Last week, I reported on the new Cheerios campaign aimed to tame the problem of America’s rapidly-downsizing honeybee population. General Mills had removed Cheerios’ beloved mascot, Buzz the Bee, from cereal boxes to draw attention to this issue. That cosmetic change was tied to a larger campaign, #BringBacktheBees, that involved General Mills mailing consumers packets of wildflower seeds across the United States and Canada. The mix contained nearly twenty different wildflower varieties, from daisies to lavender to hyssop to sweet alyssum.
Since I wrote that article, Cheerios had far exceeded its goal, giving away over 1.5 billion seeds. The campaign seemed totally innocuous, right? A missing mascot for a just, noble mission. As I read about it, I was cautiously optimistic, at the very least.
Little did I know there was, er, a problem: Some of the seeds in these packets are considered invasive species in certain regions. A few days back, the folks at Lifehacker unearthed a serious lapse in Cheerios’ judgment. The mix of wildflower seeds they were sending folks weren’t regionally-specific. The Chinese Forget-Me-Not has a gnarly classification as a noxious weed in Massachusetts and Connecticut; the California Poppy isn’t so poppy for the Southeast United States. When these species are ushered into new, non-native environments, ecologist Kathryn Turner told Lifehacker, they risk out-competing species that belong there and depleting crucial resources.
Lifehacker’s report was fair and responsibly critical, assuming a tone that understood General Mills’ intentions rather than lambasting them wholesale for a bungled campaign. General Mills has gone on the defense, though, shooting back at critics with the justification that the seed mixes are not, in fact, invasive. Hm.
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Where is the truth? Lifehacker rounds out its article by outlining a better way to mitigate the problem that Cheerios is trying to solve. It recommends consumers order seeds directly from a manufacturer that provides locally-customized seed mixes, along with thorough, reliable guides on how to plant seeds tailored to a given region’s needs. (The site for Xerces, the company that Lifehacker cites, unfortunately seems to be down at the moment.) So, a word of caution, and a partial mea culpa: If you've gotten seeds from Cheerios, apply a dose of suspicion, and make sure you aren't unknowingly introducing more harm than good.
See any other problems with Cheerios' #BringBacktheBees campaign? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.