On Thursday, opponents of genetically modified food celebrated a big victory: They managed to get a major American food company to do something it didn't feel was necessary, just because public pressure had mounted to the point where resistance took more energy than it was worth.
The company is General Mills, maker of America's most iconic cereal brands, which found a way to make a line of Cheerios without any genetically modified ingredients. Not because it thinks there's anything wrong with GM crops: Its Q&A on the Cheerios site clearly states that they're safe, and a longer Web page explains the scientific consensus behind its position. Rather, simply: "We did it because we think consumers may embrace it," the company wrote in a blog post.
Despite the lack of evidence that there's anything wrong with eating GM foods, the demand for alternatives seems to exist. More than half of Americans worry that they're unsafe, according to an ABC News poll from the summer, and 93 percent support mandatory labeling. The concern is even higher among women, who also do more of the family shopping. Meanwhile, Whole Foods is asking its suppliers to develop special lines of non-GM products. General Mills may have figured it might as well get out in front of its Big Food competition -- there's always something to be said for gaining a first mover advantage.
And anyway, Cheerios were a relatively easy lift for General Mills. There are no GM oats, as it pointed out multiple times, so the recipe was most of the way there. It just needed to switch from beet sugar to cane sugar, find some non-GM corn starch, and figure out how to separate the streams of cereal production so the non-GM Cheerios could stay pure. It's almost the equivalent of slapping a "Trans Fats Free" label on something that never contained trans fats, or a "gluten-free" label on something that doesn't even have wheat, just because something "free" of anything must necessarily be better for you. (Unless it's "made with whole grains," which Cheerios could already claim as well.)
There are risks to that strategy. Even labeling some of its foods as GM-free might create the misperception that the rest of its foods are somehow unsafe, pushing consumers toward a product that's harder to make, or other brands that specialize in all-natural recipes. That's the argument that giant food companies have made against labeling requirements (General Mills says it supports a national labeling standard, which would be preferable to having to deal with the state laws that are cropping up around the country). To capture both types of consumer, some corporations have entirely different companies: like Danone, which has both Stonyfield Greek Yogurt (which is organic and Non-GMO) and Dannon Oikos (which is not).
In that way, it's kind of similar to how Philip Morris gave in and started producing electronic cigarettes, even though they might cannibalize its traditional tobacco business -- except that smoking has lost popularity in the United States for solid health reasons. In the case of genetically modified foods, the reasons for concern are much less clear.