In 2014, Cheerios announced it was no longer using genetically-modified ingredients in its original variety. Although various anti-GMO activists claimed victory, others weren’t so confident.
Marcus Wohlsen at Wired called the move “an elegant piece of corporate doublespeak that's completely devoid of substance,” because that new “NO GMO” advertising was merely advertising what was already true for Cheerios. Oats are not among the genetically-modified products in the U.S, which means that Cheerios did not have to drastically modify its recipe: only the cornstarch and corn syrup had to come from different suppliers.
In the New York Times, Mark Bittman argued against Cheerios’ false transparency. Cheerios’ new look, he argued, drew customers’ attention away from other, more pressing issues, like the economic impact of GMO seeds on small farmers.
There is growing scientific consensus that GMOs are safe for human health, though spirited debate about the societal and economic costs of GMOs continues. We’re not going to settle these larger questions about GMOs and their role in our nation’s agricultural systems today. Instead, we’re going to zoom in on GMO labels.
On the surface, labels seem simple and intuitive: they tell us what’s inside a container. But that’s not all they do.
Labels create problems
The Couch Cheerio series was brought to you in part by Chipotle, because a few burrito bowls and build-your-own taco kits are the cheapest way to buy back writing time sucked into a polar vortex. Chipotle’s always offering new disposable literature, so we generally keep the bags on the dinner table. Because they’re educational. Not because we’re too busy guac-gorging to throw out our trash.
My five-year-old was moved to tears by a the timeline on Chipotle’s 25th anniversary bag, because “ there aren’t too many GMOs left in the world!”
A kid preternaturally opposed to “no” and still blissfully unaware of our country’s various food panics is going to read “BYE, BYE, GMOs” and sympathize with their plight. But an adult reading that same label is likely to think “Oh, phew, I’m glad my lazy dinner solution isn’t poisoning my family.”
When a food company adds a GMO-free label to its package, we might be more inclined to view GMOs as unsafe. It’s like Chipotle told us that there’s something wrong with a plane’s left phalange. We don’t know what a phalange is, or what it does, but once we hear it might not be there, we’re Jim Rash screaming “Oh my God, this plane doesn’t even have a phalange!” and hurrying off the plane. And we’re not getting back on that plane until it’s stocked with extra phalanges.
Labels don’t just describe what’s inside a package. They can also create problems we didn’t know existed, problems often conveniently solved by the contents of that very package.
Labels label competitors
Labels reassure us about tonight’s dinner while also making us wary of tomorrow’s. Chipotle doesn’t cook with GMOs, but what about all the other taco places? That bright yellow box of Cheerios doesn’t have any GMOs, but what about all of the other cereals?
A label doesn’t just tell us what’s in the box. Instead, it tells us that there might be severed heads in all the other boxes.
But why are labels so successful at conjuring these worst case scenarios? Philosophy professor Stefaan Blancke studies pseudoscientific beliefs, and describes two “under the radar” beliefs that contribute to people’s fear of GMOs. The first is psychological essentialism. In that view, to tamper with DNA is to tamper with the very nature of existence. That can be a religious argument about not playing God, but also a secular argument about what is “natural.”
The second largely unconscious belief impacting our attitudes toward GMOs is disgust. The body’s mechanism for rejecting potentially contaminated food works against us here, because we begin to view GMOs as “possible contamination,” we start refusing to eat food that is likely safe.
Non-GMO labels take advantage of both of these beliefs, marking GMO-containing products as unnatural and contaminated. That may explain why even companies that have no reason to label their products as non-GMO are doing so anyway. Non-GMO product labels are a symbol of purity that make competitors look dirty, which is how we’ve ended up with non-GMO labels for products like oats and beans, which are not GMO crops, and salt, which is not a crop.
Three closing thoughts about Cheerios.
If you take one thing away from this series, it should be that Cheerios are fine. But if you have room for one more closing thought, it should be that words are powerful. One internet search for “is honey safe?” can make you panic about every taste of food until your baby is 365 days old. One news story about a choking hazard can make you restrict solid foods until your child is losing baby teeth. One mention of E.coli can lead you throw away pounds of food. And no amount of rational explanation—not even a four-part series on the nation’s second-favorite breakfast cereal—can match the rhetorical effectiveness of a simple product label. Focusing on the power of words won’t make you stop panicking, of course, but just being aware of the ways that food news can terrify can make breakfast a little less scary.
And if you have room for a third takeaway, it should be this: if you ask your child to “get a bowl so we can throw even more Cheerios,” you should also probably mention that you don’t want him to throw the bowl.