By: Tom Webb

The GMO issue came to a vote at the General Mills annual meeting Tuesday, and it wasn't close: Only 2 percent of its shareholders favored a companywide ban.

Yet, the cross-currents of history and shifting consumer views toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production led to a layered discussion and prompted General Mills CEO Ken Powell to explain the foodmaker's nuanced stand.

And it's growing more nuanced all the time. In January, General Mills announced it was removing all genetically modified ingredients from its iconic Cheerios cereal, even as it kept those ingredients in varieties like Honey Nut Cheerios.

Then this month, the Golden Valley-based foodmaker paid a whopping $840 million for Annie's Natural, a popular line of organic packaged products, as it seeks to push deeper into a fast-growing natural food market that scorns GMOs. With sales stagnating in many of General Mills' traditional lines, it seeks growth in new areas.

At Tuesday's annual meeting, the GMO question arose from a friendly quarter: the great-granddaughter of General Mills' co-founder, who 137 years ago started a flour-miller in Minneapolis known as the Washburn Crosby Co.

"As a proud stockholder, I am concerned about our reputation as a company that uses genetically modified organisms," Harriett Crosby told the annual meeting crowd.

"I think we can do better and improve our brand and the value of General Mills by eliminating GMOs from our products."

Crosby cited one indisputable truth about GMOs: As a global food company, General Mills is already required to produce GMO-free varieties of its products in Europe and parts of Asia. So, Crosby asked, "Why not here?"

CEO Powell explained why not: General Mills sees no reason within the United States to bar ingredients grown from biotech crops.

"We've studied all the research that's been done around the world, we are very aware of the numerous regulators globally who have studied GMOs and who have said they are safe," Powell said. "And of course we know and believe GMOs are very safe."

But Powell added, "We also know we have different consumers who prefer to buy organic products, or for their reasons prefer to buy products that do not contain GMOs. … We are very strong advocates for a federally mandated (labeling) solution that would define the regulation around a 'Does Not Contain GMOs' label."

That stance seemed to leave advocates unhappy on both sides.

Justin Danhof, general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative policy group, told the audience, "By publicly removing GM ingredients from Cheerios, the company did not assuage the agitators, and they are here again today, demanding more."

Crosby didn't seem much like an agitator. But she would like General Mills to do more, citing a belief that GMO crops fuel a greater use of pesticides and are destructive to natural soils and natural systems.

"I think General Mills is a great company," Crosby said afterward. "We're just trying to nudge them to do the right thing."

On a different environmental topic, General Mills drew kudos Tuesday from green groups.

Oxfam America Advocacy Fund had filed a shareholder resolution, urging the company to do more to fight the causes of global climate change. Oxfam was impressed when General Mills responded with a strong agreement to fight greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

"Accordingly, we have withdrawn our resolution," Jim French, an Oxfam representative, told the shareholders. "We applaud the company for its leadership, and we see General Mills' commitment to meaningfully cut greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain as groundbreaking."

Originally Published: Twin