- - Sunday, January 12, 2014

When I think of Cheerios, I don’t think about GMOs. I think about little kids — and right now, I’m thinking about my new grandson.

He was born just before Christmas in Michigan. My wife, my youngest daughter and I flew from our farm in North Dakota to be with them, but a big blizzard and subzero temperatures have kept us from leaving.

So we’re snowbound, with extra time to spoil our grandson. That’s the first job of grandparents, of course.

He doesn’t do much right now except sleep and eat. Before long, of course, he’ll roll over, sit up and laugh. In a few months, he’ll try his first bites of solid food.

I’m pretty sure it will be Cheerios. I look forward to the day when I can spread the cereal on the tray of his highchair and watch him play and eat.

He’ll probably even throw a few loops at me.

When it happens, the phony controversy over genetically modified food (GMO) won’t be foremost in my mind — but right now, it’s hard to look at a yellow box of Cheerios and not think about the recent announcement by General Mills that it will quit using GMO ingredients in its original variety of the popular cereal.

A few in the media have portrayed the decision as a kind of political victory: “Under pressure from activists, Cheerios switched to non-GMO ingredients,” said the headline of a CNN story.

Yet they’re missing the bigger picture. General Mills simply made a business decision to offer some customers another choice.

In the statements surrounding its decision, General Mills has made clear that it fully supports biotechnology in agriculture: “There is broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies that approved genetically modified foods are safe.” It cites the support of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other groups. “All have found approved biotech crops to be as safe and acceptable as their conventional counterparts.”

Although General Mills has been a strong supporter of agricultural technology, it’s also a major food company with a wide range of products. To meet the demands of a vast marketplace, it puts out more than a hundred brands of cereals, baking goods and snacks.

A small minority of consumers prefers food with non-GMO ingredients. So General Mills also offers organic products, which, of course, do not contain GMO ingredients. The original variety of Cheerios won’t be an organic food, but now it will try to appeal to this sliver of the population.

Oats are the primary main ingredient in Cheerios, and there’s no such thing as a genetically modified oat. Becoming a non-GMO product means only that original Cheerios won’t contain cornstarch and sugar from GMO sources. These were in very small amounts anyway.

Significantly, other varieties of Cheerios will keep their safe and healthy GMO ingredients, from crops such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets. This includes Honey Nut Cheerios, which is my wife’s favorite flavor. One of the newer flavors, Peanut Butter Cheerios, can look forward to the day in the near future when biotechnology allows farmers to grow nonallergenic peanuts.

The Cheerios decision also exposes the silliness of the various state and federal campaigns to require costly labels for foods with GMO ingredients. Consumers already benefit from huge amounts of choices and information. There’s nothing wrong with GMO Cheerios. No sound science exists that suggests GMO foods are bad for our babies or ourselves.

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