As voters in Colorado and Oregon prepare to consider ballot initiatives next month to require warning labels on food with genetically modified ingredients, they may want to take a look at what happened last week at a meeting of General Mills shareholders: Almost 98 percent of participants rejected a proposal to eliminate all traces of biotech crops from General Mills products.
The result made me smile, if only because it reminded me of my 9-month-old grandson. My daughter recently sent me a new photo of him. In the picture, he’s got a bunch of Cheerios stuck to his neck, from trying to shove them into his mouth. It’s like an advertisement for what may be most recognizable product General Mills makes.
Everybody likes Cheerios: They’re one of the first solid foods we let kids eat, and they’re a favorite breakfast cereal for people of all ages.
That’s why so many people noticed the announcement in January that General Mills planned to remove all genetically modified ingredients from the original variety of Cheerios—the kind found in the iconic yellow box. Although the decision did not affect Honey Nut Cheerios and other flavors of the popular cereal, many saw the move as a signal that the public is turning against agricultural biotechnology.
Yet consumers have responded with a collective shrug: The original variety of Cheerios is selling about as well today as it did when its loops included genetically modified ingredients. Now comes the overwhelming rejection of an anti-biotech resolution at the General Mills shareholders meeting.
Next month, Colorado and Oregon will have their say on labeling, with ballot referenda similar to the ones rejected by voters in California and Washington state over the last couple of years.
Perhaps the time has come to call a truce to the food wars and simply agree to respect the choices other people make about what they eat: No bossy directives, no labels other than the existing ones that already supply basic information, and no more second guessing the decisions that others make.
The vast majority of people decide what to eat based on a few sensible factors: cost, taste, and nutrition. The food market responds with almost infinite variety. Never before in history has it been possible for so many people to eat so much good and healthy food.
Since the 1990s, biotechnology has become an important part of this success story. It allows farmers like me to grow more food on less land. It’s also perfectly safe, as both scientific investigation and widespread use have demonstrated, over and over again.
Even so, some consumers want to avoid food with genetically modified ingredients. I’ve never quite understood why, but it’s not my business to judge their choices.
And they do have plenty of choices: They can eat the original variety of Cheerios, because General Mills made a business decision to try to meet their desires. They can also buy organic food, which is not allowed to contain genetically modified ingredients and is clearly labeled, according to federal regulation.
If some voters in Colorado and Oregon don’t want to eat food derived from biotechnology, they enjoy excellent options right now: They can look for the organic label or select products such as Cheerios. They certainly don’t need to approve a new and sweeping regulation that will accomplish nothing beyond making food more expensive to eat—including the food eaten by the people, many with limited incomes, who think that genetically modified ingredients are no big deal.
This is what bothers me most about all of these efforts to ban genetically modified ingredients or slap provocative warning labels on certain products: They’re attempts by other people to dictate my decisions through a mix of mandate and fear.
My grandson chooses to eat Cheerios—or, perhaps more accurately, his parents have chosen this delicious food for him. He affirms their decision whenever they toss a few loops onto the tray of his high chair. Sometimes they’re original Cheerios without genetically modified ingredients and sometimes they’re Honey Nut Cheerios with them.
We already have the power to choose for ourselves, and that’s where it should stay.
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).