General Mills, the manufacturer of Cheerios brand cereal, announced that it will no longer have genetically modified ingredients in its Cheerios.

The company said it would no longer source genetically modified corn and sugar to make the breakfast cereal rings. It said whole grain oats, the chief ingredient, was never available in genetically modified varietals.

“Why change anything at all? It’s simple. We did it because we think consumers may embrace it,” Tom Forsythe, vice president of global communications for General Mills, said in the blog post.

In other words, General Mills caved to pressure from anti-genetically modified groups. These groups waged a media campaign this past fall to put pressure on the company to remove its GMO ingredients from Cheerios. GMOInside.org, which launched the campaign, claimed General Mills offered a GMO free version of its Cheerios in Europe and wanted a similar choice in the United States. The group as well as other anti-GMO activist groups contended that since Cheerios is one of the first foods a baby eats when it’s learning to eat solid food, the cereal should not contain GMOs, which they claim have not been proven to be safe. By targeting consumers and mothers’ fears, they succeeded in letting emotions dictate a company’s manufacturing decisions.

Ironically, Cheerios contains very little in the way of GM ingredients. The only potential products that would have come from crops that were genetically modified is the corn starch and the sugar, which likely came from sugar beets, which are mostly genetically modified.

Margaret Smith, a professor of plant breeding and genetics, who leads a Cornell University program to help farmers and the public understand plant breeding and genetic engineering, said the recent move by General Mills to eliminate genetically modified organisms from its Cheerios cereal might please GMO-shy consumers, but it won't alter the iconic cereal’s make up one bit.

Smith says:

“Corn starch and sugar are highly refined products, so they contain no DNA (which is what is introduced into a genetically engineered organism) and no protein (which is what the new DNA would produce in a genetically engineered organism). Because of that, corn starch and sugar from a genetically engineered corn variety are nutritionally and chemically identical to corn starch or sugar from a non-genetically engineered variety.

“This means that the new version of Cheerios that is being made without use of genetically engineered varieties will be nutritionally and chemically identical to the previous version. So it will not offer anything new to consumers – other than to give them the option to buy a product that does not support planting more acres to genetically engineered crop varieties.”

So, other than caving to anti-GMO groups, what would have motivated General Mills to have made the change? Consider the fact that on Dec. 18, the company reported lower-than-expected quarterly earnings. It cited increasing ingredient costs and lower sales of its ready-to-eat meals and frozen foods. The ready-to-eat meals include Cheerios cereals.

It’s more likely that General Mills, which is struggling in this area to make a profit, is waging a social campaign to improve the image of Cheerios among mothers and other concerned consumers to improve its bottom line.

Unfortunately, this move sets a dangerous precedent and fuels the anti-GMO crowd to push other companies to drop GM ingredients from their foods. With these groups already campaigning in multiple states across the country to get GM ingredients labeled on food products, the timing of General Mills’ announcement is a blow to the agriculture and food industries. Although General Mills and the anti-GMO crowd may be celebrating, biotechnology and science have taken a serious hit with this latest announcement.