CHIPOTLE RESTAURANTS have earned billions of dollars by making indulgence wholesome, or seem so. As marketing materials endlessly repeat, your Chipotle meal consists of “real, whole foods” and are prepared “using classic cooking techniques.” If its centerpiece can be a foil-wrapped obesity bomb — a barbacoa burrito on a flour tortilla with rice, sour cream and guacamole contains 995 calories and 53 grams of fat, according to the company’s Web site — well, that’s the customer’s choice. The pork comes from free-range pigs!
In this respect, Chipotle isn’t much different from other successful restaurant chains past and present. Its latest marketing campaign, however, takes righteous chowing-down to a troubling new level. On Monday, the chain announced that its entire menu is GMO-free — meaning it contains no ingredients derived from genetically modified plants or animals. Thus has a leading food company added its imprimatur to a global propaganda campaign that is not only contrary to the best scientific knowledge but also potentially harmful to vulnerable populations around the world.
Men and women have been cross-breeding — genetically modifying — plants and animals since the dawn of agriculture. Modern molecular biology, however, enables them to do it with unprecedented precision and effectiveness; a single gene inserted into a naturally occurring sequence can render, say, a variety of eggplant impervious to pests. The promise of GMOs, already widely used in the United States, is that farmers in the developing world can use them, too, and thus feed their hungry populations at far lower cost than ever before.
The peril, according to critics, Chipotle now included, is — well, disaster scenarios vary. Chipotle, in a news release, asserts that it’s holding out for “a consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption.” No matter that GMO-derived foods have been widely consumed for years and that a 2014 report by the World Resources Institute, while calling for continuing safety research, concluded, “There is no evidence that GM crops have actually harmed human health.” A related concern, according to the company, is that herbicide-resistant GMOs encourage overuse of herbicides. Wouldn’t the right response to that esoteric concern be to avoid products grown with herbicides?
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. Alas, the company’s marketing instinct, in this respect, is unerring: According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 88 percent of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe, compared with only 37 percent of the public.
Chipotle is by no means an outlier; other American corporations have also joined the no-GMO bandwagon. Our point is that no one should confuse any of these companies’ behavior with real corporate responsibility. That would require companies to push back against the orchestrated fear of GMOs instead of validating it.