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Cheerios could open the door for GMO conversations

General Mills’ small reformulation to original Cheerios may serve as a catalyst for other food manufacturers to reformulate their own cereals in order to achieve a GMO-free label. If consumers respond to these changes with their wallets instead of just their words, expect the trend to grow more rapidly and possibly even facilitate enough of a backing for mandatory labeling of GMOs in all food products.

How would you respond to issues that friends and members of your family share with you about food system issues, such as GMOs? One of my friends on Facebook responded to my post about non-GMO Cheerios with the following: “What people also need to know is that GMO traits are only carried in proteins, and there is NO protein in refined sugar, so whether it was sugar from GMO (sugar) beets or sugar from cane, the refined sugar did NOT have any GMO DNA or traits. Likewise for the corn starch that is in Cheerios. So, the change is PURE PUBLICITY and positioning and has no impact on the nutritional or chemical make-up of the actual Cheerios.”

There is nothing inaccurate about what my friend said in reply to my post. Unfortunately, science simply isn’t the lead element in building trust. Considering that 49% of the public says that conventional agriculture is on the wrong track, we need to follow a model that builds and further develops trust.

When it comes to engaging consumers about food system issues, it’s best if we follow the conversation model developed by U. S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). Trust is cultivated when we Engage, Acknowledge, Share information and Earn trust (EASE). We need to look for a connection (What are your concerns about today’s food system? When you make food choices what are your top concerns?) and acknowledge that consumers have concerns, even if they are not the same as your own.

It may also be helpful to keep in mind that consumers are not necessarily criticizing farmers and ranchers; they’re simply asking questions that they believe are fairly reasonable about their food.

It may also be helpful to remember that consumers are most concerned about long-term health. Anything not deemed “natural” by them — antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, fertilizers herbicides and GMOs — is perceived to be a threat to human health. According to USFRA research, unintended long-term health effects are the number one concern when it comes methods conventional farmers use to produce food.

So, the next time you engage someone about a food system issue, think about using these keys to a productive conversation:

  1. Acknowledge concerns with open minds. Concerns are real. They are not right or wrong. You don’t have to agree, but you do need to acknowledge that concerns exist. (“I understand your concern…” “I can see why you feel that way…” “A lot of people I have talked with have the same question…”
  2. Talk about what concerns consumers, not what you want to talk about. We need to know more about what they’re asking so we can know how to answer them. Remember that there is only one rule for being a good conversationalist — learn to listen.
  3. Don’t refute with facts alone. Addressing a concern with a refuting set of facts just dismisses the concerns and does nothing to open a conversation. Everyone has their own set of facts. If you don’t trust food production, you don’t trust its facts. The goal of a conversation is to achieve understanding about each other.
  4. Turn off your defense. This is not personal. It’s about the food we eat, not the people who grow it. Always approach every conversation — even the ones that feel like an attack — as an opportunity to share your story.
  5. Don’t claim to be 100% right. Who is? As hard as they try, farmers don’t always get it right, but they do get it better. Share your story about how you have “gotten better” on your operation.
  6. Talk about using less instead of producing more. Less is the flip-side of more and in many cases consumers are more receptive to hearing it this way. Today’s farmers use less and still produce healthy food for all is the gateway message to your farm story that addresses many concerns.

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  1. This is a fantastic article! At evolve24, we have been researching the changes in trust that was shown for Cheerios in social media from late 2012 through the GMO-free announcement. We measure overall trust using four dimensions: commitment and dedication, openness and honesty, competence and expertise, and, most importantly, caring and empathy. We will be releasing the results soon. For more information, go to http://www.evolve24.com/blog/industryresearch/social-media-cheerios/.

  2. Excellent article. The keys to a productive conversation include principles that are useful in any discussion where opinions are strongly held and emotions are high.

  3. How do you argue the fact that 100% of GMO crops were treated with pesticides/herbicides, most likely glysophate, that has been talked about a lot. Non-GMO crops aren’t considered sprayed as much?

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