Earlier this month, General Mills announced that original Cheerios are now made without genetically modified ingredients. The package will boast the change, but even the cereal maker admitted that the Cheerios' main ingredient, oats, have never been a genetically modified crop.
Although General Mills is looking to cash in on growing environmental and health fears surrounding GMOs, they didn't make a particularly significant change to their product. They did switch to GMO-free sugar and corn starch, but these are minor ingredients. Dan Mitchell, writing for Modern Farmer, explains why oats aren't GMO in the first place:
'So, why are there no GMO oats? There are a bunch of reasons, but the main one is, not surprisingly, money. There simply aren’t enough oat farmers in the world, or enough oats grown, to create sufficient demand to justify the incredibly expensive research that goes into developing genetically modified seeds. “There’s no money and no desire” for such research, says Ron Barnett, an oat breeder and professor emeritus of agronomy at the University of Florida.
The decisions for which crops are targeted for GMO research are based on economic and political decisions that were made well before the first GMO crops were even conceived of. “In the United States, corn and soybeans are the drivers” of GMO product development, Barnett says. That’s because the markets for those crops were already dominant when genetic modification started taking off. “Oats,” comparatively speaking, “are a minor crop,” he adds.'
That's a shame, because oats are a very nutritious grain. But the bigger issue is that big food manufacturers may start using "GMO Free" as a marketing tool. Consumers already have a label that means GMO free: the USDA Organic certification. An organic certification comes with a number of other environmental benefits. Mark Bittman writes in a recent column that the "way-too-loud GMO screaming match" makes it easier for big brands to market foods as GMO-free rather than take the much bigger step of going organic:
'If opportunistic marketers like those at General Mills can cash in by making insignificant changes in their products that lead to significant marketing benefits, what happens to people who’ve actually put work into making their products significantly cleaner — that is, organic? Once you have an “organic” label, you are forbidden to put “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” on your package — that’s theoretically understood, as are more important benefits, like antibiotic- and pesticide-free.'