Cut to the Chase: Despite studies, irrational fear of genetic modification persists

By Blake Hurst

I like Cheerios. I guess a farmer really ought to start his day with bacon, eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, but Cheerios are what I eat. Not every morning, but often enough.
Normally, this wouldn’t be interesting, but now, as a farmer who plants GMO corn and soybeans and thinks genetically modifying seeds are safe and beneficial, I’ve got a decision to make. General Mills has announced that it will no longer use genetically modified ingredients in Cheerios and will label them as GMO-free.
As the company readily admits, this won’t change much, since Cheerios are made from oats, which are not genetically modified. There are small amounts of cornstarch and sugar used in the making of my favorite breakfast, and General Mills will source those ingredients in non-GMO form. The company goes on to say that they believe genetically modified grains are perfectly safe, but that they are simply responding to consumer demand.
There you have it. No reason at all to change the way General Mills makes Cheerios, except to pander to some small number of consumers who have an irrational fear of a perfectly safe technology. Now, critics of GMOs might point out that more than 50 percent of consumers express concern about genetic engineering in surveys. Well, of course they do – when they’re asked if they’re worried about GMOs.
If you ask me if I’m worried about the fiscal crisis in Finland, I’m quite likely to answer that those Finns need to get their house in order, even if I’ve never spent a second pondering the Finnish budget deficit and have absolutely no idea about their financial situation.
On the other hand, if you just ask me what I’m worried about, I wouldn’t mention Finland at all. The same goes for surveys about GMOs. And yes, the technology is perfectly safe.
After shamefully remaining silent in the face of years of slanderous fear-mongering on the part of anti-GMO activists, scientists are starting to speak up on the topic, and the consensus is clear and overwhelming. Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies – in some cases numbering in the hundreds – in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.
But until now, the magnitude of the research on crop biotechnology has never been cataloged. In response to what they believed was an information gap, a team of Italian scientists summarized 1,783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods – a staggering number.
The researchers couldn’t find a single credible example demonstrating that GM foods pose any harm to humans or animals. “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops,” the scientists concluded.
Although they didn’t mention it in their announcement, there is every possibility that General Mills is planning on raising prices and margins by advertising Cheerios as GMO-free. That’s an accepted marketing strategy, although the company sells lots of cereals containing genetically modified ingredients. Perhaps the management and shareholders of the company may want to look past cheery prospects for short-term gains to ask whether the company has decreased the value of the rest of its cereal portfolio
For those of us concerned about the future and our ability to increase food production 70 percent by 2050 in order to meet increased demand, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that General Mills has just taken off the table a technology that is essential to meeting the world’s need for food.
One final note. Many critics of GM food are actively lobbying for mandatory labeling and have worked in at least 20 states to pass labeling laws. It’s hard to see why mandatory rules are necessary if consumers have access to voluntarily labeled foods, including organic foods and, now, Cheerios.
I mentioned a decision I had to make. Should I continue to eat Cheerios? After all, I wouldn’t want my breakfast choices to support what I think is a terrible decision. Well, it seems Apple Cinnamon Cheerios will remain the same. What the heck, I’ll just eat those.

Blake Hurst, of Westboro, is the president of Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.

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