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Why are food activists targeting Honey Nut Cheerios?

Cheerios in Milk

General Mills announced in January that Cheerios are GMO-free. Photograph: Alamy


Powered by article titled “Why are food activists targeting Honey Nut Cheerios?” was written by Sarah Shemkus, for on Wednesday 19th February 2014 16.00 UTC

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 non-profit 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 non-profit 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 non-profit 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 wide-spread 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.


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