Chipotle and the Empty Science of GMOs

Last week,  Chipotle Mexican Grill proudly announced their decision to cook their food with only non-GMO ingredients, becoming the first major fast food chain in America to do so. The action was applauded by health food activists, environmentalists and many of Chipotle’s average consumers.

While Chipotle’s decision to uphold its corporate values and  desire to deliver a high quality product to consumers is certainly laudable, I cannot help but feel that it is ultimately an unscientific decision that places unfounded health concerns onto GMOs.

There are lots of complexities in food science, particularly surrounding GMOs but Chipotle’s wholesale abandonment of GMOs does nothing to actually educate the public well.

The first reason Chipotle gave for not using GMOs was that “scientists are still studying the long term implications of GMOs” and also that they believe scientific consensus has not been reached on the safety of them. In fact, a wide variety of organizations including the American Medical Association, the National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization and many other scientific organizations have all given their approval to GMOs.

The attempt by Chipotle to paint the scientific community’s response as a non-consensus, whether out of ignorance or malicious intent, is similar to the efforts of climate change deniers to create the appearance that an intense debate still exists amongst scientists — which is simply not happening.

Chipotle’s second reason was that “the cultivation of GMOs can harm the environment.” Now, this reason is actually incredibly reasonable; in fact, the heavy use of pesticides on  pesticide-resistant GMOs has been tied to the mass die-off of  beneficial insects like butterflies and bees. The devastating population reduction of insects like these could severely impact both the natural environment and large-scale food production in the U.S.

However, the issues relating to pesticide use on GMO crops is fundamentally an issue with farm management on the part of corporate and private growers. The issue is that these farmers continue to use massive amounts of incredibly harmful pesticides on their crops despite the severe environmental stress it causes.

GMOs themselves are not  necessarily harming the environmental. If farmers chose to plant their fields with GMOs that produced their own insecticides, it could drastically reduce the amount of pesticides used in farming and thus prevent harmful chemicals from making their way into waterways and needlessly killing insects and natural flora.

The third reason Chipotle gave for discontinuing the use of GMOs in their food was that believed, “Chipotle should be a place where people can eat food made with non-GMO ingredients.” Ultimately, that’s not something that can be wholly criticized. Yes, it may not be a good thing that Chipotle is potentially feeding into the unreasonable fears of people who don’t know much about GMOs, but Chipotle can do what they want with their business.

Despite this decision, Chipotle has not completely removed GMOs from their food and drink. While their beef is one hundred percent grass fed, much of their dairy and other meats have come from animals that have been fed “at least some GMO feed.” Funny that much of their soda utilizes corn syrup, which is, in their words, “almost always made from GMO corn.”

Discussions about both practices and ethics in the agricultural and food industries is undoubtedly necessary, but they should not be confused with the scientific issue of GMOs. Companies like Monsanto, Dow, and other industrialized agro-businesses  and chemical companies certainly have a lot of issues to answer for — many of them involving the intense environmental and personal issues they have caused. The debate over GMOs, however, is a red herring that prevents legitimate discussions from taking place.

Legitimate discussions concerning pesticide usage and other practices have nothing to do with the frankly marginal issue of GMOs. Imagine the amount of good that could be done if people cared as much about the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese civilians and U.S. veterans as they did about the health effects of adding a precursor to Vitamin A in rice. Imagine what could be done if the “healthy” consumer eating a thousand-calorie beef burrito were less concerned with whether the cow in it ate GMO corn and was more concerned with the disposal of toxic chemicals in creeks in Alabama. GMOs are not even close to being the biggest issues that these industrialized agro-businesses should be addressing.

Chipotle’s desire to act with transparency is something that should be lauded, despite the way they’ve chosen to go about it. Chipotle has shown more regard for consumers than many businesses do, particularly agro-businesses. Consumers have the right to know what ingredients are going into their food and Chipotle should be given credit for giving consumers information on their food.

At least Chipotle recognizes that they still have work to do and at least they let consumers know what GMO products remain. Hopefully Chipotle sincerely works to remove GMOs from the products completely, lest they be proven to be  hypocrites only using an anti-GMO stance as a cheap marketing ploy to make money.

Chipotle has the right to what they want with their business, but a lot of their logic is faulty at worst, or contentious at best. I disagree with their decision to forego the use of GMO but I applaud their decision to act transparently for their consumers. Ultimately, I know that I will continue to eat at Chipotle because their burritos are fucking delicious — GMO or not.

 

Roy Lyle is first-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at rlyle@uci.edu