|CC photo of Cheerios breakfast cereal by Live4Soccer (L4S) on Flickr|
For a company which has spent almost $2 million to keep GMO labels off its products, the initiative seems contradictory. By its own admission, it took a year and “required significant (but unspecified) investment”, and was only possible because Original Cheerios contain very small proportions of sugar and corn-starch (both derived largely from GMOs in America). The other eleven varieties of Cheerios would be “difficult if not impossible” to produce without GM ingredients (General Mills spokesman).
The underlying motive or motives for the move aren't straightforward, and a stream of theories has emerged.
General Mills' stated reason is “response to consumer demand” and because (somewhat contradicting the last reason) “we think consumers may embrace it”. Hopefully, this is a sign that the rising level of awareness of American consumers to concerns about GM food safety is being recognised.
But, the story can't be that simple. Why, for example, only Original Cheerios?
Since all varieties of Cheerios are sold in the EU where they are made with conventional ingredients, the non-GM supply mechanisms are in place. Also, there are increasing numbers of US farmers who would happily climb off the GM treadmill if a company the size of General Mills guaranteed them a market. Achieving GM-free Cheerios of all kinds would take time but is not “impossible”.
Could the non-GM Original Cheerios be an experiment? A toe in the water to test the possibility of increasing sales and increasing revenues from a 'value-added' product? The non-GM food market is forecast to grow 13 per cent annually, to reach 30 per cent of food sales by 2017. This could make the reformulation the first in a roll-out of non-GM products.
Note. It seems there may be a counter-experiment going on the UK. Reports are coming in that various 'Lucky Charm' cereal products (complete with Tartrazine, Sunset Yellow, Brilliant Blue and Allura Red as well as GM maize) aimed at children are appearing on Tesco’s shelves.
A more sceptical view is that General Mills is part of a wider industry plot to pre-empt binding labelling regulations with its own voluntary (easily adapted, and easily corrupted) unverified (cheap and unreliable) version of 'non-GM' products.
The fact that Original Cheerios are often the first solid food fed to babies, coupled to the increasing GM safety concerns may have something to do with the move. Litigation and damage to its reputation could bring even a giant, solid, brand-leader like General Mills to its knees.
Maybe relevant and maybe not, the move to non-GM Cheerios happened at the end of a year-long campaign by GMO Inside (action arm of the national non-profit organisation, Green America). Tactics included spelling out anti-GMO messages on an app put out by Cheerios, issuing a corporate responsibility report on General Mills, putting out a video highlighting the GMO content in Cheerios, and persuading over 25,000 people to take part in e-mail actions.
General Mills may have been looking the opposite direction while all this pressure was being applied, but it can't have missed the negative public opinion behind the campaign, nor the fact that a lot of US citizens are watching very closely what it does.
Only time will tell where non-GM Cheerios will take America. If you have friends or relatives in the US, they might like to help shape Generals Mills' non-GM agenda with a bit of prodding of their own. For example, they might let it be known that they will choose to distrust the company unless it joins a third-party verification scheme to reassure its customers.
Assuming our information is correct, and to satisfy the more extreme conspiracy theorists, the wording of the label is interesting. Americans use the term “genetic engineering” or “GE”. The past corruption of this description into the easily mis-applied, water-muddying, term “genetic modification” or “GM” seems to have been put in place by Tony Blair in the 1990s when Westminster was trying to play down concerns about the new products. Why would General Mills jump on this particular bandwagon?
- General Mills Retreats on GMOs in Breakfast Cereal, GMeducation.org 3.01.14
- Annie Gasparro, General Mills to remove GMOs from some Cheerios, www.marketwatch.com 2.01.14
- Nathanael Johnson, Cereal numbers: Will GMO-free Cheerios capture a new market?
- Ken Rosboro, Young US Farmers see Opportunities in growing Non-GMO Crops, Non-GMO Report
- No Cheers for Cheerios, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Bytes, 9.01.14
- Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, GMO Labelling and Non-GMO Labelling a Win-Win, Institute of Science in Society Report 29.01.14
- Sean Poulter, On sale in Tesco, GM cereal that makes children hyperactive: U.S. import of Lucky Charms contain artificial colours that UK watchdog urges manufacturers to avoid, Daily Mail 24.08.14
- General Mills Lucky Charms Cereal 453G http://www.tesco.com/groceries/Product/Details/?id=273824949