Photo by Flickr user Mike Mozart, Creative Commons
Photo by Flickr user Mike Mozart, Creative Commons
The Plate

What Chipotle’s Ban on GMOs Says About Us

The Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain–which boasts 1,500 restaurants worldwide–has become the latest to leap on the ban-GMOs bandwagon, with its recent announcement that it will no longer use genetically modified ingredients for its fast-food Mexican menu.

From now on, Chipotle’s burritos, tacos, salsa, and tortilla chips will shun “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally,” which is the official definition of GMOs according to the World Health Organization.

This leaves Chipotle in a tricky position when it comes to corn. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Not only are GMO corn derivatives found in an enormous array of food products, but livestock–cows, pigs, goats, and chickens–now consume the vast majority of GMO corn and other crops. According to a University of California, Davis, study, the U.S. produces about nine billion food animals a year, 95 percent of which eat feed containing genetically modified ingredients.

Chipotle itself admits that its menu won’t yet be genetically squeaky clean: soft drinks may still contain GMO corn sweeteners and the meats that go into its fajitas and carnitas may still come from GMO-fed livestock.

The bigger question, however, is not how thoroughly Chipotle is purging itself of GMOs, but whether it should. The GMO controversy is currently fraught with scientific misinformation, alarmist polemics, and fear-mongering; and Chipotle, rather than taking a scientifically reasoned approach, has plumped for a publicity splash.

Despite a lot of passion to the contrary, science indicates that GMO crops are safe and have many potential benefits. In 2014, University of California Davis animal scientist Alison Van Eenennaam, in the Journal of Animal Science, published an analysis of 30 years’-worth of animal-feeding studies, encompassing 100 billion animals and a trillion GMO meals.

The study, which led science reporters to predict that the GMO safety debate was over, incorporated data from the 1990s, when animal feed was 100 percent non-GMO, through the present day, when feed has flipped to about 90 percent GMO. The researchers found no statistically significant differences in animal health over this period; and found no “reliably quantifiable traces” of genetically engineered components in meat, milk, or eggs from GMO-fed animals.

Nonetheless, the debate over GMOs with all its inflamed rhetoric thunders on. The anti-GMO movement relentlessly insists that GMOs pose fearful risks to human health and the environment, despite the fact that no credible scientific research supports this. In fact, evidence shows that use of GMO crops has sharply reduced use of pesticides, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, and cut food costs. (See How Scare Tactics on GMO Foods Hurt Everybody.)

Understandably, Chipotle–like any business–seeks to court public opinion and promote sales. If banning GMOs sells burritos, certainly that’s a plus for the company. Unfortunately, though, while such decisions may boost company profits, it’s a disservice to all of us in the long run. What Chipotle is doing isn’t science and it isn’t common sense.

Chipotle founder Steve Ells states that the company decision isn’t about GMO health risks, but about promoting “food with integrity.” This sounds like a praiseworthy aim–but the accompanying implication that GMO foods are unsafe, untrustworthy, and best gotten rid of isn’t doing any of us any good.

This is the sort of publicity campaign that may have damaging consequences for our future.