bittman, the New York Times's resident food Luddite, dismissed General Mills as "opportunistic marketers," and its new Cheerios label as "meaningless."
The product reformulation has also emboldened, not appeased, antitechnology activists. In a press release on the day of the company's announcement, Green America said the company's move is merely "the first step for General Mills." Having smelled blood in the water, the sharks are now circling—and that may be the least of General Mills's worries.
Humans have engaged in substantial "genetic modification" of food for millennia. Those techniques have included the use of radiation and chemical mutagens to scramble a plant's DNA. This has yielded thousands of new varieties, including Ruby Red grapefruit and most of the durum wheat varieties used to make pasta.
Long before the advent of modern bioengineering, scientists figured out how to forcibly mate plants from different species or genera in a way that cannot happen in nature. This "wide cross" hybridization involves the movement of thousands of unknown and untested "alien" genes that could unintentionally introduce toxins, allergens or carcinogens into the food supply.
What makes modern bioengineering unique is its greater precision and thus the greater predictability and safety of the resulting varieties. Toxins and undesirable properties (such as greater susceptibility to pests) have been inadvertently introduced into marketed products by conventional genetic modification techniques. Examples include two documented cases each of toxic potatoes and squash bred with simple hybridization. But no such harmful or unintended effects have ever occurred—and are far less likely to occur—with bioengineering. Study after study, as well as real-world observations by academics and government agencies, has confirmed the safety of the technology.
General Mills has said that its label will indicate that Cheerios are not "made with genetically modified ingredients." Yet essentially all oat varieties now planted commercially have been genetically modified in some way. Decades ago, breeders genetically modified oats using wide crosses between cultivated varieties and a number of different wild plants. Today's commercially planted varieties are almost all derived from those wide-cross lines.
A 2001 Food and Drug Administration guidance document warns against using terms like "not genetically modified" or "GMO free," because " 'genetic modification' means the alteration of the genotype of a plant using any technique, new or traditional," and "consumers do not have a good understanding that essentially all food crops have been genetically modified." Thus, according to the FDA, changing the Cheerios label to say, "Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients," with no further context, would be inaccurate, or at least misleading. That would make the product "misbranded," and selling it would violate federal law.
Although so-called GMOs and ingredients derived from them don't constitute a "category" of food products, antitechnology activists have seized on the term "genetically modified" because they know it conjures up lurid if inaccurate images of "Frankenfood" and "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."
General Mills should have known better than to try to appease critics who refuse to operate in good faith. It has chosen a course guaranteed to raise its costs with little if any benefit, embolden antitechnology activists, and put itself in potential legal jeopardy. Company executives should have eaten their Wheaties.