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Original Cheerios go GMO-free

Published time: January 09, 2014 19:34
Edited time: January 10, 2014 19:51
Reuters / Jim Young

Reuters / Jim Young

General Mills has decided to remove all GMOs from the original Cheerios recipe, prompting a debate over whether the US reached a turning point in the fight over genetically engineered ingredients.

Last week, General Mills announced it would stop using genetically modified corn starch and sugar cane in its original Cheerios cereal, though the company continues to believe that genetically modified organisms (GMO) in general are safe to eat. Other cereal brands, along with those under the Cheerios label, such as Honey Nut Cheerios, will still incorporate GMOs for the time being.

The decision marks an about-face for General Mills, which has spent millions of dollars opposing GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington. It’s now the largest American company to reject GMOs in one of its brands, which could eventually mean serious consequences for biotech companies like Monsanto and Dupont if other businesses follow suit. In 2013, Ben & Jerry’s stated it would remove GMOs from its products, while Chipotle has announced its intention to gradually eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its restaurant menu during 2014.

According to USA Today, approximately 80 percent of food products in the United States contain some type of GMO, while the Los Angeles Times noted that 93 percent of all soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered. The same is true for 90 percent of corn.

Although opinion is split on the impact of GMOs on health, a November study indicated that these modified ingredients could be related to a growing number of gluten-related disorders, including intestinal problems, which afflict roughly 18 million Americans. Supporters believe GMOs are essential to building crops that will resist disease, but opponents are wary that engineering seeds in a lab could lead to negative consequences.

Despite opposing viewpoints, multiple polls from 2013 found the American public overwhelmingly in favor of labeling products featuring GMOs. A New York Times survey registered 93 percent support for labeling, while a Washington Post poll ticked even higher with 94 percent.

Efforts to translate that support into action, however, have sputtered. Ballot initiatives in both California and Washington failed to garner majority support despite strong initial support, leading label supporters to accuse multinational corporations of buying the electorate. Companies like Monsanto, Pepsico, and their allies spent about $22 million in Washington alone to defeat the initiative, significantly more than the less than $7 million pro-label groups were able to muster.

Even successful initiatives in Connecticut and Maine risk going nowhere, since their implementation is tied to the passage of labeling laws in at least four other Northeastern states.

With no national labeling laws in place, states are largely left to fend for themselves on the issue. Outside of the US, though, more than 60 countries – Australia, the European Union, and Japan – have established labeling laws, with many countries halting the purchase of some Monsanto products.

This week, a court in Argentina stopped the construction of a Monsanto seed plant in the country on environmental protection grounds. The biotech company has been under fire in Argentina ever since a report by the Associated Press found a link between the pesticides it sells and the country’s increased rate of birth defects and cancer.

In spite of opposition, however, Monsanto recently reported an 8 percent rise in profits over the previous year, and expects to grow even more over the course of 2014.