General Mills defends G.M.O.s in responsibility report

by Monica Watrous
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MINNEAPOLIS — As consumers increasingly shun genetically modified ingredients, General Mills, Inc. has clarified its stance on the subject: G.M.O.s are O.K.

The company that removed the controversial ingredients from its original Cheerios brand earlier this year defended biotechnology in its 2014 Global Responsibility Report, issued April 16. Not only are G.M.O.s safe, the report said, but also they may offer a solution to food insecurity worldwide.

“…biotechnology shows promise to address such issues as strengthening crops against drought and extreme temperature, and delivering more nutritious food, even in poor soil conditions,” the report said. “We agree with the U.N. World Health Organization (W.H.O.) that the development of genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s) offers the potential for increased agricultural productivity or improved nutritional value that can contribute directly to enhancing human health and development.”

Acknowledging consumer concern over bioengineered ingredients, General Mills said it has found a broad global consensus among food and safety regulatory bodies that biotech crops are as safe as their conventional counterparts.

“This technology is not new,” General Mills said in its report. “Biotech seeds have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in food crops for almost 20 years. Because U.S. farmers use G.M. seed to grow certain crops, 70% of foods on U.S. grocery store shelves likely contain G.M.O. ingredients. As a result, if an American food or beverage product lists corn, soy, canola, cottonseed or beet sugar as an ingredient — and it’s not organic — it likely contains G.M.O.s. Global food safety experts will note there has not been a single incident of harm to health or safety demonstrably linked to the use of G.M.O.s anywhere in the world. Numerous studies have found certain benefits, however.”

The company said it believes biotechnology helps ensure safe and effective food production because genetically modified crops require less insecticide and less energy use by farmers. Genetically modified crops also are associated with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality, improved water filtration and reduced soil erosion, the report said.

Still, General Mills currently is enrolling products from its Small Planet Foods division of natural and organic brands to be verified by the Non-G.M.O. Project.

“We know that some consumers remain uncomfortable with G.M.O.s,” General Mills said. “As a global food company, we produce products without G.M. ingredients in some markets — we also offer organic and non-G.M.O. alternatives in most of our major categories in the U.S.”

The company added it opposes state-based labeling of products made with genetically modified ingredients but that it supports national standardized labeling in the United States.

After changing handling and sourcing practices to remove G.M.O.s from Cheerios, the company revealed the effort failed to improve the brand’s performance and that it had no plans to reformulate additional products without G.M.O.s.

In the report, General Mills also detailed progress in its efforts related to sustainability, health and community. Highlights include:

Nutrition. More than 750 products, spanning platforms of baking, cereal, dairy, meals and snacks, have been nutritionally improved since 2005. Half of the company’s U.S. Retail products now contain 150 calories or fewer per serving. Additionally, General Mills has increased research and development spending on health and wellness by 60% since 2004.

Food safety. All of General Mills facilities have been certified using globally recognized food safety criteria. The company invested more than $15 million of its capital spending on food safety-related projects in 2013.

Sourcing. In 2013, the company committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of 10 key ingredients by 2020: oats, wheat, dry milled corn, sugar cane, fiber packaging, cocoa, vanilla, palm oil, fluid milk and beet sugar. Combined, the ingredients represent more than half of the company’s annual raw material purchases. The company said it has made progress in its sourcing goals by collaborating with farmers, suppliers and industry groups. General Mills last year initiated a pilot to improve smallholder farmer incomes as well as the quality, quantity and traceability of Madagascar-grown vanilla, which is used in the company’s Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

Water. Global water stewardship represents another priority for General Mills, which has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to identify at-risk watersheds in company plants and growing regions. Additionally, the company has set targets within its operations to reduce water usage rates.

Environment. Last year, the company achieved its 2015 greenhouse gas emissions goal early and has made progress toward reductions in energy usage and other sustainability metrics. According to the report, 86% of all solid waste from the company’s North American operations is reused or recycled.

Philanthropy. General Mills donated more than $153 million to charitable causes in 2013, with a total of more than $1 billion given to causes worldwide since the General Mills Foundation was created in 1954.

“In pursuit of our goal to stand among the world’s most socially responsible food companies and to sustain our business for the long term, we continue to improve our practices, our products and our supply chains as we work to fulfill our mission of nourishing lives,” said Ken Powell, chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills. “We are encouraged by the progress we’re making and remain committed to our pursuit of continuous improvement.”

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