Activists are trumpeting General Mills’ decision to remove GMOs from Cheerios as a watershed moment. It is; but not for the reason that they believe.
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The move was relatively easy and inexpensive. Cheerios are primarily oats, and there are no GMO oats. The comparatively small amounts of sugar and cornstarch in the mix required nothing more than a switch from beet sugar to non-GMO sources. At the same time, Cheerios popularity among parents transitioning their children to solid food leaves the product more vulnerable to activist attacks, and in turn justifies a modest investment that might provide a slight marketing boost and a modicum of brand protection.
Add the ubiquitous use of GMOs today (they are found in as much as 80 percent of the processed foods we eat) – and the degree of difficulty in removing them from just about every other product on the shelves – and it’s hard to see Cheerios as a domino or test case. But it isn’t the proverbial tree falling in a forest either. When we shift the focus from General Mills motivations to the timing of its decision, we see why every food manufacturer ought to be taking notice, whether another brand-name kitchen table staple goes non-GMO or not.
With activists applying pressure, GMO-labeling initiatives on state ballots, and regulators mulling changes to federal labeling rules that will govern food and beverage marketing for years to come, there is no more important time to for the industry to present a united front. As such, a number of industry insiders are scratching their heads as to why General Mills broke ranks at this critical moment – even if it only extended a pinky toe over the line.
Then, there is the fact that not a single credible study ever conducted has found GMOs to be anything but safe – and that numerous food safety agencies in the U.S. and around the world have reached the same conclusion. Even the founder of the anti-GMO movement, activist Mark Lynas, has succumbed to an overwhelming torrent of scientific evidence and publically reversed his position. All of this would put General Mills in an entirely defensible position had it chosen to stand pat.
So, why go non-GMO now?
The answer is that public opinion is reaching critical mass. Ninety-percent of Americans believe that GMOs are unsafe, 93 percent of Americans favor stringent federal GMO labeling regulations, and 57 percent say they would be less likely to buy products labeled as genetically modified.
Why such strong sentiment despite undeniable scientific findings to the contrary? Because 59 percent of Americans now follow nutritional advice they access on the Web; and the Web is decidedly anti-GMO.
Combined, the top 10 GMO opposition groups (such as Green America and Food Democracy Now) boast more than one million Twitter followers, two million Facebook likes, and 77,000 YouTube subscribers. Those figures don’t bode well for the leading voices in support of GMOs, such as the Council for Biotechnology Information, who along with a few other players maintain just more than 6,000 Twitter followers, 3,000 Facebook likes, and 110 YouTube subscribers. They look even more ominous when we consider that many of the anti-GMO movement’s connections are high-authority influencers on the Web – trusted sources of insight and opinion (such as “Mommy Bloggers”) whose views go viral both online and off.
On the optimization front, a Google search for the term “GMOs” returns a litany of activist-controlled sites, critical commentary, damaging (albeit photo-shopped) images, and, most important, not one site controlled by a pro-GMO voice or company making food with GMO ingredients. The story is the same when searching “Cheerios and GMOs” – even at a point in time when industry ought to be leveraging the increased interest that General Mills’ decision brought about. . That’s a real shame for GMO supporters, because there are some terrific websites that seek to set the record straight. And if they aren’t being found via Google, their effect is greatly diminished.
It’s this uneven online playing field that forced GMO manufacturers to outspend activists five-to-one on TV advertising to defeat California’s Prop 37 in 2012 ($55 million to $9 million). In the end, all that investment bought was a slim victory (51 percent to 48 percent). The result was the same when industry spent more than $22 million in Washington State’s decidedly smaller market last year (51-49). In Maine and Connecticut, similar expenditures actually resulted in losses – due almost entirely to activists’ advantage on the Internet.
Activists understand that the Web provides distinct advantages in their battle against benign GMOs. It’s where the public turns for insights that inform nutritional decisions. It’s a venue in which hard science can’t compete with fear’s viral allure. And it’s a forum where they can run virtually unopposed – as long as industry continues to cede the high ground to its well-meaning, but not scientifically supported adversaries.
When viewed in the context of logistics, science, fear, the Web, and popular opinion; Cheerios aren’t a harbinger of sweeping changes that will forever rid grocery shelves of genetically-modified ingredients. Rather, they are a signal that GMO manufacturers can’t continue to whistle past the graveyard.
They’ve been largely absent from a digital debate that could significantly alter the legal and regulatory landscapes in which they operate. The longer they remain so; the more they do to harden activists’ resolve, cement negative perceptions, and ensure policy damaging outcomes on both the state and federal levels.
Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.