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Skip the 1,000-Calorie Burrito and Chipotle's Dishonest Food Snobbery

April 28, 2015
For some reason, the news seems to be teeming with stories related to Chipotle’s announcement that it will stop serving foods containing GMO ingredients.  Bruce Horovitz described it in USA Today as “an industry breakthrough,” although Stephanie Strom is quick to point out in the New York Times:
"Chipotle’s announcement does not mean that the restaurant will be entirely GMO-free. The company acknowledges that some of the soft drinks it sells are likely to contain sweeteners made from GMO corn, and that some of its meat and dairy supplies come from animals fed GMO grains.”

At BIO, we support voluntary efforts to label GMO foods and any retailer’s or restaurant’s choice to source non-GMO ingredients as long as it’s not done in a way that makes safety or health claims.

A good example of this is General Mill’s announcement last year that it would source ingredients for its original Cheerios from non-GMO crops, but the company emphasized that the move had nothing to do with health and safety. This from its “Cheerios and GMOs: FAQ” web page:
Q: Are genetically modified foods safe?

A: Yes.  There is broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies that approved genetically modified foods are safe. The World Health Organization (WHO), the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Health Canada have all weighed in on this question – and all have found approved biotech crops to be as safe and acceptable as their conventional counterparts.

Unfortunately, Chipotle statement does in fact make claims of health & safety.  "There is a lot of debate about genetically modified foods," said Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle. "Though many countries have already restricted or banned the use of GMO crops, it's clear that a lot of research is still needed. ... While that debate continues, we decided to move on non-GMO ingredients."

And Chipotle’s “G-M-Over it” web page reads just like the talking points from the Organic Consumers Association or Center for Food Safety, advocacy groups with a reputation for stretching the facts to fit their political agenda.  Chipotle even claims “the cultivation of GMOs can damage the environment,” when we know – scientifically – just the opposite.  This from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA):
"From 1996 to 2013, biotech crops have increased crop production valued provisionally at $US133 billion; helped alleviate poverty for more than 16.5 million small farmers and their families – more than 65 million people, collectively – some of the poorest people in the world; and decreased the environmental impact of food and fiber production by reducing pesticide use, increasing land savings and reducing CO2 emissions.”

On op-ed in the Los Angeles Times agrees:
“Moreover, herbicide-tolerant GM seed varieties allow farmers to replace toxic pesticides with more benign ones, and to forgo tilling operations that worsen soil depletion and nutrient runoff. Other GM seed varieties produce a naturally occurring protein that kills common crop pests and is, nevertheless, harmless to humans. These crops eliminate the need for some pesticides altogether.”

For more dissection of Chipotle’s “reasons” for going GMO free, see this Vox article (excerpted below) which also contains a full guide to GMOs that’s a little more fact-based than Chipotle’s:
"Unfortunately, there's also a loud contingent of activists, like the 'Food Babe,' who have managed to spread overhyped nonsense about the purported dangers of eating GMOs. And Chipotle seems to be buying into this often pseudoscientific frenzy. On its website, the company claims that the studies vindicating GMOs are mostly industry-funded. That's just not true. Here's a massive EU review of a decade's worth of independent research, concluding that GMOs are safe to eat."

In light of Chipotle’s representation (or misrepresentation) of GMOs, ABC News even felt the need to set the record straight on common myths and facts about GMOs in its “5 Things to Know About GMOs” excerpted from a Health.com piece.

So is Chipotle basically taking a page from the organic industry playbook and trying to make consumers actually FEAR GMO ingredients?  Or is it about being part of the food elite?

In an April 29 editorial, "Chipotle’s GMO gimmick is hard to swallow," the Washington Post writes:
"In nevertheless validating the panic that has led to limits or bans on GMOs in developing nations, Chipotle says ‘we decided to remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle.’ In other words, the anti-GMO lobby has scared people, and burritos can be sold by pandering to these fears.”

This Wall Street Journal editorial sums it up nicely:
"Missing from this high-minded calculation is any hint of reason regarding GM foods. The technology has been around for two decades without a single example of harm to human health. The notoriously risk-averse Food and Drug Administration has approved multiple farm products using GM technology.

"But Chipotle caters to millennial customers who want to feel virtuous and eat foods blissfully free of the tools of human invention. We’re all for consumer choice, and Chipotle’s executives have excelled at using fashionable political messaging to make a profit. Witness the au courant parables on their brown paper bags.

"Yet it wouldn’t hurt Chipotle or its customers to examine the contradictions of their self-regard. The same consumers who don’t want to ingest corn or soybeans improved by genetic modification apparently don’t mind indulging in a 1,000-calorie burrito bowl—extra guac and sour cream, please.

"There is also the inconvenient fact that genetic invention increases crop yields, making it possible to feed the world’s rising population at lower cost. This matters in Tamil Nadu even if it doesn’t in Westwood. By all means enjoy that organic taco, but please hold the salsa of moral posturing."