Why are food activists targeting Honey Nut Cheerios?

The GMO Inside campaign wants to get genetically modified organisms out of the US food system. So it’s starting where we all start: breakfast.

The campaign, a coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations, is taking aim at the popular breakfast cereal Honey Nut Cheerios, pressing producer General Mills to remove anything that could even potentially be genetically modified. Citing concerns about environmental degradation, corporate control of agriculture and food safety, the group is encouraging consumers to sign an online petition and to contact the company on social media and by email to express their opposition to GMOs.


“We’re not going to give up on Honey Nut Cheerios until we succeed,” Nicole McCann, director of food campaigns for Green America, an environmental nonprofit that is part of the campaign, said. “All of our followers are putting pressure on them.”

The GMO Inside campaign also owns two shares of General Mills stock, which has allowed spokespeople to attend shareholders meetings and raise questions about the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

This effort is a follow-up to a previous GMO Inside campaign that targeted the original Cheerios, an initiative the group says generated 25,000 emails and 40,000 calls for action on the brand‘s Facebook page. In January, General Mills announced that it no longer uses GMOs in classic Cheerios. The company did not acknowledge the effect of any of the anti-GMO campaigns, but rather explained on a company blog that it made the change because “we think consumers may embrace it”.

Genetically modified foods are plants whose genetic code has been engineered to select for certain traits: yield, pesticide resistance, color. They are worrisome for several reasons, said McCann. Their widespread use is causing a decline in crop diversity, leaving our food supply more vulnerable to disaster, she and others argue.

Furthermore, strains engineered to withstand pesticides can lead to more liberal use of such chemicals, potentially causing environmental damage, they say. There is also concern that changing a plant’s genetic codes could make them unsafe for consumption in the long-term; opponents say GMOs might increase the risk of allergies, digestive issues and organ damage.

The crops most likely to be genetically modified include alfalfa, canola, corn, soy and sugar beets. But the principal ingredient of both regular and Honey Nut Cheerios is oats, a plant that is not genetically modified. The components that most concern GMO opponents are ingredients used in much smaller amounts: sugar, corn starch and vitamin E, which can be derived from soy. So why is GMO Inside campaign targeting these products?

In part, precisely because these foods have so few GMO ingredients, making a change much more feasible than for products more heavily dependent on genetically engineered ingredients, said campaign director Elizabeth O’Connell. Also, the popularity of Honey Nut Cheerios – the country’s best-selling cereal – means a small change in its ingredients could send an outsized message.

“They’re not the lone bad actors,” O’Connell said. But “if they changed, they could have a big impact.”

In January, Post Foods also announced that it had removed GMOs from one of its signature cereals, Grape-Nuts. The Kellogg’s-owned Kashi brand has been removing GMOs from its cereals since early 2012; today 11 of its 25 Kashi cold cereals are certified GMO-free by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group that verifies such claims.

The US cold breakfast cereal industry generates about $10.1bn annually and more than 91% of households buy cold cereal, according to market research firm Mintel. This high market penetration has made cereal a rich target for those looking to effect widespread change in the use of genetically modified ingredients.

GMO Inside is also targeting Chobani, the country’s leading brand of Greek yogurt, which it says uses dairy products that may come from cows raised on genetically modified feed.

So far, General Mills has resisted making other Cheerios varieties GMO-free, contending on its website that it was the “unique and simple nature of original Cheerios” that allowed the company to keep it free of GMOs. Other versions of the cereal have more ingredients that could be genetically modified, and thus it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to make the switch.

The company also argues that health concerns about government-approved GMO ingredients are unwarranted, noting that there is “broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies” that such foods do not pose a threat. The US Food and Drug Administration and the United Nations World Health Organization have both expressed the belief that approved GMOs are safe for human consumption.

Supporters of genetically engineered crops also argue that these techniques can improve crop production and yields, helping reduce global food shortages.

GMO Inside, however, argues that the potential problems associated with genetic modifications are very real. And if General Mills could remove GMO ingredients from classic Cheerios, it is feasible to remove these ingredients from other cereals as well, O’Connell said.

“It might be slightly more complicated, but not impossible,” she said. “They just need to get the right amount of consumer demand.”

This story originally ran on theguardian.com.