Here's Bittman's article:
How Many Cheers for Cheerios?
By MARK BITTMAN
Well, a major and venerable American brand has gone and announced that it contains no genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.'s). Cheerios is G.M.O.-free! And will soon be labeled “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients.”
Do we care? Should we? Is this a cynical marketing ploy or a huge deal or both? (It certainly isn’t neither.)
Without question this could be the start of something big. That it has value to Cheerios and to anti-G.M.O. activists is also undoubtedly true; the question is whether it matters to the rest of us. It does; but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.
First, let’s get this straight. Taking the G.M.O.'s out of Cheerios is only a little bit harder than taking them out of oatmeal: there are no G.M.O. oats, and Cheerios are, essentially, oats. (Well, hyper-processed oats.) They also contain small amounts of cornstarch and sugar, so its parent company, General Mills, has done little more than source non-G.M.O. cornstarch and cane rather than beet sugar to use in production. (There are G.M.O. beets, and almost all corn and soybeans grown in the United States use G.M.O. seeds, whose products find their way into most processed foods.) This is what they’ve done for years in most of Europe, where products with G.M.O.'s are almost universally labeled as such.But it’s not as if General Mills — which was among the funders of the opposition to G.M.O.-labeling efforts in California and Washington — has made a principled decision, or has suddenly seen some kind of light. (Other varieties of Cheerios, such as Apple Cinnamon and Multi Grain, will continue to be made with ingredients containing G.M.O.'s, including corn, corn syrup, beet sugar and others.) It could simply be that the company saw an opportunity to appease part of its market, and to test whether a minimal effort could lead to a labeling opportunity that would boost sales as would, say, a “high-fiber” or cholesterol-reduction notice.
But the label is only meaningless in terms of Cheerios’ content. My guess is that General Mills is right: the G.M.O.-free label will appeal to consumers who, for whatever reasons — justified or not — would rather buy a G.M.O.-free product. Increased sales might come at the expense of other Cheerios products, but then again they might come at the expense of competitors’ cereals that can’t brag about their “purity.” (Let’s remember that few, if any, health-savvy breakfast-eating people would make Cheerios a frequent choice in any case— even if they are easy for toddlers to nibble on.)
All of this makes the announcement significant, because if it works, others will follow suit. And farmers could easily make the switch back to non-G.M.O. seeds (more are beginning to, as the benefits of G.M.O. seeds are increasingly outweighed by their costs), and processed food companies are — or at least should be — agnostic as to whether corn, for example, was grown with conventional or G.M.O. seeds.
Should we care? Yes. Much of the controversy over G.M.O.'s is being fought between those with a vested interest in their success and those who are willing to overstate the problems with the technology. Producing seeds containing G.M.O.'s is a valid scientific technique. The problem is that the benefits have accrued more to the seeds’ producers than to farmers (who are spending many times more for seeds than they were previously) or consumers (who can’t possibly tell the source of refined products in their processed foods) or to the environment. There’s an argument that G.M.O. seeds increase yields and keep food costs down, but it’s not a convincing one.
There are three real issues here, and none of them is about whether there are teeny tiny G.M.O. ingredients in our food. One is that G.M.O. seeds have arguably done more harm than good, by making traditional farming more expensive for farmers — not only here but internationally — and by retarding progress in combating weeds and bugs ecologically in industrial farming. Still, eliminating G.M.O.'s would not do much to remedy what’s wrong with industrial agriculture; that’s going to require a hard look at crop rotation, chemical applications and monoculture in general.
Another issue, and I’ve written about this before, is transparency. Increasingly, people want to know how and with what their food is being produced. (Over 90 percent of Americans are in favor of G.M.O. labeling.) Some of this may be for the wrong reason — fear of eating foods produced with G.M.O. seeds. (About half the population believes G.M.O.'s to be unsafe.) But the argument for labeling and transparency goes way beyond G.M.O.'s, and any labeling that provides more information should be seen as a victory for people who care about food quality.
This brings us to the third issue, one about which I’m not happy. If opportunistic marketers like those at General Mills can cash in by making insignificant changes in their products that lead to significant marketing benefits, what happens to people who’ve actually put work into making their products significantly cleaner — that is, organic? Once you have an “organic” label, you are forbidden to put “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” on your package — that’s theoretically understood, as are more important benefits, like antibiotic- and pesticide-free. But thanks to the way-too-loud G.M.O. screaming match, my guess is that it’s easier to market food using a meaningless “G.M.O.-free” label than an organic label. That’s not a cheery thought.