Despite having written a story about the first USDA-approved label for GMO-free meat, I was thrown the first time I saw chicken labeled as such in the butcher case at Whole Foods. While I know very well that there are no genetically modified chickens out there, that the designation is referring to the feed the birds are raised on, the juxtaposition of labeled breasts and thighs sitting next to unlabeled breasts and thighs could make it appear that way. Considering the culture of fear that swirls around genetic engineering among the Whole Foods–shopping set, it’s easy to imagine consumers wondering if indeed there are gene-spliced chickens pecking around somewhere out there.
This, as an over-informed consumer, is my problem with volunteer labeling of non-GMO foods: If you know what genetically engineered crops exist, then the non-GMO labels are more often than not totally superfluous. Are you buying non-GMO verified kale or quinoa or whole-wheat bread or oatmeal? Unless you’re terribly concerned with cross-contamination with corn or soy products or you’re convinced that the zombie wheat case in Oregon points to a secret market for illegal GMO flour, you’re buying the exact same thing, in terms of transgenes, as products without the label. That’s because genetically modified kale, quinoa, wheat, and oatmeal either don’t exist, aren’t commercially produced, or both.
Which brings us around to Cheerios, which General Mills recently announced will now be made without genetically modified ingredients. Those crunchy little Os are made largely of whole-grain oats. Since oats are naturally gluten-free, they need a little help to bind together, which is why Cheerios have some corn and wheat starch in there too. Then there’s sugar—actual sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup—salt, ingredients like tripotassium phosphate, and a host of other enriching vitamins and minerals.
Pop quiz: How many of those ingredients are genetically engineered?
Only the cornstarch and the sugar, which, according to Mark Bittman, was made from G.E. sugar beets prior to the switch to non-GMO ingredients.
As Bittman writes in The New York Times, making the change was dead simple in the case of Cheerios.
[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.
It's no wonder, then, that the price of Cheerios hasn’t changed, as Alex Formuzls points out in a blog post for the Environmental Working Group; that is one of the many specters the food industry has raised about the massive upheaval mandatory labeling would bring about.
So GMO-free Cheerios being a thing doesn’t disprove the argument that moving away from genetically engineered ingredients would result in the complete disruption of the supply chain. (That very well could happen if we were talking about a corn-based cereal.) And it doesn’t wholly disprove the price-hike argument either. Really, as a case study, it’s a total failure in the greater GMO debate—because so very little changed to turn genetically engineered Cheerios into GMO-free Cheerios.
Now if Corn Pops went GMO-free, that would be a different discussion altogether.