General Mills stirred a decades-old controversy earlier this month when it announced it would begin producing Cheerios that are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic make-up has been scientifically changed by inserting genes from one species into another in a way that could not occur in nature. The technology is used to give an animal or agricultural product a new quality, such as enabling a plant to produce a natural pesticide that will kill insects that might attack it.
More than a year ago, Green America, a national environmental organization, launched a campaign to pressure General Mills into producing GMO-free Cheerios. According to a GMO Inside press release, as soon as the campaign started tens of thousands of consumers began inundating the Cheerios Facebook page with concerns. More than 200,000 viewers watched a GMO Inside video on YouTube highlighting the use of GMOs in Cheerios and more than 25,000 people called or emailed General Mills with objections.
Proponents of eliminating GMOs from food sources fear that the genetic modifications could introduce toxins, allergens, or even carcinogens into food. General Mills is the largest packed food brand to go non-GMO with a major product.
But advocates of bioengineering technology point out that genetically modified foods are less costly, higher quality, and more easily produced. Gregory Conko, executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, believes the concerns stem from misinformation about the technology. Consumers don’t realize that genetic modification of food has been going on for many years, he said. In fact, oats as we know them today don’t exist in nature. To produce modern-day oats, scientists had to do sophisticated breeding at the genetic level by forcibly mating oats with wild grass plants. The two species are so distantly removed that natural crossbreeding would be impossible.
Conko maintains that no agricultural breeding method is inherently safe or inherently dangerous, it just depends on the modification being produced.
Scientists have been forcibly mating plants from different species for many decades. This method entailed moving many unknown and untested alien genes that could potentially introduce harmful products. Conventional modification techniques have inadvertently introduced health hazards into marketed items. For example, at one time researchers added an essential amino acid derived from Brazil nuts to soybeans. The soybean produced became an allergen for people allergic to Brazil nuts.
But according to Conko, modern bioengineering techniques are different. They offer greater precision and control, enabling researchers to better predict the outcome and safety of the resulting product. To date, no harmful effects have been discovered in any bioengineered foods.
Conko is concerned that General Mills’ move will only serve to embolden those who are against the use of biotechnology techniques. “Consumers don’t understand that essentially all foods have been genetically modified in conventional breeding,” Conko said. “That General Mills is fueling this consumer misunderstanding is unfortunate.”